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Gear & Apps

Your Camera Bag May No Longer Be Able To Be Carry-On

By Kishore Sawh on June 13th 2015


If you listen to the boffins that come up with statistics, and with them instill in us fear of anyone with a beard, 4oz bottles of liquid, and body scanners, you’ll dread flying. Not me though, I love flying, and I do it a lot. Not on Air France, of course, which is always coming up with new and exciting ways to die in an aeroplane, but aviation for me, is an obsession. There are few things I enjoy more than settling in with a good book or album that promises to turn the fat 9 hours leg from Miami to London into a dainty little ankle.

And this is despite the fact the boffins try to convince us all that on any long haul flight you’ll die of either deep vein thrombosis or develop cancer caused by aluminium of the aircraft reacting with radiation in the upper atmosphere. Bah, most of us don’t spend enough time at altitude for any of that. More of a concern for me and you though, are rising baggage costs with little explanation, and now the proposed reduction of the maximum size of carry-on baggage by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).


Whatever Bourdain, this isn’t a travel blog,” I can hear some of you saying, and too right you are. But this will have some significant impact for many of us. The internet is awash with videos of baggage handlers mishandling our luggage, and we don’t even need the videos to know it happens, just look out your window on the next flight. I, for one, refuse to put any but the least important and most durable pieces of photography equipment in checked baggage, for fear that parting with my gear will lead to bitter sorrow and insurance claims, and my arrest for mercilessly insulting some airline employee’s mother.

An “IATA Cabin OK” logo to signify to airline staff that a bag meets the agreed size guidelines has been developed. A number of major international airlines have signaled their interest to join the initiative and will soon be introducing the guidelines into their operations. The development of an agreed optimal cabin bag size will bring common sense and order to the problem of differing sizes for carry-on bags. We know the current situation can be frustrating for passengers. This work will help to iron out inconsistencies and lead to an improved passenger experience,” said Tom Windmuller, IATA’s Senior Vice President for Airport, Passenger, Cargo and Security

But if the proposal at the AGM in Miami by the IATA to reduce maximum baggage size by 21% becomes widely adopted and their suggestion becomes a government mandate, many of our camera gear bags that are currently legal, will no longer be legal as carry-on. So that means buying new bags, which isn’t cheap, and more worryingly, not all of our gear may be able to accompany us inside the cabin.


According to the IATA, the idea is to optimize the accommodation of carry-on luggage, which is something airlines struggle with. Larger flights typically see a sizable percentage of passengers required to check their carry-ons due to lack of space. So it’s largely a push for the Cabin Bag Initiative called ‘Cabin OK’ which intends to standardize carry-on luggage, so no one has to check their carry-ons.

The hope is that Cabin OK will mean faster turnarounds for airlines since they won’t have to move any carry-ons to the hold, and all gate staff will be able to quickly determine which bags will work or not. Then, that passenger satisfaction will increase due to smaller bag sizes and less likelihood of having a bag moved to the hold, and not having to worry about a variance between accepted sizes between airlines. Furthermore, that luggage manufacturers will be able to create Cabin OK-compliant bags. A boon for luggage manufacturers…

This does nothing for those who travel with ‘precious’ cargo, and this issue doesn’t seem to have been addressed thus far.

[REWIND: 5 Essential Tips for Flying Travel Photographers]


So what are the new sizes? 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches, or 55 x 35 x 20 cm. How different is that from what airlines offer now? Well, British Airways goes by 22 inches x 18 inches x 10 inches, and American Airlines 22 x 14 x 9. So it’s going to be a downgrade for most airlines. However, some airlines have already opted to adopt the new guidelines, such as: Avianca, Azul, Cathay Pacific, Air China, China Southern, Emirates, Lufthansa and Qatar Airways. I’m actually quite surprised Emirates and Cathay Pacific have done so given their service orientation.

There you have it. Keep up-to-date with the airlines you’ll be travelling with soon so you don’t get to the gate and have to part ways with your gear, and your sanity.

