Flight…A Filmmaker’s Plight

Booked a gig at a distant location? Great news! Well, in part. The unfortunate part of that event is the air travel with photographic gear. Solutions aren’t ideal, but herein are a few aggregated tips from travel veterans to help you weather the turbulence of air maneuver. Information pertains to domestic air travel, and might vary for international travel.

Know the Current Policies

The most obvious tip is to plan well! Familiarize yourself well with the baggage policies (for checked, carry-on, and media checked) of the airlines that you will be flying and double check that information just prior to flight. You definitely do not want to arrive at the airport, or worse the gate, and be surprised by a recent change.  Print out the baggage policy and carry it with you, in case you meet with any resistance. Often, an airline representative can use a bit of discretion, but demonstrate your intention of knowing and adhering to the rules. And, be polite, of course.

Be aware of the limitations of all connecting flights, as well.  If you are connecting with a puddle jumper, chances are that your 25 equipment cases won’t be coming with you. Small planes might not even have overhead bins. Have a contingency plan for these situations.

Right Tools for the Right Job

While overpacking — and trying to be flexible for unforseens — is so tempting, it can cause a world of hurt when travelling. Pain for your wallet, your back, and your stress level. When your shoot has precise requirements, take only what you need for that shoot. Establish contacts with location rental companies or fellow professionals for any gear that you might need to supplement or could need unexpectedly. If what you need is not available locally, especially large equipment, consider shipping it ahead of time by Federal Express or other courier service.

Remain Calm and Carry On

Above all else, carry on your most sensitive and expensive equipment: camera bodies, lenses, recorded media and backups, and items forbidden as checked baggage — i.e., loose lithium ion batteries. Some people will recommend that you carry these items in non-equipment bags, padded by clothing and such. However, keep in mind that if the bins are full, and it won’t fit under the seat in front of you (or by chance you have no seat in front of your), the bag will get checked by airline personnel. Better to pack it securely in an appropriate gear travel case, to be safe.

Gear vests can come in handy for sneaking in more, non-delicate items. When going through TSA checkpoints, you can simply remove the whole vest and present intact for scanning.

A note about lithium-ion batteries, from TSA:

You are allowed one larger lithium ion battery installed in a device, plus up to 2 spare larger lithium ion batteries. These are in addition to any smaller lithium ion batteries. For smaller lithium ion batteries, just follow the Basic rules.
Lithium ion batteries rated over 300 watt-hours (25 g ELC) are forbidden.

Battery terminals need to be covered. Store batteries individually in ziplock bags and within hard-shell containers, as a damaged battery could result in a dangerous release of chemicals. Batteries are allowed in carry-on items only.

If you travel frequently, keep a logistics log of your experiences by airlines and planes. Once you have stowed your bag in an overhead bin or under seat, take a photo of it there while holding the airplane safety card next to it.  This documents that your particular bag will fit in the bin of that particular airplane (identified on the safety card). You can carry this in your check-in documents if challenged at the counter or gate about your carry-on item, in the future.

“I once had an airline rep insist that I must check my carry-on bag because it wouldn’t fit in the overhead bin,” said Mike Simms. “I whipped out my photo showing it in the bin of the very airplane that I was to fly.”

Weighing the Costs

As for checked baggage costs, frequent flyer programs and business class are your friends. Assuming that your checked baggage isn’t over standard weight or size, you can make good use of the extra checked bag allowance for premium travellers and possibly offset the additional price of the upgrade. It is possible that you could fly along a companion to assist with the baggage, utilizing their free baggage allowances, for less or similar cost of extra baggage fees.  Just remember, using this tactic, you will want to stay within the allowable weight and size limits or get nailed with add-on fees. Being an elite traveller will also get you early boarding, which will ensure that there is space to stow your carry-ons.

Luckily, most major airlines have a media baggage policy for film & video production personnel, wherein media equipment will not be assessed oversized or overweight charges, and you are allowed to check substantially more items than would a casual traveller. However, they do require you show some credentials. So, DIY yourself an official looking badge, if you don’t have one from an employer. Wear it visibly on a lanyard when dealing with airline personnel. Not only will it immediately legitimize you, but might just impress an agent who could generously overlook a thing or two in your favor. (Don’t forget to hide it when on the plane to avoid endless questions about what famous people you know!)

