Carry-on smarts save hassles and cash

by Ned Levi on October 29, 2012

Delta 737, photograph by redlegsfan21,

This past week I was contacted about a photographer traveling on Delta Airlines from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, via both Salt Lake City International and JFK International.

He had a roller carry-on bag filled with his expensive photographic equipment. The bag fully met Delta’s carry-on size requirements of 22″ x 14″ x 9″ (56 x 36 x 23 cm).

On the Salt Lake City to New York flight, he was forced to check the bag as the flight attendants said they were “out of space.” They apparently wouldn’t let him take the bag on board to see if he could possibly stow it. He explained it contained photographic gear worth in excess of $20,000. They still wouldn’t let him try to stow it on-board the Boeing 737–800′s cabin.

A flight attendant took the bag, and returned with a baggage claim check. It had been checked through to Fort Lauderdale.

When he got to Fort Lauderdale, the bag wasn’t there. He finally got it the next day. It felt light. At the Delta Baggage Claim Office, where he opened it, he discovered it was a mess inside.

An expensive DSLR camera, lens, electronic flash, memory cards and other items were missing. Another lens was seriously damaged. The replacement cost of the missing and damaged equipment was $9,050.

Had the photographer planned better and understood Delta’s rules, it is highly unlikely he would have had to check his bag, despite the flight attendants stating they were “out of space.”

All air travelers bringing valuables and breakables on trips face the same issues as the photographer. Valuables and breakables include laptop computers, iPads and other tablets, jewelry, any electronic gear, etc.

Prevention of the problem is far better than putting in a claim for a loss. The photographer missed his scheduled shoot start and any reimbursement from Delta won’t come close to covering the replacement and repair cost of the missing and damaged equipment.

What should the photographer, or any traveler bringing valuables and breakables, do to prevent a similar problem?

Every air traveler must understand the baggage rules for the airline(s) they’re flying.

The rules under which each passenger flies are defined in the airlines’ contracts of carriage (COC). You can usually find the COCs on the airlines’ websites, like this one for Delta Airlines.

The Delta Airlines COC for domestic flights states, like other US airlines, fragile, perishable, or precious (valuable) items will be exempt from airline liability in checked baggage, unless at check-in, the passenger declares them and Delta accepts them. Moreover, on domestic flights, like other US airlines, the maximum liability Delta assumes is $3,300, though you can increase that to $5,000 for a fee. Reimbursements are based on the depreciated value of the lost, stolen, or damaged belongings, not their original or replacement cost.

For the photographer, that meant, if the bag was never recovered, he would have had a loss of more than $15,000 (75 percent-plus) of his cost to replace his equipment.

That’s a bad deal. It doesn’t make sense to put valuables and breakables in any luggage which gets checked in. Travelers must, to the extent possible, ensure they keep their valuables and breakables in a carry-on bag they can take aboard every flight they board.

How can that be accomplished? Each traveler should ensure, to the extent possible, that their bag with valuables and breakables can be stowed under the seat in front of them.

Every traveler must realize airlines don’t guarantee passengers space in airplanes’ overhead bins. They don’t even guarantee each passenger space for storage under the seat in front of them. For example, many exit rows, and all bulkhead seats, have no seats in front of them. Some seats have obstructions which prevent bags of any reasonable size to be stowed underneath them. Some seats, such as window seats on regional jets, have a severely narrowed space underneath them.

That being said, no passenger is normally permitted to put anything under the seat in front of another passenger. Each passenger has the right to use that space themselves, if it exists. The photographer should have insisted (courteously) the flight attendants let him try to stow his photo equipment bag under the seat in front of him.

Before leaving on a trip, each passenger should determine the type of plane used for each leg of the flights. That’s essential, as some planes have substantially reduced capacity for carry-on luggage, both under seats and in the overhead bin.

Regional jets typically have very small spaces for carry-on luggage under their window seats due to the curvature of the cabin walls, but the aisle seats have more room, similar to larger narrow body jets. Their overhead bins are typically quite small.

