As I write this, we are planning for another of our frequent excursions out of our comfort zone (home on the road) to a foreign place where we don’t speak the language, have little clue on what we will find when we get there (tour books are only “so” helpful), and have prayers and hope for our survival during the duration of our trip. Oh, that sounds ominous! No, we are not going to a dangerous place. In a way, the stress associated with traveling today often outweighs our enjoyment of the trip. Many times we’ve had opportunities to jump on a plane recently, and we shied away, unwilling to endure the torture of the travel.
For world travelers, this is an amazing thing to share with you. Admit it, as fantastic as your travel plans may be, you still have to run the gauntlet of the getting there and coming back. Ain’t it a pain! In today’s world, the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t apply. You are suspected as guilty from the moment you set foot on the grounds of an airport.
Coming in and out of Israel, we are questioned, interrogated, checked, rechecked, scanned, x-rayed, searched, x-rayed again, checked again, questioned again, checked again, x-rayed again, and so on and so on, right up to the moment we sit down on the plane. And even then, people look around and wonder….could he be a terrorist? If there is a problem, can I rely upon him or her to help rescue us? Our luggage, left behind to the discretion of the baggage handlers and inspectors, is often repeatedly x-rayed by machines that can cause cancer in more than rats, opened, searched, sniffed, scanned, and then checked again at the will of security, hopefully arriving on the plane with us. Changing planes en route? Luggage can be x-rayed and checked again between flights. Arriving in some countries, we are again screened, x-rayed, checked, searched, questioned and interrogated. Then the whole process is repeated on the return flight. As an American, I was raised to believe in a few basic principles, and a right to privacy and freedom from persecution are high on the list. I don’t feel it when I travel, inside and outside of the US. And yet, we suffer the indignities of the padding down searches and removing belts and shoes in front of strangers because we think it helps keep us all safe.
This is not a diatribe about the woes of traveling today. It is a reality check on what happens as we transport ourselves and our stuff to and from a location via airplanes. It is reality that we are profiled, searched, investigated, scanned, and checked before we board an aircraft all due to the fact that less than a micro-fraction of the world’s population has learned that good and attention can come from hijackings and turning airplanes into flying bombs. Let’s look at some reality checks for the traveling photographer and writer.
Myth: Flying is more dangerous now.
As long as humans have been experimenting with tools and machines, accidents happen. Not even a hundred years ago, it was science fiction fantasy to consider people gathering together en mass and climbing into a vehicle that not only made a terrific noise, it thrust itself into the air climbing to altitudes where oxygen is thin and the stars are close. Don’t forget that the reality of gravity is that what goes up must come down. And the first planes came down a lot. Trial and error. Today, according to an article just after September 11, 2001, by Stephen Moore, Financial Columnist for the National Review: “If you fly just 2,000 miles a year, your odds of dying in a plane crash are roughly equivalent to your odds of being hit on the head by a plane falling on you.” According to research by STATS on how dangerous each trip was (compared to miles traveled – driving was 53 times more dangerous than flying), they figured out that you were “50 times more likely to be in a personal vehicle accident than in a plane accident and 35 times more likely to be injured. However, you were 15 times more likely to be killed on a plane trip.” Well, of course. Seat belts and modern safety regulations protect car passengers from injury, but when a plane goes down, your floating seat cushion won’t help much. So now that we’ve stopped worrying about crashing, we worry about the bad guys out there who want to use our plane for their evil purposes.
Airplane hijacking came long before the Palestinians and Osama Bin Laden. It came February 21, 1931, in Arequipa, Peru. Local revolutionaries surrounded an aircraft demanding to be flown to wherever they wanted. The pilot refused and the revolutionaries gave up their attempt a week later. The first recorded “successful” hijacking was when four Chinese hijackers seized a Cathay Pacific flight from Macau to Hong Kong in 1948, and during the struggle between the crew and hijackers, the plane crashed killing all 25 onboard. The number of hijacking incidents are actually way down (from an annual average of 41 from 1968-1977). According to research from http://www.stats.org, prior to September 11, 2001, you had a much higher risk of falling off a ladder at home or from riding a bicycle than dying in a terrorist incident – and even less chance of being involved in an airplane-related terrorist act. Reality check: Quit smoking and over-eating and start exercising and you will live a lot longer – don’t be afraid of airplanes.