Proper Packing

Some recommend that you pack gear in non-descript everyday baggage to reduce the likelihood of theft. That might work well when working on the street; but for the rigors of baggage handling and air travel, opt for indestructible containers instead. No harm being clever and putting your hard-shell case within another everyday piece of cheap luggage, for a bit of disguise. Try a canvas army duffle bag, for example. People might think twice about stealing from military service persons. Add something distinctive to your bags (even simply those neon colored plastic arm bands around the handle) so that you can spot them easily on the conveyor belt.

If you must check particularly expensive items, one suggestion is to pack a starter pistol or flare gun in the case. (Must be in a locked, hard-shell case.) This will require that you declare it, since it is considered a weapon, and it will be tagged and treated with more scrutiny by airport personnel and TSA agents. Unscrupulous baggage handlers would be pretty foolish to mess with something with such a paper trail.

Specialized equipment cases and bags are pricey, but much cheaper than the rental or purchase cost of having to replace gear on location.  Not to mention the time delay and aggravation of dealing with a damaged item. Several specialized carry-on soft and hard cases are available for camera bodies and lenses. Most have adjustable padded dividers for different configurations. Throw in a light-color pillowcase so that you have a clean surface to reassemble equipment. (Store it in a ziplock bag to keep it dust- and debris-free.)

Always pack lenses disconnected from the camera body, with lens caps on both ends of lenses and a dust cap on camera body.

Photographer Christinne Blacker recalls, “I've had one TSA agent try to remove the lens; I told her I would do it.  She didn't let me, even yelled at me to stay back. When she finally managed to remove it, she dropped the lens — a very expensive one.”

Daisy Chain Gang

Purchase a long cable with spring clip ends so that you can use it to daisy chain your baggage together while you collect it.  (Keep a lock handy for added security, when needed.) Even if using a cart, this will make it harder for someone to snatch an item.  You can even tether it to your person as you are collecting all of your items from the carousel.

Production or Travel Insurance

Lastly, it should go without saying, but insure all of your gear for damage and theft at replacement value! Never rely on a homeowner’s insurance policy, which won’t cover your gear away from your home, and not likely for business purposes at all. If you don’t have production insurance that covers transportation of gear, carefully review travel insurance documentation to be certain that your gear will not be excluded.

Personal Travel OPs Manual
Whether for yourself as a freelancer or for your company, create a operations travel manual for easy reference.  Ideally, create it in a shared document format (such as cloud software) where members of the team can easily update this information as it changes and annotate it  based on personal experiences. Make the document available online, where the document will be accessible from any internet connection.

Click to page 2 for the Airline Reference Guide.


AIRLINE REFERENCE GUIDE:

Fees represented below are usually charged per one-way trip. If you are travelling under standard baggage policy, remember that fees will be compounded — meaning that you will pay the extra baggage fee, plus overweight, plus oversized fees totaled.

Southwest Airlines
Standard Baggage Allowance
Southwest allows two (2) free checked pieces of baggage per ticketed customer, with oversize and overweight fees applying as applicable.

Standard Excess Baggage
The 3rd checked bag and any bag thereafter is $75 per piece.

Standard Weight and Size Allowance
Maximum weight is 50 pounds and maximum size is 62 inches (length + width + height) per checked piece of luggage. Overweight items from 51 to 100 pounds and oversized items in excess of 62 inches but not more than 80 inches (e.g.; surfboards, bicycles, vaulting poles) will be accepted for an overweight and oversize baggage fee of $75 per item.  

Special Case: Media Equipment
Camera, film, video, lighting, and sound equipment will be accepted when presented by a representative of a network or local television broadcasting company or a commercial filmmaking company. A fee of $75 will be charged for each item in excess of the free baggage allowance. Media equipment will not be assessed oversized or overweight charges.

Media cameras are exempt from the sizing box restriction imposed on other carryon luggage, and, if carried onboard, must be stowed in accordance with FAA safety regulations. If the camera is to be secured in a seat, however, a ticket must be purchased for that seat.
Camera, film, video, lighting, and sound equipment will be accepted when presented by a representative of a network or local television broadcasting company or a commercial filmmaking company.

Reference: http://www.southwest.com/html/customer-service/baggage/special-luggage-pol.html
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American Airlines

For flights within and between the United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Canada, standard baggage allowances are as follows:

Standard Number of Allowed Baggage
One personal item, carry-on: No charge
One bag carry-on: No charge
Checked bags. Charges may apply

Size and Weight Per Bag Allowed
36 in/91 cm (total dimensions)
45 in/115 cm (carry-on) No larger than 22 in/56 cm long, 14 in/36 cm wide, and 9 in/23 cm high
62 in/158 cm (checked)
50 lbs/23 kgs (checked)

Standard Baggage Fees
•    $25 for the first checked bag. Exceptions may apply.
•    $35 for the second checked bag. Exceptions may apply.
•    $150 for any additional pieces

Overweight Baggage Charges
Checked baggage weighing over 50 lbs./23 kgs but not more than 70 lbs./32 kgs will be charged at the rate of $100 per piece.

