responsiveslider_lol_02 The Language of Light DVD - More
MeetJoe_02 Meet Joe McNally - More
inthebag What’s in the Bag? - More


Nov 18

In Rants at 11:42am


I never get happy at airports. Being at an airport deeply, truly engages my Irish Catholic sense of foreboding. I’m very fatalistic about what could go wrong in the air, of course, as I imagine most passengers are on some level. Being a photog, I actually get more stressed about what could happen on the ground.

Like the other day. I had angst right from the get go, mostly ’cause I was flying an airline I never use, had no real idea about their policies, and I had a bunch of excess bags. (Go figure.) But it started real well. The lady at the Air Canada counter couldn’t have been nicer, and took care of things with dispatch. Overage rates were of course paid, but then she went the extra mile and put priority tags on the stuff, even though Drew and I were flying economy. My buddy Bill, who’s my editor at National Geographic, where we fly economy all the time,  gleefully refers to this as flying “chicken and goat class.” He’s very ill. One of these days, I’m gonna take him on location with me. Maybe stuff him an overhead luggage bin. Give him the location work full monty:-)

Went through security, and for some reason, they ran my Ipad twice, and then chemical swabbed it. That’s a first. I speculate it’s because I just loaded Rambo movie on there so it’s now considered potentially dangerous.

Got through security on one concourse and were directed down a long, ominous looking hallway to another. This brought us to a glass walled corral, from which there was no exit. Other passengers were also accumulating there and we were all rattling around like marbles in a jar. I felt like all of us had suddenly joined the marching band in Animal House, and were merrily pumping our knees and sliding our trombones even though we had been led to the end of a brick walled alley.

Through the glass I could see another screening operation. I tapped timidly on the window, seeking an exit, an answer, or an explanation. During the shouted conversation through the thick glass I was told the area would be opened “right quick.” When would that be? The answer, “Right quick!” came again. I was tempted to simplify my question. “At ‘right quick’ where is the big hand and the little hand?”

Instead I breathed deeply. We trudged back down the hall and found another security person presiding over an exit, or “sortie.” He explained that the concourse for our gate was closed. I told him that wasn’t exactly an exclusive piece of news. Then I popped the ultimate question, the one that always befuddles all concerned in these periodic follies life presents. “Why?”

He folded his hands, drew himself up in righteous fashion, and quite literally became twice his normal size, right there in front of me. He said two words, quite simply. “The Americans.”

Well of course. No further explanation required. The root of the problem pointed out in exquisitely precise fashion. Being, as the English would say, a “cheeky bastard,” this line of discussion connected to my long nurtured resentment of authority faster than JPEG basic through a Firewire 800 cord.  “Would that be all Americans? Or just the Republicans?” I inquired. “Or perhaps those of us who prefer baseball to hockey?” I mean, sadly, I guess, there are a lot of us. Could it possibly be that all Americans were over on that concourse? I had no idea the airport was that sizable.

He looked at me hard. His eyes narrowed and grew slit like, and he remained in his fully engorged state.

He went on to attempt an explanation that had something to do with the flights to the US from those gates and the security screening operation at one concourse, and there weren’t enough people, so they had to shut down those gates, and they’ll be open later, when they turn on first one and shut down the one that’s open now, and there’s lots of changes everyday and they don’t tell me diddly.

He concluded by saying, “It’s asinine.”

No argument here!

So we waited in ever growing numbers at his area. Every person, literally, who came there kept proceeding down the hall, oblivious to the fact that their destination was unobtainable. Which meant he had to bellow from his position,  “Gates are closed!” endlessly. I thought about asking if he ever thought of putting up a sign, or was he just enjoying himself too much.

But then I thought that might be construed to be antagonistic, and would elicit from him a series of hoots, clicks and grunts that would undoubtedly reassure us all of his dominance.

A nice Canadian lady, intuiting from my discomfiture that I was yet another impatient, irascible American smiled at me and said, “Pretty weird, huh?” I agreed. Then she said, “Almost as weird as the TSA.”

I had to chuckle. I tried to remember when the last time was that I had encountered a situation quite as futile.  Oh, yeah, Kennedy Airport! No matter where it is, no matter who runs it, there’s nothing like an airport to start your day!

More tk….

Jay Scott says:

on November 18, 2010 at 12:03 pm

I’m please you met some pleasant Canadians and had good luck with Air Canada. Their service hasn’t been legendary lately. More like infamous.

Wish I could’ve made it work to come to Edmonton to glean from your wisdom & experience, Joe.

