Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Airport Security: When disaster strikes on the conveyor belt

Airport Security: When disaster strikes on the conveyor belt


Airport security. Don’t you just love it? As someone who is old enough to remember when boarding a plane was little more stressful than joining the 8.21 am commuter train to London Waterloo, I do hate modern security — necessary as I suppose it is — with a vengeance.

At every airport, we cheerfully surrender all our valuables and human rights in return for helplessness, ready to be bossed around and faced with new and fiendish instruments of torture. It’s probably similar to going to prison for a quarter of an hour.

Disappearing act

Most times, all turns out well in the end. We pick up our bag and baggage and go off for a quick coffee before the flight is called.

But have you ever watched your bag full of goodies disappearing into the X-ray machine, only for it to disappear forever? I have considered the possibility occasionally, but never imagined it could happen. Only this week, it did.

I was heading to the Greek island of Mykonos via Athens when, as usual, I consigned all my valuables to the care of London Heathrow Airport security staff. I’d followed instructions to put everything in the bag and stood there shoeless, beltless and full of empty pockets.

Delayed at body check by an unusually long queue for the scanner, it was a good ten minutes before I emerged to seek my possessions. I was not surprised to find the trays containing shoes, belt and computers sitting forlornly and unclaimed at the very end of the conveyor belt.

Leica Q2 gone, Ricoh GR gone

But there was no tray containing my on-board bag. A bead of sweat erupted on my brow, and I suddenly remembered what was in that bag. The Leica Q3, Ricoh GR, iPhone and Apple Watch could alone account for a loss of over £7,000. Then, there was a few hundred in cash. And this doesn’t take into account the “inconvenience items” such as credit cards, medication and all the essential bits and pieces I hadn’t wanted to consign to the hold luggage.

Quite the disaster. Another bead of sweat emerged as I approached a member of airport security staff. He turned out to be very helpful and considerate in everything but finding my bag.

I was led to a chair, clutching my computers and passport/boarding pass. I was completely undone. Apart from still being able to travel, I had no means of paying for anything and would have to spend a day replacing all the essentials. Some couldn’t even be replaced on an island such as Mykonos.

Airport Security: Mistaken pickup

I was even thinking what a pity it was that all my Apple “Find My” items were in that bag. The phone, the watch and no fewer than three Air Tags (attached to house keys, camera and bag). If ever a bag was tagged, this was it. At least I could see where my stuff had gone if I had any means of checking the app.

The security staff returned, having searched the entire area, and announced that it was more than likely that another passenger had “picked up my bag mistakenly”. I was told I would have to wait 30 minutes while they inspected the CCTV footage of the incident. Then, armed with further instructions, they would contact the police. In my imagination, I saw my precious valuables already flying off in the direction of Timbuktu as the footage was under inspection.

Terminal mapping

Since I was gently panicking by this time (wouldn’t you?), I had completely overlooked that the iPad in my hand was capable of accessing the “Find My” app.

We powered up “Find My” as two security officials looked on. Comfortingly, I soon saw all my valuables in one place and not moving, but the geography of an airport is not mapped as accurately as the streets outside. We could be certain only that the bag was in the middle of the terminal and probably not far from the security area.

Encouragingly, my fourth AirTag, inside my check-in luggage, could be seen meandering at a constipated rate through the bowels of Heathrow, no doubt on its way to my flight. At least it proved the system was working.

Hey presto!

So where was my bag? One thing for sure: it wasn’t going anywhere. Just as I had given up hope, with the only alternatives of travelling without cash or cards or returning home (which was beginning to be the most attractive option by this stage), a second security official hove into view with a tray containing a black bag. Is this your bag?

It was. It was gaping open at the zip, but a quick check showed the valuables, including my little Leica Q3, all present and correct. Relief washed over me. The beads of sweat returned to their home pores after such a vicious false alarm.

Fortunately, I had lots of time before the flight. This little incident would have been so much worse had I been rushing.

When the worst happens

So what had happened? I got no satisfactory answer and was left with an inference the bag had been stuck in the machine.

But a more likely possibility is that it was removed for manual inspection (after all, a Q3 is a pretty suspicious bit of kit) and never returned to the conveyor. Despite one thorough search of the area, it hadn’t been found. It was over 30 minutes later that it turned up.

This has taught me a valuable lesson. While airport security takes as much care as possible to ensure passenger safety, they display cavalier attitudes to our personal possessions.

We must surrender (almost) all our worldly goods to a conveyor belt with absolutely no security at the opposite end. Anyone could pick up any bag and make off with it. There is no control (other than CCTV), and I am surprised that theft by this method is not more widespread.

If airports really cared about the safety of possessions, someone would have come up with a ticket or tag system to prevent bags from being collected by strangers. Here’s an idea if anyone wants to run with it.

Never again

One thing is clear. I will never again surrender all my valuables without worrying about losing them.