Myth: I just need a ticket to get on the plane.
You used to only need a ticket to get on a plane. Now you need one or two picture identifications to get your ticket. But don’t put it away yet. You need to show these, along with your tickets and boarding pass, at the many security checkpoints you may pass through on your way to and from the plane. When traveling overseas, you may need a hotel and/or car rental confirmation, an itinerary from a travel agent, visas, permits, health certificates, and more. If you are not a US or European citizen and you are traveling to or through the US, you must now allow yourself to be fingerprinted and provide proof of citizenship and residence. And the paperwork doesn’t stop there. The days of retina scans and face recognition can’t get here fast enough for the seasoned traveler, as it will speed up the process, but in the interim, make sure you have all your paperwork and you keep it immediately accessible to move through the line faster. Similar to the necklaced ID cards many companies require, we recommend the EasyTravelAir pouch for frequent travelers. Hanging around your neck, it features clear pockets in front for photo ID and passports, and pockets for tickets, boarding passes, and even some quick money.
Myth: Flying is faster and more convenient.
If you are traveling great distances, flying is still faster and more convenient, but many are weighing all the considerations and voting for other methods due to the hassle at the airports. A friend travels several times a month between Seattle and Portland, usually by plane – until recently. An engineer, he figured out that it takes him an hour to drive to the airport and park. Then another two or more hours to get through ticketing and security. Then another 30 – 60 minutes waiting for the plane to leave for the one hour flight, and about thirty minutes or more upon arrival to get through the airport and to his rental car. This process has taken over six hours or more on occasion in the past. Taking his own car and driving direct takes four hours. Reality Check: Which do you think he chooses to relieve the stress and anxiety in his life? You have to weigh all of the information and alternatives on how it impacts your life’s health and welfare – then take the train.
Myth: I have to arrive at the airport two to three hours in advance for security reasons.
While there is some truth to this, one of the main reasons it requires so much time to be “processed” through security is handling all the stuff people bring with them on the plane. According to an alert from the Homeland Security Office in the US, there are three things you can do to make your pass through the security check points easier, called “IN, OUT, OFF”: 1) Place all metal items, including cell-phones, keys, belt buckles, etc., inside your carry-on bag while waiting in line; 2) Take laptops and handheld computers out of their cases; and 3) Take coats off. We’d like to add a few more tips.
Keep tickets and identification paperwork (passports, licenses, visas) in a pouch all together, ready to access, like the EasyTravelAir pouch. In US and international airports, you may be asked for these at least four times before sitting down on the airplane. You can be stopped at any time and asked to prove your identity. The easier and faster you can access these papers, the faster your process.
Since the failed attempt of the shoe-bomber, even our shoes are suspect, so start wearing slip on shoes through the airport. You don’t need hiking boots in an airport. Wear comfortable slip ons and keep your shoes in your luggage. Put them on at baggage claim if you need them then. Wear sweat pants or elastic pants and leave the belts in your luggage. Keep the stuff in your pockets to a minimum and keep those things (small change and keys) in a small pouch or bag that easily slips in and out of your pocket. Empty your pockets before you approach the x-ray machines and put things in your carry-on.
As a nature photographer and writer, your most critical items are film, camera equipment, and laptop/computer equipment. Other than a book or magazine to read and a bottle of water, what else do you have to have on the plane with you? With the new weight and size restrictions on carry-on luggage, make sure the most important items go with you first, and then add the rest. The less you have, the less they have to paw through at the check points. Pat yourself down to make sure it is all off of you before you step up for your turn. According to the TSA, you are permitted one personal item and one carry-on: “Carry-on baggage is limited to one carry-on bag plus one personal item. Personal items include laptops, purses, small backpacks, briefcases, or camera cases. Remember, 1+1.”
Things get shifted and moved around while being inspected at the security checkpoints. To make sure what is yours stays with you and can be traced later if lost, tape a business card to the bottom or inside your laptop (not on the screen) or have it engraved with your name and contact information on the bottom. Put a luggage tag on your camera strap. Make sure your carry-ons are all marked with luggage tags and identifying markers so you can spot it in the “crowd” of stuff. If you are carrying gifts back home in your carry-on or in your luggage, don’t wrap it. Don’t lock your suitcase! They will break the lock to search.
