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Awesomely written story, and very similar to what I've experienced at the hands of United, Continental, and space-available Military Transport flights.
United treats every bag like it's filled with sand instead of peoples' possessions, and they have no respect for the customer when something goes awry. I will NEVER fly on their airlines again after my last experience on a flight between DC and New York... over 8 hours in delays, a missed connecting flight, an overnight stay in La Guardia airport, misplaced luggage that got to my destination AFTER I returned from the trip to CA, and they had the audacity to tell me that my camera gear would have to be checked, while a guitar player walked his hardshell case on board.
As another photog in this thread suggested, if they EVER make you check your carry-on bag with your gear, take your cameras out, mount the lenses and flashes, and hold onto them for dear life. Any camera that you hand these imbeciles is a camera that you should fully expect to have broken or damaged in some way. I checked the bag like they demanded... but I'll be damned if there was anything worth more than $100 in it!