Checked baggage weighing over 70lbs./32 kgs but not more than 100 lbs./45 kgs will be charged at the rate of $200 per piece.

AUDIO/VISUAL EQUIPMENT
Camera, film, lighting, and sound equipment will be charged a rate of $50 USD per piece when tendered by representatives of network or local television broadcasting companies, commercial film-making companies, professional photographers, the federal government, Department of Defense or the American Society of Media Photographers. These rates apply to travel within the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and international destinations. A maximum of 25 pieces is allowed per organization/company per American Eagle flight or 40 pieces for American Airlines flights. This policy is subject to seasonal and permanent baggage embargoes. The maximum size and weight allowances are subject to the policies in place for the destination.

Reference: http://www.aa.com/i18n/travelInformation/baggage/baggageAllowance.jsp
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United Airlines


 

Media Equipment
Representatives from network television, broadcasting and commercial filmmaking companies will be charged a flat service charge to check camera, film, and lighting and sound equipment. The items must be checked by the media representative and the charges are per item at the prices listed in the chart below. The discounted service charge applies for worldwide travel on flights marketed and operated by United, and is subject to seasonal and permanent baggage embargoes. For flights connecting to other airlines, baggage charges are subject to the connecting airline’s baggage policies.

Media checked bag service charges

  1st standard bag up to 50 lbs. and 62 linear inches 1st bag if bag exceeds 50 lbs. or 62 linear inches 2nd standard bag up to 50 lbs. and 62 linear inches 2nd bag if bag exceeds 50 lbs. or 62 linear inches 3rd – 25th bags up to 99.9 lbs. each
For travel within the U.S.* Standard checked bag service charges apply. $50 $35 $50 $50
For travel outside the U.S.* Standard checked bag service charges apply. $70 Standard checked bag service charges apply. $75 $50


* All charges are calculated on a one-way basis.

To obtain media checked bag service charge rates, media representatives should provide United airport check-in counter representatives with media credentials; company personnel identification for an entertainment, media or production company; or clearly identified media equipment cases labeled with company identification. If the media representative is unable to provide such verification, customers will be charged standard checked baggage service charges. Spouses and/or other companions, whether traveling in the same or separate reservation as the media personnel, are not eligible for the discount unless they present eligible media credentials.

Reference: https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/baggage/mediabags.aspx?camp=virtual_expert
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Delta Airlines

Media Baggage
Camera, film, video tape, lighting and sound equipment that is tendered by representatives of network or local television broadcasting companies or commercial film-making companies will be accepted as baggage at the fees noted below. Valid photo ID with company insignia is required.
 

  1st Bag 2nd Bag Additional Bags
Domestic Same as regular baggage allowance if no more than 50 lbs. (23 kg)/62 inches. If overweight / oversize, flat media rate of 50 USD/CAD/EUR* applies. Same as regular baggage allowance if no more than 50 lbs. (23 kg)/62 inches. If overweight / oversize, flat media rate of 50 USD/CAD/EUR* applies. 3rd-25th bags 50 USD/CAD/EUR* each if no more than 100 lbs. (45 kg) and 115 total linear inches*


  
*CAD amount will be charged exit Canada, and EUR amount will be charged exit Europe.
**All baggage charges are each-way.

Maximum number of bags on Delta aircraft is 25. Maximum number of bags on Delta Connection carriers is 4.

Total linear inches equals length plus width plus height per bag.

Reference: http://www.delta.com/content/www/en_US/traveling-with-us/baggage/before-your-trip/special-items.html
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Jet Blue

On JetBlue your first checked bag flies for free. Each checked bag must not exceed 62″ (157.5cm) in overall dimensions (ie. length + width + height) and must not exceed 50 pounds (22.73 kilos).

Note that boxes will not be accepted as checked baggage on international flights.

Carry-on bags
Each customer is allowed one personal item (e.g. purse, briefcase, laptop) and one carry-on bag. Your personal item must fit under the seat in front of you and must not exceed 18″L (45.72cm) x 15″W (38/1cm) x 8″H (20.32cm).