Source: IATA

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. George Birney

    Apart from my green label compliant cabinpack, I have an XXL outoor vest – safari vest, travel vest, etc. if you will – wearing it inside out, so nearly all pockets are on the inside, so the vest looks like a regular one. One of my vests has14 pockets, some large enough to hold lenses, batteries, grips, filters, a DSLR or mirrorless body, etc, total worth the content of a full camerabag. Not only great for hiking but also great for taking extra gear inside the cabin. I simply put the vest on the bandwagon at the security check and never have any issue. And my green label cabin trolley underneath the seat. So now the IATA comes into the picture, well I migrate from XXL to 4XL vest :-)

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  2. Craig Holtz

    SO because I have a carry on backpack, I need a camera bag that will fit under the seat. With international size limitations, what do you recommend to hold the following gear:
    Canon 5D Mark III
    EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
    EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM
    EF 70-200 f/2.8 IS II USM
    Gitzo GT2542T Series 2 tripod
    Really Right Stuff BH-40-LR Ballhead
    Format Hitech filter kit in pouch
    Canon Timer Remote Controller TC80N3
    Canon GPS Receiver GP-E2
    Canon Extender EF 1.4xIII

    I have the Mindshift BackLight 26L, but it’s too large (both height and depth are too big).


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  3. Michał Obuchowski

    slight exaggeration with Air France, don’t you think? ;)

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  4. William Emmett

    I’m thinking of investing in a good shipping case for my equipment. Of course the top brand, known by all is Pelican, but I may look for a less expensive brand. I’m planning a trip to Yellowstone, and to Maine later this Summer and Fall. I’ll be taking some telephotos, and some other lenses for the two trips. I plan on shooting moose, bears, elk, mule and whitetail deer, and any animal who passes by my lenses. I think I’ll pack my equipment in a strong case and pre-ship everything to my arrival hotel by either UPS, or FedEx. I’ve had equipment destroyed by baggage handlers, and the time to replace lenses on the road was just to long. All my gear is insured, but that does not give you instant replacement. I don’t want to loose a weeks shooting by some slap happy TSA agent, or gorilla baggage handler. I’d rather insure my equipment with a qualified shipper than a airline.


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  5. Trevor Dayley

    Definitely troubling news but as always we will just adapt to the changes. Sadly in order to adapt we will probably have to spend a pretty penny on new baggage that fits the requirements. Not excited about it, but not the end of the world.

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  6. Gene Gregory

    geesh new sizes, 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches

    it’s ok for a pelican case, but the question we want to ask to the airlines is “would the airline company pay for the whatever issues occurred during the flight?”

    remember guys our gears ain’t cheap, we spend and work hard for a client shoot that is on location. if the airlines will pay for any damages. lost and inconvenience on our part
    sample is delayed flight then your check in things got delayed as well or lost (just a scenario, hope nothing happens) , I’m up for the change that will benefit and enhance flight experience.

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  7. William Emmett

    You really have to analyze the reason for the size change. Airlines are adding seats to already existing aircraft. I’ve heard that as many as 6, (which is one complete row on a 737) Some are considering removing one lavatory to increase seating. On some airlines, like United, are selling larger leg room at a premium Coach price. So far none of the airlines are considering raising the seat height to allow larger bags. So, with adding more seats, and not adding more storage space for carry-on bags, all our bags have to be squeezed to give room to the occupants of the new seats. I would think at some point the FAA will step in. It seems with all the airline greed for passenger space, and dollars, safety will be a concern eventually. Don’t complain to the airline, but directly to the FAA, and your Congressman, for airline regulation.

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    • Trevor Dayley

      I don’t know if it’s the greed of airlines. Sadly many of them are struggling to stay a float and not go into bankruptcy. I wonder if there are other ways though they could save money than trying to constantly nickel and dime it’s end users.

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  8. Knut Dahl

    Will the Think Tank International v2.0 still be accepted?

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  9. john curley

    Maybe get to the point of the story a lot faster next time. With all due respect, leaving the new dimensions to the last paragraph of the story does the reader no favors.

    Also, the NYTimes and other news outlets have followed up on this story, and the new bag dimensions are just guidelines for “optimal” carry-on sizes, not the new upper limits. So false alarm.