Has “Find Me” ever saved your bacon (or valuables)? In the very earliest days of Apple’s location system twelve years ago, I was able to recover a bag containing an iPad and a computer after it had been stolen in the southern Athens suburb of Glyfada. With help from the police, we tracked it to the flea market of Monastiraki in the centre of the city, where it was being offered for sale in suspicious circumstances. Kyrios Plod dashed out from the local station and caught them in the nick of time.

The bag and electronic contents came back to Glyfada in a police car, accompanied by two miscreants in handcuffs. All very satisfying in the end. Read more about this incident below. I was left with an abiding respect for the Greek police and their slightly more pragmatic view of summary justice. In London, the police would have shown no interest, and my bag would have been lost forever, “Find My” things or not.

After two major location-tagging incidents in eleven years, I am beginning to think I must be something of a Pechvogel¹, as the Germans would say.

Read about the recovery of the lost bag in Athens

¹ Pechvogel — walking disaster area

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  1. Poor you Mike ! I can only imagine want you went though. I try never to lose sight of my kit – not going though the personal x- ray section until my luggage has entered the conveyor belt x-ray for instance – but it’s not always easy ! At least this ended well. Surprised you didn’t have something stronger than a coffee afterwards.

    • Thanks, Edward. The actual logistics are different at every airport. I did keep an eye on my stuff as it set off on the journey to the x-ray machine. But the risks at that end are minimal because everyone has checked in with a valid boarding pass and there would be no sense in stealing anything then. But it was the long wait for scanning and search that caused the problem on Monday. It was a good ten minutes and, by that time, anything could happen at the end of the conveyor. I was indeed very lucky.

  2. Thank you. I just traveled by myself to the US from Bali then Colombia and back to the US….. and fearful through each security check and flights about my Leica’s and phone, passport. Everything was OK, but I agonised at each stop and scan. US customs went through every bag of bean coffee I collected with some kind of wand sensor device 2 times. Besides being time for air tags I do wonder a lot about my recent addiction for Leica cameras and lenses. Traveling with a partner is always better and less agonising.

    • Yea, travelling alone has its disadvantages, primarily never being able to let your luggage out of your sight. Air Tags are definitely something I would recommend. They are one of those things you never use until something happens — a bit like insurance — but they are a comfort at times of loss or misplacement of items.

  3. All’s well that ends well, I guess, Mike. But I would have needed a second coffee after that. One thing I take away from your experience is to have some device still available to track your lost items. Maybe divide up the cameras from the laptops and phones into two trays. And hope, of course, none get lost. Funnily enough, I’ve been left alone at the conveyor belt waiting for my check in bag to arrive. I didn’t realise that the only bag going round and round was mine. Now, with the yellow reflector tapes I have stuck on my bags, I can spot them a mile away.

    • It’s all a matter of luck, frankly. The rules generally seem to be that computers must go in one tray, bags and other stuff in another. Since you can’t carry anything such as a phone through the scanners, there is always a risk that stuff will disappear. However, it would be too much of a coincidence if both trays were pilfered. So, in reality, there is always likely to be a “Find My” device available.

      Hold luggage is a different thing, and I try not to put anything valuable or mission critical in the check-in back. I do, however, have an Air Tag hidden inside the case and this enables me to check that it has been loaded on the plane. And, in the case of transit (as I did at Athens on Monday) I know it has been loaded in the second plane. I am generally less concerned about my checkin bag than the carry-on bag containing valuables and other stuff I absolutely need.

      These days, though, you can’t take enough precautions.

  4. Hi Mike
    Yes nightmare scenario. Had the same thoughts traveling to NZ earlier this year with MacBook Pro, leica M10P and Fuji GFX 50R disappearing into the X-ray tunnel!

    There are airports that I have been through that do have plastic numbered tags that you get that Match the tray so it might catch on!

    • Dominic, That sort of control is something I’ve never come across, but it is undoubtedly a good idea. The simple fact is that most airports don’t care about personal possessions. They are obsessed with checking for bad guys, which of course is of paramount importance. But a little thought to basic security measures, such as the plastic tag, would be welcomed by most travellers.

  5. True horror story. Think I would have gone haywire the French way if it did happen to me. Our worst security souvenir was coming back from Laos in Cambodia. We were walked with armed policemen and taken our passports through a corridor surrounded by barbed wires and consigned into a room while they were checking passports and plane tickets. We waited for an hour until our passports and boarding card reappeared miraculously and we were led to the duty free area.

  6. A true horror story — perhaps it’ll become a meme, a variation of ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’.

    It’s odd: going through security with the M8 or M240 and a couple of Leica lenses — never even had the camera bags opened. Lesser cameras get packed in luggage.

    I’m off for three months in Japan with Fuji equipment. I wonder whether Japanese security will even blink.

