Gearing Up for Airplane Trips

Copyright 1990, Tom R. Halfhill

Air travel has become increasingly difficult over the past few years, no thanks to airline deregulation, corporate mergers, strikes, overcrowding, and stricter security measures. This is especially true for those of us who are traveling photographers -- whether we're vacationers looking forward to a good time or professional photojournalists on assignment.

Just in the past year (during which I've made some trips overseas and numerous domestic journeys), I've noticed that some long-established rules and procedures can no longer be taken for granted. So now's a good time to review the travel tips that particularly apply to photographers. If you plan to travel by air sometime soon, especially abroad, this information could save you hours of time and possibly even the disappointment of ruined pictures.

Most of the changes are for the worse, but there is some good news. For example, one good thing that's resulted from the tighter security (besides safer travel, of course) is that many airports are upgrading their x-ray machines and are maintaining them more carefully. In general, the newer machines used for screening carry-on baggage emit lower doses of film-fogging x-rays than did the older machines. This means there's less chance your film will be harmed if you don't carry it in a lead-lined bag and decide not to request a time-consuming manual inspection.

Protecting Your Film

Even so, it's prudent to avoid exposing your film to x-rays as much as possible. Many people don't realize that x-rays have a cumulative effect on film, just as they do on your body. Repeated exposures add up. If you're making a simple round trip that subjects your film to x-rays only two or three times, you probably have nothing to worry about. But if you're making a long, complicated trip with many stopovers and connections -- or several shorter trips within a relatively brief period -- you should take steps to protect your valuable film, both exposed and unexposed.

Some airports have sample 3 x 5-inch color prints taped onto their x-ray machines along with a sign that says something like: "This Picture Was Taken With 1000-Speed Film Run Through 50 Times." These apparently unfogged photographs might inspire some confidence if you're shooting color print film that will be commercially processed into 3 x 5-inch mass-produced prints. But if you're shooting color transparency film for publication, or if you lovingly process your own film under carefully controlled conditions, you deserve to be a little more skeptical. Lead-lined bags are still relatively cheap insurance against unexpected results.

This is doubly true if you're traveling abroad. X-ray machines at foreign airports (particularly in communist countries) have a reputation for being much more powerful than those in the United States.

When shopping for lead bags, consider buying the heavy-duty kind that are designed to carry high-speed films (1000 and faster), even if you don't use fast film. Someday, you might change your shooting habits, and in any case the thicker bags provide worthwhile extra protection for little extra cost.

Lead bags cause another problem, though: big, ominous shadows on the video screens of x-ray machines. Since the bags are large enough to conceal other things besides film, a security guard may ask you to open your bags for a manual search. There's a simple way to speed this up.

When packing your film, discard the cardboard boxes and plastic canisters, put all the film into a clear plastic bag, and then drop the plastic bag into the lead film bag. When the time comes, it'll be easy to lift out the plastic bag, making visual inspection a snap. And by discarding the cardboard packaging and plastic cans, you'll have much more room for film. (It's a good idea, though, to toss some empty film cans into your luggage so you can reseal the rolls against dust, moisture, and light after you reach your destination.)

Luggage Tips

Always pack your film inside your carry-on bag, not in the luggage you check in. Depending on where you travel, checked luggage may be subjected to more powerful x-ray screening than carry-on baggage, and sometimes even lead-lined film bags won't protect your film.

It's also wise not to check any luggage that contains delicate camera equipment. Why not? For one thing, checked luggage is more easily rifled or stolen. Also, just watch the airline baggage handlers sometime as they throw suitcases from their baggage carts onto the conveyor belts. They simply don't have time to coddle your suitcases.

Of course, if you follow this advice, it means you'll have to fit all of your camera equipment and film inside your carry-on bags. This is feasible for most vacationers who travel with one or two 35mm cameras and a few lenses. To make more room in your bag for film, you can wear the cameras around your neck.

But if you're a professional photographer or serious amateur who travels with several camera bodies, a wide selection of lenses, medium or large format equipment, or studio gear, there's just no way everything is going to fit into your carry-on. The best alternative is to invest in sturdy cases with custom-fitted foam padding, buy plenty of insurance, and then check your equipment and hope for the best. In some instances, it may also be desirable to rent bulky equipment at your destination rather than carry it along.

Even if you ship most of your gear as checked luggage, however, you should still find room in your carry-on bag for a small backup outfit. This should include the bare minimum amount of equipment you'll need to complete your assignment or bring back at least some vacation pictures. That way, if your checked luggage is lost, you won't come home completely empty-handed.