By knowing which airplanes you’re flying, you can determine which is the most restrictive. You can determine which seats have under-seat storage, and how large the space is, to make sure your carry-on bag with breakables and valuables can be accommodated. You can also determine the size bag the overhead bins will accommodate. has a great deal of information about overhead bin sizes and problem seats. Many travel forums, such as’s forums have seasoned travelers and travel agents who can help with overhead bin and under-seat stowage problems and dimensions. DogJaunt has great under-seat information for many planes.

If you’re in First Class, or certain you’ll have early boarding, you’ll still need to make sure your plane will have overhead bins able to accommodate your valuables and breakables carry-on bag, or you’ll still have to make sure your bag will be able to fit under the seat in front of you.

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  • Charles

    Not dismissing Delta’s failure to protect the bag, part of the problem is the size of the bag. The new 22″ bags do not fit under a seat, (the 20″ may but not often). And the 22″ bags do not really fit 3 to a bin wide, necessitating the bag to be placed lengthwise in the overhead, This makes two bags take up the space that normally would allow three.
    The 22″ bags do fit the requirements for the airline carryon, but the airlines have not set up the aircraft to allow for the 22″.
    The photographer, when told he needed to check the bag, should have removed the most important camera and lenses and placed them in a small “tote” bag that would fit under the seat. Batteries, memory cards, and other easily and cheaply obtained items could have remained in the checked bag.

  • Anonymous

    Agree with Charles. I carry my (much less expensive) camera equipment in a shoulder or hip bag, inside a roll-on bag. If I am forced to check I can pull the smaller bag out of the roll-on, and then just check the non-fragile remains. Also, always ask them to only gate check to your next stop. There is much less risk of losing the bag between the plane and the jetway (though it still happens). If they refuse to meet this request, I would ask for a supervisor, or to be moved to a flight with room for the carry-on rather than check $20K worth of anything.

  • Dee Busch

    Perfect scenario for why to buy extra, 3rd-party insurance!

  • mjhooper

    So, once again, the customer has to be a research specialist with time and expertise to devote to doing the work that the airlines should do, including figuring out a rational carry-on policy that includes the”new” 22 inch bags and printed out for all passengers; which plane might carry his gear safely and does his flight include or not these planes; and whether or not it’s safer to use FedEx or another private carrier to ship his stuff (in which case his gear might be on the same plane he is!!) and so on and so forth. When are we going to get tired of it all and STOP doing the work while all kinds of suppliers get to keep the wages they would have to pay a staff to do all this? And when did flight attendants get away with being you know what? There’s always someplace to stow carry-ons. I’ve heard of them finding a place, when they wanted to. It would have been helpful to put someone’s baby stroller or other non-essential goods in the hold and let the photographer have the space. Wouldn’t have cost the attendant a penny. Perhaps the photographer will in future carry with him a tote that can be folded small and tucked in with his equipment. Making Charles’s comment less onerous than it might sound. Luggage stores carry plenty of such foldable totes. I got mine from NPR.

  • Anonymous

    I experienced this situation on both legs of my recent trip to DCA on small Embrer jets (2 + 2 configuration). Part of the problem was that inconsiderate travelers in the first boarding sections had stowed coats and smaller carry-ons in the overhead bins (sometimes way ahead of their seats) rather than under the seat in front of them to give themselves more legroom. IMO, if it fits under the seat, that’s where it should go, leaving the overheads for larger carry-ons. (I saw several bags that I’m willing to bet were oversize; however, once expanded, even “legal” carry-ons often actually exceed the total allowed measurement.) Fortunately my carry-on, which contained my camera gear, was small and was allowed on. I gladly paid to check a bag each way; with everyone else trying to avoid the charge, there was definitely no line at the carousel!

  • Anonymous

    Unless you are traveling on a smaller regional jet (where there is no room in the cabin for standard carry-ons), bags are not checked to a jetway. You can check the bag to your next stop if you really want to, but you will be picking it up at baggage claim. The answer is don’t put valuables in a LARGE bag. Smaller bags can always be carried on.

  • Jean | Delightful Repast

    Packing a foldable tote in the carry-on is a great tip I’ll be using from now on. I use a very small carry-on and yet have had it checked through at the last minute by flight attendants. Having a foldable tote in which to put my must-haves would have been great.

  • Anonymous

    and where do you suppose magical stew’s have “somewhere” to put something do they take out a magic wand and make more space or is there a closet in the cockpit that magically made for someone of your importance?

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