Craig T says:

on November 18, 2010 at 12:26 pm

I was flying to Hawaii last year in January just about a month after a bomb attempt. They hand checked every single friggin’ item in my bag. I had just bought a cover for my pack and when the security guy brought it out he said “What is this?”. Not sure if a bright red pouch is a security concern or just an object of curiousity in security circles.

They also swabbed my hands and my bag. Then I got taken aside and asked questions like “Do you take any heart medication? Do you work with chemicals? (they actually asked that one twice) Do you handle fertlizer?” I was getting more than a little freaked out and the interviewer stepped aside to speak to her supervisor. Then I overheard the guy who did the swab speak to them say that they had used an already used swab on me.

I got through the rest of security without any problems.

John Fowler says:

on November 18, 2010 at 12:44 pm

There’re more than a few up here who’ll walk before we EVER board another Air Canada flight.
Glad to hear the rest of your adventure was fun, tho’.

John Swarce says:

on November 18, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Makes me not want to fly ever again (it’s been three years for me)! Thanks for the story, Joe. Always entertaining, whether it’s about photography or not.


Ban_D says:

on November 18, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Yep, flying (especially when you do it frequently as business need) can have some downsides…
(Though i guess, Joe you’ve never been to Kiev or Warsaw airports have you? :-)))))

IllOgical42 says:

on November 18, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Joe, if you find the time to read a book, I recommend “Last Chance To See” from Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. Apart from the excellent observations of almost extinct animals, there’s an interesting description of their adventures on an airport in Zaire…

Vlad Dodan says:

on November 18, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Just try to get to a connecting flight over the ocean in Paris`s “Charles de Gaulle” aiport, on a Saturday afternoon. It will make Air Canada look like a 3yr old with a toy-gun.

And for them “overkill” means camera+lenses, ipad, laptop and a Kindle in the same backpack.

“Sir, please remove all electronic equipment from your backpack and place each item in a separate bin.” Really?

It’s more effective to blow up a train with 500 people, and cripple the line for an entire week, than to take down a plane with 150people above the Atlantic. Last time I checked nobody searches your baggages when boarding a train (Europe FTW)

Thomas Vaclavek says:

on November 18, 2010 at 2:14 pm

It’s too bad that flying is being reduced to such an awkward thing. I suppose your experience could have been worse though like this lady’s I am glad that here in Australia the security measures are not so draconian and you can still get to the airport 30 minutes before the flight leaves and have plenty of time to get to your plane. Thanks for entertaining read as always.

Jim Pagan says:

on November 18, 2010 at 3:29 pm


There is no end to your talent. A great photographer and a wonderful story teller. Keep ’em both coming!

M Holloway says:

on November 18, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Been through TSA’s full body grab yet?

Adam says:

on November 18, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Anti-TSA sentiment seems to be at an all-time high. Hopefully, Republicans who resent overreaching federal intervention and Democrats who resent affronts to their civil liberties have finally found something to agree on! I have the luxury of being able to boycott air travel with relative ease (my job doesn’t take me out of state), but I feel for those who have to put up with this nonsense on a regular basis.

IPBrian says:

on November 18, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Surely we can come to some sensible balance between security and what is going on now. Why are my only two options going through the cancer machine or having someone touch my junk.

Chris E says:

on November 18, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Thanks for reminding me why I left career #1. 10 years of travel seems to have been enough for me. I’ve flown 2 times in the last 10 years, and that was more than enough to remind me of the miseries of a Monday morning at the airport. I live in Orlando as well, so Friday’s coming home were always a nightmare – plane full of kids completely wound up waiting to see the 6 foot rat.

Great story.

Jonathan Liaw says:

on November 18, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I’m glad that your experience with Air Canada was rather pleasant – there are plenty who will probably never book with them again given the option.

Thanks for the workshop in Edmonton & Calgary – great stuff!

Frank Burch says:

on November 18, 2010 at 5:17 pm

It’s beyond absurd Joe…

A couple of weeks ago I was passing through security, in my airline captain uniform, when the TSA agent demanded to inspect my bag. Upon inspection she discovered a pair of nail clippers and insisted they had to be confiscated because they “pose a danger to airline safety”. I said “Look lady, I’m the captain of a Boeing 777 and directly behind my seat rests a large crash ax to which I have unlimited access. Are you really going to take my nail clippers?” Pity….I nearly cut off a toe trying to trim my nails with the crash ax.