Another way to avoid delays is to make sure all electronic devices, cell phones, PDAs, laptops, cameras, MP3 players, radios, all have fresh batteries and are fully charged. Many security checkers are turning on these devices and testing them to see that they work and aren’t in disguise as something dangerous. If the battery is dead, you could be asked to pull out the charger or power supply to “prove” it works, or be required to put it in your luggage or leave it behind.
Myth: Security x-rays won’t hurt unprocessed film (except for high speeds).
Walk up to the security checkpoint at the airport, take out your film and the dude in a wrinkled uniform tells you to put the film through the x-ray. You tell him you don’t want to, but he insists. “What speed is the film?” He informs you that x-rays won’t hurt film unless it is ISO 800 or higher. Well, I have some important news for you. X-rays do hurt film. The truth is that exposure to x-rays is cumulative.
That’s right. One time through won’t hurt your unexposed film, no more than it hurts you to get a broken bone x-rayed. But you’ve seen the dental hygienist leave the room during the x-ray exposure, because the effect is cumulative. This cumulative effect does the same thing to film. For more information, check out this example of the visual effects of scanning on film from Kodak.
During a flight from Spain to the US, we walked through five scanning units, bringing with us unprocessed film brought from Israel that had already passed through at least four scanning units to get to Spain, not to mention the three or more scans we passed through bringing the film to Israel. Our film had been x-rayed at least 12 times before we discovered the truth because several rolls of film were processed to reveal strange ghosts and blurs of light. The inconsistency of the ghosts led us to discover it was the x-rays, not the cameras. Kodak recommends limiting exposure of film to security x-rays to five scans, and then insisting upon hand inspection of film “to avoid the cumulative radiation from the x-ray fogging or damaging the film.” The FAA agrees and recommends avoiding any x-ray machine that exceeds an exposure of one milliroentgen. In FAA Regulation 108.17 Section 5E and the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 49, Subtitle B, Volume 7, Chapter XII, Subchapter C, Part 1544, Subpart C (abbreviated it is Code 49CFR1544.2xx), signs must be posted at the scanners and security inspectors must inform passengers of the five scan limit and grant hand inspection of film on domestic US flights. Code 49CFR1544.211(e)(4) states “If requested by individuals, their photographic equipment and film packages must be inspected without exposure to an X-ray system.” When was the last time you were informed? If you are not informed and don’t see signs, they are violating the rules. Turn them in. There is a hotline phone number listed below. They won’t change the rules until we whine enough.
This warning is targeted specifically towards print film (negative film). Positive (transparency/slide) film is even more sensitive to x-rays.
Now when we travel, if inspectors refuse the hand inspection and insist that the scan won’t hurt the film, we advise them that we’ve already passed through four scanners and if they really insist, we remind them of the FAA Regulation. We carry at least two copies of the regulation as proof (links below). In the US, they must hand inspect film upon request, though it might not be as easy in foreign countries. Usually the FAA regulation convinces them. We put the film at the top of our carry-on luggage and pull it out for hand inspection before passing through the security checkpoint.
We use sturdy zip-lock bags to carry our film, but you can also make or purchase clear vinyl bags. Fuji film comes with clear containers, allowing easy viewing of the film cartridge, making the inspection visual, often done without opening the bags or the film. If your film container is opaque, check with local film processors to see if they have some clear containers awaiting recycling or in the trash from their customers.
If you have film inside your camera, rewind it and remove it before you get to the airport. Make sure you mark it appropriately so you can use it again. The film left inside your camera can face greater damage from x-rays than film inside of its metal container.