    Here’s the Times story:

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  10. Andrew Price

    Shame this came out when IATA announced it was putting the program on hold:

    I was really pleased to see the sensible and balanced comments here. The proposal was not that airlines reduce their size, but that they allow bags with the logo onboard – reducing the risk of your camera gear getting taken from you at the gate, when it is more likely to be lost due to hand written labels and lack of automation. All the airlines would have been able to keep their current policies, so your existing bags are just as usable.

    Full disclosure – I work for IATA and I am a photographer.

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  11. Dustin Baugh

    Another benefit of smaller mirrorless setups. Used to just be smaller + less weight as a boon for 20 mile hikes for backcountry nature shots. Now it looks like that smaller size is will benefit travel photographers too. Many DSLR users don’t give form factor the appreciation it deserves as a “feature”.

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  12. Dave Haynie

    I suppose it makes sense to have a standard for international travel. Not necessarily a new standard.

    A big part of the issue is the self-created problem: most US airlines started charging for checked baggage. And this is never going away: US airlines collectively bagged about $3.2 billion in 2014 on checked bags. So you have plenty of people who would have loved to check their bags taking them on-board, crowding out people who have stuff they really don’t want to check. I won’t check my camera gear, and while I have checked guitars, even with a virtually indestructible guitar in a virtually indestructible case, they’re still going to lose it, and at the worst possible time.

    This might be good news for Sony, Olympus, and Fujifilm… I know I have more m43 stuff in less space than the Canon system. I’d leave stuff home before checking it. Obviously, not always an option for everyone in every scenario.

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    • Dave Haynie

      Most airlines ARE pretty good when they do find lost luggage. On one trip, an airline lost my huge bag with everything I needed for three weeks stay in Germany. I flew into Frankfurt, hopped the 3 hour train to Hildesheim, walked the mile to the car rental place, found my “guest house” for the next nearly-a-month, and crossed my fingers. The bag showed up early next morning, at my company’s offices.

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    • Dave Haynie

      Had my camera with me…. that trip, it was a Leica IIIc with a couple of lenses, late 1990s. Because Germany, I guess. I spent a few years saying “goodbye” to film even though digital wasn’t there, yet.

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  13. Michael Old

    I have a daughter under 2 years old. We have been to New Zealand twice and Mexico 3 times (from Canada) we have our own carry-on plus we have a bag for our daughter. Flying to Mexico there isnt a designated area for families as the flights (even direct) arent too long, however the long haul flights do as we need a bassinet for our daughter to sleep. The area designated for families with small children is usually the bulkhead seats with no under seat storeage, so everything has to go in the overhead. Ironically the overhead compartment for these seats is usually so small that we need to put our bags in another locker.
    A lot of airlines rely on passenger honesty and dont check carry on bags, and a lot of luggage makers claim bags to be carry on acceptable, even though they push them to the max size possible.
    Having a standard size across all airlines which is enforced will be easier to manage although implementing it will be painful for a while until everyone figures it out.

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  14. Thomas Horton

    Good. Anything the airlines can do to keep inconsiderate people from bringing on, what appears to be every item in their possession, and cramming it in the overhead compartment will be a help.

    It is just one more ways why air travel these days has all the enjoyment sucked out of it. People brought this on themselves. It is clear that a large number of people are unable to self-police and keep their carry on baggage size appropriate so the airlines have to make these rules.

    No matter what the rule is, someone is going to be inconvenienced. There are more non-photography passengers than photography passengers so the rules will favour them.

    Sometimes it seems like some photographers feel they are the only important people traveling, but they are not.

    It is unfortunate that some photographers will be inconvenienced, but I think rules like this are better for the rest of the passengers and will become more common.

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  15. Chuck Eggen

    So there goes my $400 Think Tank Bag…. Sheesh! I’m so sick of Airlines. If my destination is within 1 day drive, that’s what I do.

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  16. Moise Oiknine

    The pelican 1510 is what I use for travel… 22x14x9…this rule is going to make things tough to travel with the correct amount of gear to properly shoot any event

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  17. robert garfinkle

    Then Pelican It Is.

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    • Max C

      How is a Pelican going to protect you from theft?

