Archive for July, 2008

Airport security, done right

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

I often travel with a tripod because it is absolutely necessary to capture stunning night images, like the night shot from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, tripods usually feel like they’re in a gray area as far as airport security goes. Most countries have a catch-all category where “anything that’s not on the list that the screener says is a threat to security can be stopped.”

I recently attended a Trusted Computing Group meeting in Nice, France. When I wasn’t working, the food was astounding and the photography was simply amazing. Provence is blessed with some of the best light I’ve ever seen, and colors pop like nowhere else I have visited.

Unfortunately, when it came time to leave Nice, the airport security screener decided that my tripod represented a threat to French aviation security and required that I check my bag of photographic equipment. I was surprised by this because I have visited a dozen airports in Europe in the past year, all of which have allowed my tripod in cabin luggage. I had a bit of heartburn checking my camera equipment just before the bag cut-off, knowing that I would have to fetch it at baggage claim at Heathrow (if it even arrived).

When I returned home, I wrote a letter to the Nice airport requesting clarification on whether my photographic equipment was allowed. I mailed my letter just after the July 4 holiday. For good measure, I sent a similar letter to the Nice convention and visitor’s group. One of the main draws to Provence is the scenery, and clamping down on serious photography could potentially affect tourism.

Much to my amazement, I received a letter back from the airport today:

The key paragraph of the letter is the second to last one, which reads (in the original French):

Suite à votre lettre, nous avons réuni les services compétents de l’Etat, et il a été décidé d’assouplir ces mesures. Nous allons donc demander aux agents de Sûreté de ne plus retire les trépieds d’appareil photos. Vous pourrez donc emporter votre trépied en cabine lors de votre prochain voyage à partir de l’aéroport Nice Côte d’Azur.

My rough translation of this is:

After your letter, we have met with the relevant government officials, and have decided to change our security measures. We will ask that security agents no longer stop tripods and photographic equipment. On your next trip from the Nice Côte d’Azur airport, you may take your tripod in your cabin luggage.

A few thoughts on the letter I received:

  • My response appears to be personal and is in no way a form letter. It directly addresses my comments on the security experience and the questions I asked.
  • I received a response in less than three weeks, which included the French national holiday and two trans-Atlantic mail deliveries. I don’t think I’ve ever received a response to a complaint from a government body in the U.S. in just three weeks.
  • French airport officials have changed their policies based on traveler feedback! (And a foreign traveler, no less.) I can think of at least one airport security agency that doesn’t care what travelers think.
  • I once wrote to the Transportation Security Administration because I had a question on whether my rugged internal-frame backpack would be allowed on airplanes. I began my letter with a statement to the effect of “I have a question about whether an item that is not mentioned on the TSA’s lists…” The response was to send me the same list that I had written about, and indeed, the list about which I was seeking clarification.
  • When can I go back to Nice?