One major policy change in the past year that affects photographers is the amount of carry-on baggage allowed. Almost all U.S. airlines still permit two carry-ons, as long as the bags fit either beneath the seat or into the overhead storage compartments. But many foreign airlines now restrict travelers to only one carry-on. This can be a real problem if you're trying to carry on all of your camera equipment, because it's also wise to protect yourself against lost-luggage disasters by carrying on all other vital items, such as medicine, toiletries, valuables, and at least one change of clothes.

My solution was to buy a nylon duffel bag -- the largest size allowed as a carry-on -- and then cram it with all of my most important items, including my camera bag and lead-lined film containers. If you're traveling with a companion, perhaps you can distribute the stuff among two bags and divide the weight.

Coping With Stricter Security

Something else that has changed in the past year or so is the level of security at European airports. Security has become much tighter since Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. I was able to observe these changes firsthand, because I made one trip to Great Britain shortly before the Flight 103 disaster, a second trip shortly afterward, and a third trip nearly a year later.

The new security measures are both thorough and time consuming. Therefore, when you're flying out of a foreign country, it's a good idea to arrive at the airport at least two hours before your plane is scheduled to leave. Pack all carry-on luggage (including your camera bag) with the expectation that you may be asked to unpack everything for a manual search.

If you don't pass your loaded cameras through the x-ray machine, security officers will insist on inspecting them by hand. Invariably, they'll attempt to peer through the viewfinder, so do them a favor by removing the lens cap on SLRs or opening the clamshell cover on point-and-shoots. This saves time and keeps the inspectors from possibly damaging your cameras as they fumble around trying to get them open.

You should also be prepared to unpack and display all electrical devices, including hair dryers, shavers, battery chargers, flash units, studio lights, tape recorders, radios, etc. Flight 103 was reportedly destroyed by a bomb hidden inside a radio/tape player, so the airlines are now very concerned about these things. They might ask you to demonstrate that a certain device really works, so make sure all battery-powered gadgets have fresh batteries.

If you're carrying a portable computer (increasingly popular with traveling photojournalists), be sure not to pack the AC adapter or battery pack in your checked luggage if the computer needs these accessories to operate. You will probably be asked to switch on the computer to prove that it functions.

In fact, to avoid unnecessary delays, it's a good idea to travel with as few electrical devices as possible. Consider carrying a good paperback instead of a tape player to while away the hours on the plane.

(On the other hand, it's also possible to have too few gadgets. When a British security officer recently asked my traveling companion to declare all of the electrical devices she was carrying, my companion replied that she had none. The officer regarded her skeptically, apparently finding it hard to believe that any American -- particularly a female American -- could travel abroad without the assistance of at least one electrical appliance. I found it hard to believe, too.)

Exposed: Dirty Laundry

Things get even more inconvenient if the airline classifies you as a "profile passenger." Essentially, this means the airline has decided that you fit their carefully constructed profile of a possible troublemaker. The airlines don't like to talk about their profile criteria, so you won't know if you fit this description until it happens.

For instance, I was declared a profile passenger on one of my flights out of Great Britain last year -- but not on the other two flights from the same airport just a few months apart. The only difference I can recall is that I was traveling alone on the occasion when I fit their profile.

As a result, a security officer escorted me to a special area where he watched as I unpacked all of my baggage, both carry-on and checked. He manually inspected everything, including my dirty laundry, which he x-rayed after searching by hand. And even though I had already passed through a metal detector, I was later searched again with a handheld magnetic wand so sensitive that it was triggered by the metal rivets in my bluejeans and eyelets in my sneakers.

The best thing you can do under these circumstances is to remain as patient and as polite as possible. The worst thing you can do is to make some inappropriate attempt at humor. It's not often that average folks like us are subjected to police searches, and some people feel the need to break the tension by making a bad joke, such as "Ha, ha, the only place you haven't looked for a bomb is inside my toothpaste tube."

That kind of seemingly harmless crack is guaranteed to land you in trouble. You may well be arrested, or at least escorted to a special "waiting room" for questioning while your possessions are searched with a thoroughness you never thought possible. Airport security is serious business these days, and satiric humor is not appreciated. Although this advice might seem obvious, inappropriate jokes have become such a problem at some airports that they've posted signs warning against it.

Incidentally, you should also resist any urges to take photographs of airport security checks or equipment. Some airports display signs to this effect, but even the ones that don't will likely treat you with great suspicion if you begin photographing their important devices and procedures.

Don't be discouraged. My purpose isn't to dissuade you from traveling by air either within the U.S. or abroad, but rather to smooth out the inevitable wrinkles. In the long run, the trip is almost always worth it.

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