In order to fit in the overhead bin, your carry-on bag must not exceed:
•    For our Airbus A320: 26” l (66 cm) x 18” w (45.72 cm) x 12” h (30.48 cm)
•    For our EMBRAER 190: 24” l (60.96 cm) x 16” w (40.64 cm) x 10” h (25.4 cm)

Additional bags
If you are checking more than one bag, there is a $40 fee for checking a second bag and a $75 fee for a third bag. Each checked bag must not exceed 62″ (157.5cm) in overall dimensions (ie. length + width + height) and must not exceed 50 pounds (22.73 kilos).

Overweight, oversized or excess
Overweight, oversized or excess baggage may only be checked based on load availability. Fees will be assessed for each category that applies, e.g., if a bag is both overweight and oversized, the overweight fee plus the oversized fee will apply. Fees will be collected at the airport on check in.

Overweight bag fee
51 – 70 pounds (31.82 kilos): $50 per bag
71 – 99 pounds (45 kilos): $100 per bag
Oversized bag fee 63 – 80 inches (203.2 centimeters): $75 per bag
Bags larger than 80 inches will not be accepted.
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Virgin Airlines

Unlike the other major domestic airlines, Virgin Airlines does not have special accommodations & rates for broadcast equipment.  As a result, baggage fees would likely rise to a very costly level.

Standard baggage allowances are as follows:

Main Cabin Guests, Standard Baggage Allowance
Main Cabin guests may check up to 10 bags for a fee of $25 each. Bags 1 through 10 may weigh up to 50 lbs. (Guests who have purchased the fully refundable Main Cabin fare may check the first bag up to 50 lbs free of charge. Bags 2 through 10 may weigh up to 50 lbs for a $25 fee each.)

All checked bags may have a maximum size of is 62 inches, which is calculated by adding the length plus the width plus the height. Oversized bags and overweight bags will be assessed a fee as listed below.

Main Cabin Select Guests, Standard Baggage Allowance
Main Cabin Select Guests may check one bag up to 50 lbs free of charge. Bags 2 through 10 weighing up to 50 lbs may be checked for a fee of $25 each. All checked bags may have a maximum size of is 62 inches, which is calculated by adding the length plus the width plus the height. Oversized bags and overweight bags will be assessed a fee as listed below.

First Class Guests, Standard Baggage Allowance
First Class guests may check 2 bags up to 50 lbs free of charge. Bags 3 through 10 weighing up to 50 lbs may be checked for a fee of $25 each. All checked bags may have a maximum size of is 62 inches, which is calculated by adding the length plus the width plus the height. Oversized bags and overweight bags will be assessed a fee as listed below.

OVERWEIGHT FEES:
Bags 1 through 10* (in addition to applicable checked baggage fees)

  • 51 to 70 lbs – additional $50
  • 71 to 100 lbs – additional $100


OVERSIZED FEES:
Oversized bags – additional $50 (63 to 80 inches)

CARRY-ON LUGGAGE
One (1) infant stroller and one (1) infant or child safety seat may be checked for each guest at no charge. The guest’s name and contact information must be displayed on the outside of each checked bag. Click here to find out our carry-on limits.

BAGGAGE
Check out fees for checking bags of all sizes on Virgin America flights.

  Main Cabin Main Cabin Refundable Instant Upgrade to Main Cabin Select Main Cabin Select First Class First Class Refundable
1st Checked bag* $25 No Fee No Fee No Fee No Fee No Fee
2nd Checked bag* $25 $25 $25 $25 No Fee No Fee
3rd-10th Checked Bag (Each)* $25 $25 $25 $25 $25 $25

Oversized

  Main Cabin Main Cabin Refundable Instant Upgrade to Main Cabin Select Main Cabin Select First Class First Class Refundable
Overweight baggage
(51-70 lbs)
1st through 10th bag
In addition to checked bag fee.*
$50 $50 $50 $50 $50 $50
Overweight baggage
(71-100 lbs)
1st through 10th bag
In addition to checked bag fee.*
$100 $100 $100 $100 $100 $100
Oversized baggage
(Exceeding 62 linear inches)
In addition to checked bag fee.*
$50 $50 $50 $50 $50 $50

 

Maintaining a childhood passion for movie making, Jonathan left the University of New Orleans film program in 2002. The following year, he began the film equipment company ProAm USA and released the world's first tool-less camera crane. He continues to design new, innovative video equipment that aims to lower the barrier of entry for beginning filmmakers.

 

 


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Jonathan Baty