Tim O says:

on November 18, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Haha–You were either at Pearson in Toronto – or Vancouver International… There’s hidden camera’s recording the funny reactions 😛
It streams live to our igloos…


Christopher Campbell says:

on November 18, 2010 at 5:22 pm

This is why you need to learn to fly, Joe.

Michael Reinhart says:

on November 18, 2010 at 7:47 pm

We love you Joe…


Mike the Canadian

Chris says:

on November 18, 2010 at 8:33 pm

I’m trying to come up with an explanation for my 3 year old son as to why I’m laughing at my computer screen. I hope your travels become smoother and I think I might just enjoy your writing more than your photography.

Ken Toney says:

on November 19, 2010 at 12:00 am

I believe you were on Candid Camera Joe. :)

Roy Evans says:

on November 19, 2010 at 1:32 am

I us to fly stand by when I was I college, not sure how I ever made it home each Christmas. Your description reminds me to how I felt coming back for London into Huston TX. It must have been the glass wall.

Bob DeChiara says:

on November 19, 2010 at 7:12 am

Best writer on the internet…right here folks. I just love reading your posts! Good to the last word! :)

Joshua says:

on November 19, 2010 at 9:42 am

Joe you are fantastic and a great teacher!I follow your webinar on Manfrotto School of Xcellence!
Great work


Greg says:

on November 19, 2010 at 9:42 am

At least you’re not getting the racial profiling treatment Joe. I have dark hair, a dark but graying goatee and a tan. Each time I fly, I am chosen (at random??) for additional screeening and a pat down. Do I look guilty? Maybe a bit due of my catholic upbringing. Do I appear nervous? I am one of the most relaxed folks you’ll ever meet. Do I appear threatening? Only after I am chosen AGAIN for a little poke and grab session with a TSA gorilla. Can’t the TSA at least appoint the attractive employees for the pat downs??

Rob Byron says:

on November 19, 2010 at 10:12 am

Really funny stuff here Joe… and I only say that because it’s really funny stuff here Joe. :-)

Tim Skipper says:

on November 19, 2010 at 10:25 am

Maybe it would have been faster to drive over the border and got on a plan in the US :)

Jane Russell says:

on November 19, 2010 at 10:43 am

Joe, I’m sure you’ve been through the Orlando airport! Never had to be body searched and had to throw out the water I was given on the airplane AFTER we got off the plane and into that ‘holding tank’ to be bused to the main terminal. FYI…we blame the Americans for everything in Canada! Thanks for the fantastic workshop in Calgary. Very educational. Very entertaining as ever.

Don Harper says:

on November 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Frank Burch wins the prize for the absurdity of what we have done to airline travel. I’m still laughing.

Tim Bradley says:

on November 20, 2010 at 3:55 am

TSA…Thousands Standing Around.

Hannes Uys says:

on November 20, 2010 at 6:00 am

Weird situation written so well. Joe I love your blog. :-)

JB says:

on November 20, 2010 at 11:29 am

I’m on a plane tomorrow. Not looking forward to it.

Skysong says:

on November 20, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Your experience at the airport and especially the experience of the lady who was sexually assaulted at the airport is exactly why my next trip to Alaska is via their Big Blue Canoes. The Alaska Marine Highway Ferry system. I would rather travel by covered wagon than fly anywhere on any airline.

Thom Gourley says:

on November 20, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Your writing is almost as visual as your photo work! Thanks for the great comic relief. I can’t wait to get your first impressions of the body scan. :)


Mike Campbell says:

on November 21, 2010 at 3:53 pm

I used to work for years as a paramedic covering Pearson airport in Toronto. As an outsider brought into the inner workings of a large airport on a regular basis I can say there are defiantly some strange going ons that happen in them. I think a big problem (and why passengers are always left not knowing what is happening) is that there are too many competing agencies all with different policies and protocols. I can tell you that for any 911 medical emergency we would have at minimum 8 different people from the airport with us (not including my partner and myself) and this number could quickly balloon if we go on the Tarmac, police are needed, or if the person we were there to see was traveling with more than one airline.
However if your travels ever bring you through Toronto, I would highly recommend flying into or out of the island airport – it’s small and friendly and somehow many of the hassles I’ve experienced at other airports are eliminated here. (nope I don’t work there – I flew out of there my first time last month on my way to photo plus expo and I was just blown away by the ease and how passengers are treated)

Susan Huntoon says:

on November 21, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Our trip back to Texas in Oct. from Maine by way of Boston was interesting. Armed police at the doors. A walk into a full body scan with my mouth asking if they could see all the fat in my body. Not happy with that statement (nerves starting to twitter) I also asked if they could see any tumors and save me from a MRI. I heard the lady whisper into her shoulder gadget we have a live one. I look over and watch them start to pull everything out of my camera bag. I told him to put everything back just as he found it. I thought I would never get away. I finally decided to lock my lips. Joe what have you to say about the body scans?

