Fritz Pölking

One, Two, Three….

or: how KLM makes every effort at Amsterdam’s Schipohl Airport to ruin

valuable lenses and cameras belonging to nature photographers.


Normally you sit in an airplane on your way to somewhere and, after landing, when the "fasten seatbelt" signs have been turned off, you get up and grab your hand luggage from the overhead compartment and are standing in line with all the other passengers, waiting for the door in the front to open so you can finally get off. The only thing, while you are standing there waiting, that you can see is actually only the person in front of you.

After a flight taken from Nairobi to Amsterdam, KL-566 landing on Saturday the 14th of June at about 6.15 am it was different then usual. I had had the last seat in the last row (row 41) and was sitting in the window seat. That meant no chance for me to leave my seat before the masses had moved into the direction of the exit through the aisles.

As usual, it took forever for the door to be opened. Often, after landing somewhere, I get the feeling that the people at the airport are completely taken by surprise that an airplane just arrived with people on board and that they frantically have to start looking for stairs to use so that the passenger can use them to disembark. The same with the busses, most of the time there is no bus there; after all, the airport seemed to have been informed at the very last moment that a plane from Nairobi has landed. Probably no-one can imagine that it really does arrive every morning at 6.15 am, with the intention of landing.

In any case, through these delays and my exalted seat I had the rare opportunity to observe the ground crew during the unloading of the luggage for some time.

Normally you can’t do that since you are either standing in the aisle or have left the plane already by the time they start to unload the belly.

It was extremely interesting to watch how "careful" the passenger’s luggage was being handled:

5 men wearing KLM-jackets were standing there, motionless, playing "officer’s Mikado" – he who moves first has lost.

One of them received a suitcase and proceeded to throw it two to three meters through the air onto the flat bed of a luggage car that was situated at a distance of one meter within throwing range.

He could have taken the suitcases there or moved the vehicle closer but apparently he didn’t want to do that.

Maybe he was just so upset about having to get up and work so early in the morning, at 6 am after all, that he took this opportunity to get rid of his frustration. It seemed that it was not an unusual way for him to work because the other 4 men were quietly watching as one suitcase after another went sailing through the air and crash down two meters away and one meter down onto the vehicle.

No one did anything to stop this "suitcase-content-destruction-campaign" of the KLM employee. By the way, all five men were wearing jackets with oversize letters spelling KLM on them.

The suitcases were flying onto the vehicle with such momentum and crashed so hard against the containing walls – after they had brutally hit the surface – that I can only imagine every camera and every lens that may have been in those suitcases would need to be taken to the repair service or even been completely destroyed because every auto-focus system will be totally messed up, all lenses slipped and pushed into a wrong angle setting, all stabilizers will not be working right and all exposure settings – as well as everything else – hopelessly "thrown out of sync". And no one can place the responsibility or blame on KLM because no one besides me saw it.

Just imagine you are standing on a chair and from there you throw a fully packed suitcase two meters onto a stone surface, flat side crashing down first; then you have the approximate result that the KLM employee had that morning – systematically – with the passengers´ suitcases entrusted to him. Without reason, just like that, because apparently "they didn’t give a damn" what happens to the property of other people and no one there to check on them, observe them or stop them, no colleague, no supervisor.

The other KLM employees that were standing around there watching did not move a muscle in their expressions throughout this unfolding drama, since this was apparently the normal routine of how other people’s property is being treated by KLM at the Schiphol Airport.

It is of no use to report this. The only thing you get is a nice letter from the marketing division of KLM on how infinitely sorry they are about this, but that it is an isolated case and that this will definitely not ever happen again, and so on and so forth…..

But these letters are written in an office between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm. At 6 am in the morning you will not find any of these pencil pushers at the airport in order to oversee the work there.

So the only advice to give here is to never pack a camera or lens into check-in luggage, but to take every piece of sensitive photo equipment as carry-on luggage.

You see, our equipment is hyper-sensitive: on Sanibel Island a friend dropped his 2.8/400 mm lens from only 50 cm (about 17 inches) onto sandy ground and as a result the lens was jammed. On the Falklands a 5.6/150-600 mm tele-zoom broke apart while a colleague was carrying it over his shoulder, attached to a monopod, and the soft swaying was already too much for the lens.

A robust professional camera slipped out of my hands in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and hit the ground. Later the bill of repair encompassed all of two pages with all the pieces listed that had to be replaced, repaired or adjusted after this "drop-case".

What happens to cameras and lenses (and what their bills of repair look like) when they (packed in suitcases) fall into the hands of KLM employees who use them for throwing practice is something I would really rather not think about.


When you check in, the check-in agent fastens an adhesive paper band around the handle of your suitcase on which several abbreviations and a barcode are printed in order to show where the suitcase is supposed to go.

Should this luggage tag get torn off on its way through the underground of the airport, it is hard to determine which flight the suitcase needs to be on. In order to avoid that, the check-in agent needs to peel off a smaller slip from the actual tag itself and adhere this directly onto the suitcase in order to see, even if the main tag is gone, which flight the suitcase should go on. If the luggage does get lost, later on it can be delivered to your home address because of the name tag with the address which is on the suitcase anyway, but there is no flight number on it and no one can see what flight you were taking.

So this little tag is very important but most check-in agents at the counter don’t stick it on the suitcases because it is a bother and means extra work. So if you want to make sure that your luggage gets where you are going – and not anywhere else – make sure that the check-in agent sticks that little sticker on your suitcases when you are checking in and does not only put the main tag on your handle.