  7. Dear Mike, this sounds like are real nightmare. I always wondered how much luggage might be stolen on airpots, be it a security check or also from the conveyor belt. I never take more photo equipment with me than I can put into cabin luggage. But as you experienced, this is not perfectly safe either. Glad to hear that all went well in the end… JP

  8. This harrowing tale reminds me obliquely of a flight from Montreal to Brussels just a few days after 9-11. Apparently, we were one of the first flights to leave North America. The inspection crew were visibly nervous. I had virtually to disassemble my M6 and let then look through lenses. The irony of this was that I had one of Tom Abrahamsson‘s Rapid Winders on the M6. If I had unfolded the trigger on it, all hell might have broken loose. I always considered that trigger a quite stout possible weapon. I also had a small pair of Trinovids with me. Interestingly, they had no idea what they were! I told them to look though them an out of the window. The attendant seem quite fearful to do this, so I demonstrated IIFC. She then did, and said „Wow“, or maybe it was the French equivalent.

    These days, my wife and I have each a piece of clothing called a Scottevest. This is like a full camera vest or jacket, but disguised as a regular piece of clothing. It has dedicated pockets for everything, zippered — I can even fit my iPad inside. So that piece of clothing, a camera bag and a small carryon are it. I still fear what happened to Mike though.


    • Ed, your story reminds me of my flight from Miami on 9/10… for some reason I brought my flight forward by two days. I had been due to fly on 9/12 and would have been stuck in the USA. Having closed down my then home in Stuart for the winter, I would have been back there in a truce.

      I remember the Scott Vest and actually had one, but I cannot remember what happened to it.

    • “I had virtually to disassemble my M6 and let then look through lenses.”

      I flew to Tel Aviv from NY in 1976, on El Al, the Israeli national airline. This was decades before 911, but of course Israel has had to deal with terrorism and hijackings long before anyone else.

      The most stringent security measures ever, I think. At that time the security protocols they employed were their own, not something dictated by government.

      Each passenger had to stand by while their checked bag was meticulously examined by security agents. Someone was observing facial expressions and body language while this was happening. Then each passenger had to go into a private booth one-on-one with an agent, separate for the sexes. I was required to strip down to my underwear. Fortunately, it did not go farther than that!

      The plane was a 747, so imagine how much time it took for all passengers to board.

      I was traveling with a Nikkormat EL and 4 lenses in a shoulder bag. This was my carry-on. The agent looked through each lens, and I was required to operate the camera to prove it was . . . a camera.

      To save money I had purchased all my film in advance in NYC. To save space, I had taken the film out of the factory boxes / canisters and lined the bottom of the shoulder bag with the 135 cartridges. Oh-oh. This threw the security agent for a loop. I suppose somehow he thought if the film were still in factory boxes there was less likelihood of a threat.

      So he called in a supervisor. They discussed the issue for a few minutes in Hebrew, which I could not understand, and eventually decided I had an honest face, I suppose. I was relieved to board the plane with everything I had brought along. Also, I might add, I was OK with the security measures I had to go through. Remember, this was about the time of the Entebbe hijacking.

  9. My vote for worst security experience goes to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. We arrived from the US with an hour to make our connection to Florence, Italy. When we arrived at Passport Control there was a huge mob with what seemed like 500 lines of people trying to get to 50 agents. Once we cleared this mess, we made it to the security check point, and my wife’s bag was selected to be searched. The security agent took everything out of the bag, then left it in a pile for her to repack. Needless to say, when we arrived at our gate the flight was called, our luggage removed, and the jetway retracted. Leaving us to spend several hours to get a new flight via Paris to Florence.

    My vote for best experience is from the same trip leaving Rome. We were first in line to pass through security when it opened for the day. My wife gasped when the security agent decided he needed to search the bag containing my Leica M6 and Olympus E-PL3. The agent brought the bag to the check table along side the scanner, and quickly took everything out of the bag, looked it over, put it right back where it came from, and wished us a good flight. The whole experience took less than 5 minutes. We both thought he must have been a photographer and wanted to see what I was traveling with.

    My experience is that lenses that are about the size of your hand get extra attention. I commented to the security agent about it in Denver once, and the reply was that it looked like a “test shape” used to test the security process.


  10. Mike,
    what a nightmare …
    We often fly from Frankfurt Germany and I would win all bets, that my M10 gets checked and the bulky backpack with 2 huge Nikon-Bodies, several lenses and a Benro-Polaris automated pano-head will be ignored.
    The M10 and lenses get checked for traces of explosives, haha.
    Years ago I got yelled at in San Diego because my Nikon showed the number of images left in the LED-Display. “I told you to turn the cam off!” A more polite colleage explained the harsh one, that Nikons will always show that unless you remove the battery.
    The best of our recent flight FRA-DEN was a lady who had washing detergent as powder in her hand-luggage. Well, stupidity is infinite.