Sergei says:

on November 22, 2010 at 12:21 am

Just buy a plane already 😉

Seriously though – just try to deal with TSA trainees checking transatlantic flights from Frankfurt or from Moscow.. those guys are.. Ugh.. Just few steps short of doing full cavity search all the time…

Of course funniest time i had was when wifey was looking at my 14-24 Nikkor on scanner and considering it to be sharp curvy knife set.. In Chicago i think it was.

Pamela W. says:

on November 22, 2010 at 7:07 pm

I was thinking the same thing…about your writing being visual. You’re quite entertaining Joe and your blog has made it to my favorites list. Thanks. :)

Keith Emmerich says:

on November 23, 2010 at 5:21 pm

To be clear about the receive 100 TIMES the radiation from being at 30,000 feet, than you would if you stepped into a Full Body X-ray scanner at security. (Airport x-ray scanner=.02 microsieverts of radiation.. typical transcontinental flight at 30,000 feet =20 microsieverts of radiation.) And a CT scan? 50,000x the dose of the airport scanner!

Michael Hesley says:

on November 25, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Ha! I’m an airline pilot, and I’ve been a pilot for 35 years. To say it isn’t like the good old days, is an understatement!

I travel with my Nikon D80, three flashes, a SU-800, 12-24 mm f/4, 18-200 mm f/3.5-5.6, two Lumiquest SB-3s, a small travel tripod, and lastly, and most importantly to the TSA, my two Justin Clamps. Now, you’d think they’d see the relationship of all my photographic stuff, and the Justin Clamps, but NO… my Justin Clamps are the source of my anguish at security. I should just clip them to my earlobes and tell them I’m stretching my lobes for a new look.

I’m tired of ‘splainin to the TSA why I have them, and what they are for. Maybe they’ll be new body “clips” for my sado-masochistic tendencies. Ya gotta be a masochist to put up with the TSA four days a week!

michael says:

on November 27, 2010 at 10:13 pm

the americans >_<

Scott says:

on November 29, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Remember… when the xray screener lady ask’s why you have so many double A batteries in your camera bag, for the love of Pete… don’t say there for your Flashgun. Say your Camera Flash! I find they don’t know what the heck a strobe is when I say that. But they sure hear the word “gun” in flashGUN!

stewart (suchy) says:

on December 1, 2010 at 1:57 am

Hi Joe

Glad you had a good time in Canada. Been trying to take your workshop here in Vancouver for years but must be subconsciously avoiding you as I seem to be out of town every time you are here.

Just flew Air Canada to Tokyo. Flight was an hour late taking off. Once we got into the air, the cab attendant announced that there would be no running water in the cheap seats class. NICE! As Canadians, even a simple apology may have made a difference…….nothing. On the way back from Tokyo, they moved my family up a row so that the cabin inattentents, I mean attendants would have somewhere to sleep. Overheard one of them complain to another that she was very ill……..she was instructed to carry on serving the meal to the passengers. That’s the last trip on AC for me!

Tim Drumm says:

on December 1, 2010 at 10:58 am

Cool shot out the window

Debra Rantilla says:

on December 6, 2010 at 10:37 am

Lol, great post :) Dude, I just put on what my husband and I refer to as “The Face” when encountering airport security. This is The Face that (sensible) men assume when having to accompany their wives shopping, The Face that everyone standing in line at the DMV has, and The Face that Billy Crystal wears in the opening scenes of his commute in “City Slickers”. 😉

Bob Pilatos says:

on December 6, 2010 at 11:22 am

This airport stuff is really crazy, eh?! Okay, what I just can’t seem to figure out is HOW you got the blue-gelled, Justin-clamped SB-900’s out onto that wing.

Bogdan says:

on December 10, 2010 at 3:00 pm

My 10 year old daughter’s hands were swiped for explosives on our last trip to NY. Try to answer the “why are they doing this to me Daddy?” without having the word “morons” anywhere in the reply…


Mike B says:

on December 11, 2010 at 11:33 pm

Really enjoy your writing style. Hope I do as well as you, I must say my next airport visit should prove easier. Many Thanks

Leave a Reply