When you land in Miami and your suitcases are still at your point of departure, I would imagine it is relatively annoying for you; the check-in agent won’t give it a second thought because he or she will already be sitting cozily at home watching Günther Jauch on TV and certainly will not care that you have tremendous problems because he or she has arranged his or her work as easy and manageable as possible – at your expense.


The little sticker with the barcode all the way to the left
is what should actually be taken off the main tag and
stuck on the suitcase, because if the main tag for
some reason gets lost or separated from the handle,
it forms a back up to make sure it gets on the right flight.


Dr. Murphy is the only one really watching and actually working: let’s say you get to Denver and you have three hours before your connecting flight leaves, then you have your bags within ten minutes and have passed customs as well as all other check points 5 minutes later.

But if you land in Chicago and your connecting flight leaves in an hour then it surely takes at least 45 minutes until you get your luggage and you will make you connecting flight with 10 seconds to spare before the doors close – but, you made it.

With almost 100% certainty your luggage did not make it. Airports need 30 to 90 minutes in order to get your luggage from one flight to another.

So when you get to your destination, first you have to fill out a "missing luggage form" and, after having been traveling for the past 14-18 hours – including the 8 hours time change – you are to describe your luggage, as exact as possible in order to increase the chance of finding it when it arrives with the next flight or the next morning.

There is a small trick that will sort of even out most of the anger about that: When you are asked the question of what your luggage looks like, just put two pictures – front and back – of your bags on the counter.

These people at the "lost baggage counter" have to deal with descriptions like: " the suitcase is large and grey" all day and when you put down two pictures of your bags they will certainly be surprised and happy about work relief…and your chances of seeing your luggage again increases.




……. and 4 as an extra bonus:

Here an excerpt from one of my previous articles on this subject:

What is the best strategy?

Nowadays you have to put film material – rolls of film – into your carry on luggage since for some time now it is known that there are scanners that can ruin any non-exposed film. These scanners are used for check-in luggage but not for carry on or hand baggage.

A question that no one can really answers is: can you check in your photo equipment and just transport the film material in your hand bag? In principle you can, but will the camera and lenses survive?

They will certainly, on the outside. You can divide your equipment between one or two medium sized hard-cover suitcases put them into larger soft-cover suitcases and arrange your clothes around them in order to create a buffer zone.

But I would not recommend this. The adjustment of modern AF-cameras and lenses seem to me as hyper sensitive and not able to withstand the robust handling of luggage through the ground crew at airports.

Remember: before any one can work as a luggage handler at the airport, he has to take an intensive three-week-course where he learns how to drop a suitcase from a height of three meters onto its edge, how to tear off luggage belts and handles in a professional way; what to do in order to put cracks into hard cover suitcases and most of all, what to take into consideration in order to throw one suitcase onto another at the exact angle and with the exact corner to cause the other one to burst open. All this is not easy; it requires long and hard training.

If any one has ever seen how 20 suitcases are unloaded from a B747 and just dropped from great height to the cement pavement will never pack anything sensitive in his luggage again, ever in his whole life.

Actually it is already enough to watch the bags come out on the luggage track at baggage claim. How they are spit out of the chute, slide down and bang against the edge of the track.

The operators of airports with such luggage tracks seem to feel bad themselves, since sometimes you will find an employee standing there especially to catch the momentum of the luggage when it comes out of the chute. But – as I said, this is only sometimes and when he does happen to be there, he looses patience after the first 80 suitcases and leaves, letting the following 250 slide to their fate against the railing.

When this happens twice you don’t have to worry about your adjustment any more, they are most probably messed up and gone

Twice I experienced that all pictures throughout my journey were blurry because the mirror in the camera was off by 1 mm, through a slight bang – like the one that happens when your rucksack with photo equipment slips off the bus seat or something like that. When the mirror in the camera is not situated at the exact angle, meaning instead of 45° at 46° and you adjust the sharpness on this messed up mirror setting, you will find that later, on your slides, the sharpness was adjusted at a point of 1 meter either in front or behind your subject, which is not funny.

So to me it does not seem advisable to check in your photo equipment. What to do?

The easiest solution for me would be a rucksack where all your equipment fits into but is still within the approved allowance of measurement.

If you are not sure, it is advisable to pack the rucksack a couple of weeks before you leave (just to make sure you have enough time to counter-act) and just as a test go to the closest airport and try out the hand bag control frames to see if it fits.

Considering today’s mass transport with large air carriers and the personnel that more often then not is quite annoyed it seems to me that another good alternative is to just travel "undercover" as a regular tourist and not to stick out as photographer with huge luggage


That is why I take a trolley with the measurements of
15 x 29 x 43 cm, instead of a rucksack, because that stays
under the allowed 20 x 40 x 55 cm. That has the advantage
that it fits practically in every compartment and is usually not checked
for weight (8 kg is the max. for carry-on) and is a lot smaller
then other passengers´ carry on. My 4.0/500 fits into it in spite of that.
The rucksack flies to my destination in my suitcase.


You might be able to be a good sport when it comes to fighting the airport personnel on the ground if you only fly a couple of times a year for your photo shoot.

Those who fly more frequently try to avoid the constantly unnecessary output of adrenalin and will fly incognito and unnoticed.

With photo equipment that is concealed in such a way with a trolley you can get through life as a frequent flyer in the here and now.

Another advantage:

photo equipment, next to cash and diamonds, is the most sought after loot by professional thieves. A rucksack with photo equipment practically has an invisible stamp on it saying: steal me; my content is very valuable and easy to hock on the black market.

You can’t really tell what’s in a trolley.

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