Be warned, unexposed film traveling through your suitcase may be x-rayed at higher radiation levels than your carry-on luggage. Film can be damaged with a single x-ray. Lead film bags used to protect film, but many high-tech machines recognize lead bags and notch up their scan to an even higher levels to allow it to “see” through the lead, exposing your film even more. If they spot a lead bag, they could also require a hand inspection of your luggage, and another series of x-rays. If you choose to carry your film in lead bags, make sure they are top quality and put them in your carry-on luggage. At the worse, they will trigger a hand inspection of the film if you forget to remove the bag from your carry-on. If the airline refuses to allow you to take your carry-on onto the plane due to weight or size restrictions, remove the film and put it in your pockets or hand carry it to avoid further x-ray scans. After all, the point of going on these wonderful trips is to return home with great pictures, not to carry a bunch of junk on the plane. Make sure the pictures arrive home safe.
Currently, X-rays will not affect digital cameras or digital storage mediums. They also will not affect processed film. One way to reduce the chance of problems is to process the film before you return. For those of you, like us, who are particular about the processing lab you use, this may not be an option. Film processed outside the country is liable for duty fees upon your return.
- FAA 24/7 Hotline or 1-800-255-1111 (to report rule violations – non-hand inspection of film)
- FAA Regulation 108.17 SECTION 5e – pertaining to photographic equipment and film (“Use of X-Ray Systems”)
- FAA Regulation 108.17 (5e) and 49CFR1544.211(e)(4) in condensed form for printing from our website (text file)
- Transportation Security Administration, Department of Homeland Security – CFR 49 – Chapter XII – Part 1544 §1544.211(e)(4) Use of X-ray systems
- US Transportation Security Association (TSA) Film Warnings and Advisements:
- For Travelers
- TSA: Photographic Equipment & Film
- TSA: Traveling with Film
- Article – How Safe Is Film Airport X-ray Scanners
- Kodak Information on Xrays and Film
- Experiences of others with film and xrays
- FSTOP (organization dedicated to the protection of photographic consumers and professionals having film x-rayed at airports)
Myth: I don’t need much film when traveling because I can always buy more film.
While many are turning to digital photography, the majority of photographers are still using traditional films. Film found in unfamiliar countries might be of questionable quality, brand or age. Only buy film brands you are familiar with and only buy it from photography-oriented shops or large stores where the turnover in film is high. Check that the film canister inside matches the packaging on the outside. Check the expiration date. If the package looks damaged, old, damp, or sun bleached, don’t buy it. Better to bring plenty of film than to risk buying film out-of-town.
We are frequently asked for recommendations on how much film to take on a trip. Our answer is always “take more than you think you will need.” Film is cheap compared to the memories captured, so estimate approximately how many rolls of film you expose in a day (compare it to other trips and actual use) and then multiply that by the number of days you will be gone, then add at least three more days’ worth. When we travel, there are days we barely use a roll of film, and other days when we easily go through 10 or more rolls. It is common for us to bring 25 to 100 rolls of film depending upon the length of our stay. For those with digital cameras, make sure you have enough storage cards and/or a portable card reader with a lot of storage space to back your cards up to, if you are not carrying your laptop with you everywhere.
The TSA, Kodak, and other “experts” recommend having film processed locally before your return to protect the film from damaging exposure to x-ray scans. We don’t. We’re wiser through experience. This is a nice idea, if you have the time, money, and energy to track down a decent place that you can trust to handle your film. For quick prints of negative film, you are fairly safe almost everywhere, but few places will handle slide film, even E-6. So local processing is out of the question.
You can have the exposed film mailed back to you, but that can take weeks or months to reach you, and many countries, including the US, are doing high intensity x-ray scans of mailed boxes, upon leaving and entering the country, as well as at points in-between. Who knows how many scans your film might undergo before it arrives in the mail. Waiting through hand inspections might be wiser than mailing.
Last Myth: It’s too much trouble to travel these days.
Actually, in many ways, this is true, but don’t forget that there is a vast and diverse world out there worth exploring. We have some crazy friends who believe that the best time to travel and explore a country is when it is in political upheaval or just after “war”. This is when all the tourists have abandoned the place, and the residents welcome travelers with happy, open arms, ready to spread the news about their wonderful homeland. We aren’t that brave, but we did find that exploring Croatia a few years after the dust of war settled, was a delight. There were few tourists and the area is absolutely lovely. But we like our dust settled. Go. Travel. Suffer the pains of air travel. The world is an amazing place and worth seeing.