    Glad you could retrieve your Q.

    • Washing powder! But you are right, Dirk, inoffensive little M lenses seem to be an explosive swabbing magnet. Perhaps it’s because they are so dense, unlike most modern AF lenses.

      Talking about FRA, I used to transit there frequently because I try to use Lufthansa and it’s the place to change for the far east or (even) for going back towards the USA (got to built up those Senator points, you know). I always dreaded the possibility of security delays on the inevitably tight schedules they set. On one occasion I made the long-haul flight just as they were closing the gate. I much prefer Munich transit or, even better, Zurich for SwissAir.

  11. Nightmare! I do four simple things which I think help:

    Sign up for Global Traveller fast track which in US means you do not remove belts and shoes etc.
    Keep my phone separate from my most important bag with camera and iPad, etc.
    Send that bag down the conveyor after everything else bar the phone.
    Send the phone down the conveyor last so you have a chance of seeing it when you go through the scanner. If all else is lost.

    • I was fast-tracked yesterday, but even this area was unusually crowded. I had three trays, shoes/belt, iPad/MacBook and the bag. Furthermore, I don’t see any way of staggering the items, and they are all definitely out of sight for several minutes. One thought, which only works when travelling with a companion, is to arrange things so that the first person goes through and the second loads the bags. I always put the phone in the bag because, if sent with the computers, it is just another invitation for someone to make off with it. No doubt that I will try to be more careful in future.

      • In the US we don’t have the same tray system that you have at LHR: you can just put things on the conveyor belt just before you go through the arch, which usually means you can see it coming through and have a watchful eye on it. I do LHR a couple of times a year and it’s a PITA for the chaotic nature of security and the attitude of the security people. I guess finding a bar on the boarding side is a key requirement. Assuming they’ve not made you late for your flight of course…

        • I have no complaints about the attitude or helpfulness of the security staff. They were just trying to do their best which, initially, was unproductive. But all was well in the end, except for a bit of raised blood pressure for me.

  12. Mike, before I read the blog posting, I knew this must somehow involve Heathrow. On my return from Dublin, Portugal and Wetzlar last year, I had to pass through Heathrow on my flights back home. What a nightmare their security is. Of all the airports and security I have been through over the years, Heathrow ranks as the worst! I almost missed my connecting flight due to jumping through the hoops in security there. They seem to not understand what a real camera like a Leica is with interchangeable lenses. This simply stretches their comprehension.
    Back in film days it was worse, as security in many airports could not comprehend that you could not look through an M camera viewfinder as you could an SLR, and what were these small optical finders in little leather cases for? Or back in my very much younger days, security in Frankfurt could not comprehend what a “brick” of Kodachrome was. Surely I must be smuggling drugs in them, and they made me open up several individual boxes looking for the drugs that must be there. My dad never let me forget about this, as my “hippy hair” down to my shoulders must have convinced them I was smuggling drugs into Germany.
    This year, I am flying direct non-stop to Frankfurt from Chicago. I am going nowhere near Heathrow if I can help it!

    • Bill, Some of my worst experiences, from a camera point of view, have been in Frankfurt/Main, which is one of my least-favourite transit points. Many times I have been led away to a small office where the camera and lenses are meticulously swabbed and checked. This, at least, doesn’t happen at Heathrow. Let’s hope I fare better when travelling to Wetzlar in a couple of weeks’ time.

  13. Mike, Sorry for your panic situation. Fortunately, nothing similar has happened to me. I passed through Heathrow once, and the only mishap was in my haste to return my stuff to the bag, I dropped my laptop. Fortunately, though not an Apple, it is a fairly robust HP with an aluminum case, and even though slightly dented, it still soldiers on.

    In all the U.S. airports I have flown from, I am able to be right beside the conveyor where my carry-on exits the X-ray machine, so it would take a determined thief to steal at that point.

    Off topic, I have not been to Mykonos (except to view the port from the ferry), but I absolutely loved Ikaria and Patmos. These Greek islands are a photographer’s paradise, IMO. It is a lot farther for me to get there than you, but I hope to return to the Aegean islands someday and take in more of them.

    • Thanks, Martin. Yes, perhaps Heathrow has a more hidden type of conveyor, but the bags are out of sight while you are waiting to go through the scanning process. At Athens, I paid more notice than usual, and my bag remained in sight all the time.

      The Greek islands are indeed lovely. Mykonos still is, to an extent. But after an eight-year absence, I find the place overrun with tourists and prices sky-high.

      • Yes, I have heard that Mykonos is a very tourist-oriented island. If you have not gone to Ikaria, do so. We were there in August 2018, at the height of the tourist season. It was busy, but not crazy busy. And while we did run into a few Americans, Brits and Canadians, by far the majority of “tourists” were Greeks from the mainland on summer vacation.


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