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    • Thomas Horton

      Especially when the locks we can use don’t keep out TSA!

      That’s like putting a lock on your house that does not keep out burglars.

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    • Trevor Dayley

      Pelican is wonderful as a hard case and great if your gear inside has plenty of padding to take the beating it will surely go through in the hands of baggage handlers. But as others have noted, it won’t protect you from theft.

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  18. Jesper Ek

    Always want to be close to my lenses when flying, but i have my lenses in individual neopren cases. Feels a bit more flexible then..

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  19. Daniel O’Bruba

    Never in a million years would I think to check my gear with any airline. Granted I don’t pack that heavy when I am traveling, so I’m usually able to restrict my Pelican case to car trips while my Think Thank Shapeshifter gets me by when flying…

    Lucas Gilman is one of my favorite globetrotting photographers, who always seems to be on the move with a large kit. He has put several posts on Twitter for things that have happened to his bags when the were shipped UPS or checked.. While I wasn’t able to find the posts of the damage they have done, the link below should give everyone an idea on what he has to resort to now to make sure his gear arrives safely…

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  20. Ralph Hightower

    Okay, the last time that I’ve flown has been 1994. It was what I considered a chore then to get from Place A to Place B (work to home and back to work). 9/11 introduced new hassles to ensure our safety; the “Great Recession” forced airlines to squeeze every dollar that they can from a passenger.

    1991, I was on a corporate business trip to Columbus, OH. The weather started sleeting and the airline said that they could not guarantee connections to Charlotte. I decided “To Hell with it!”; if I can get to Charlotte, I can drive home. That was a Carowinds Roller Coaster ride from Columbus to Charlotte. The first thing I did was a rental car, then I cancelled my flight to Columbia, SC. I ended up saving the company some money.

    1994, I was flying for a job interview from Iowa to O’Hare to some airport in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, to change planes to North Carolina. Huge thunderstorm! Lightning crashing down. Numerous gate changes. I got to the gate and asked “Will my luggage be there?” “Sure” I landed in Greensboro and no bags; I filed a baggage claim and went to the hotel. For the interview, I made sure to have the claim ticket visible in my shirt pocket. They understood about the lost baggage and put me in touch with the airport. They found the luggage and asked for disposition; I told them to leave it there, that I would be flying back out.

    Then there was the flight back home. Parents were flying with two brats; the parents were on one aisle and the brats that were kicking the seats in front were on the other aisle.

    So, who says that flying is fun? This all happened before 9-11 changed airport security.

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    • Thomas Horton

      I sometimes feel as if the airlines made a list of what was nice about flying and systematically went down the list and made changes that removed what was nice.

      These days, there is nothing enjoyable about flying, in my opinion.

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  21. Paddy McDougall

    Absolutely no way I will be putting my camera gear in the hands baggage throwers / handlers. I will always weigh, measure my bag before going. I tend to take less kit on holiday.

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  22. Jason Markos

    I think the idea is to establish a common standard, that works across all airlines, that would reduce confusion and set clear expectations for passengers.

    Like you, I prefer to avoid checking my bags. But I also get very frustrated when I end up having to put my bag under the seat in front because of other passengers bringing on huge bags often so big, they can barely get them in the overhead without help. If this standard would reduce that and ensure everyone has space in the overhead… I could see the benefit.

    If I couldn’t get my camera kit on as carry on, the only option would be a Pelican case!

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    • Michael Old

      I prefer having my bag under my seat. I get easy access to it if i need, and i can leave without holding up everyone getting my bag from the over head locker.

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    • Max C

      How is a Pelican going to protect you from theft?

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    • Jason Markos

      Max C – I fly about 25/30 times a year, to a range of international locations, and have done so for around 10 years. So far, I’ve had 2 bags delayed but ultimately delivered and that’s with checking bags on about two thirds of flights. Never have I had anything stolen from a bag or the bag itself lost.

      I think that we sometimes hear a couple bad stories and assume they’re going to happen to us. I’ve no doubt that it happens, I just don’t think it happens that much, but the internet amplifies all the bad in the world. It’s one of the down sides of the internet.

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