EVERY time I fly commercial these days, with my knees nestling ever so comfortably into the seat in front of me, I think back to my days as a newspaper reporter covering my first presidential campaign.
It was 1968. Richard Nixon was the GOP nominee and his well-heeled campaign provided not one, but three, press planes. Each was configured first class front to back. Segue ahead nearly two decades and there I am on the lone Mondale campaign plane. The Democratic nominee, former vice president Walter Mondale, is in the front with his staff, and the traveling press corps is shoehorned into whatever space is left in the back of the plane.
We called the plane the flying slum.
Air travel these days -- unless you are a high-roller traveling business class or first class -- is nothing short of punishment. Long lines, frequent delays, crummy food and, of course, the kind of cramped seating that can leave anyone over the age of 30 limping off the jetway after a long flight. And the traveling photographer is being plagued by a double whammy that seriously threatens his or her ability to work. That double whammy consists first of the new high-powered CTX-5000 X-ray scanners for checked luggage, combined with restrictive new policies for carry-on luggage.
Though no one would criticize the airline's desire to make air travel safer by being more vigilant in screening checked luggage for explosives and weapons, the new machines can and will ruin photographic film. There simply is no question about it. Exposed or unexposed, unprocessed photographic film will be fogged catastrophically if subjected to CTX scanning. Kodak's Professional Photography division issued this bulletin recently to its subscribers: "This [CTX-5000] unit performs two types of scans. The first is a general sweep, which is harmless to film. The second is a focused, high-energy scan targeted at any suspicious looking items identified by the system in the initial sweep. If this second scan happens to strike unprocessed film, it will be ruined."
The new scanners are being deployed at airports around the world and photographers should know that if they put film into checked luggage, they do so at their peril. The obvious remedy is to put film in carry-on luggage since, happily, the X-ray machines for this luggage have been shown to be harmless to film, even at high ISOs.
But then there's the second part of the double whammy. New restrictions on carry-on luggage adopted by many U.S. airlines severely limit the traveling photographer's ability to carry both film and equipment, leaving the photographer with the uncomfortable option of checking valuable and fragile cameras as luggage. This, frankly, is something I simply will not do. On commercial jobs, I happily check through tripods, light stands and strobes, but never -- never -- check through my Nikons or Hasselblads.
The new carry-on rules were designed to thwart space hogs, like travelers who try to walk on a plane with what amounts to a trunk on wheels, never mind a garment bag. We all know the types. But these new rules are, I think, counterproductive, if not downright silly. Recently, Continental Airlines sued Delta airlines to force its competitor to stop using a plastic baggage-sizing template at security checkpoints shared by the carriers at San Diego International airport. Continental, whose rules were not as restrictive as Delta's, complained that the new restrictions created traffic jams and other inconveniences. "Continental customers shouldn't be penalized by Delta's imposition of its unfriendly baggage polices," said a Continental spokesman.
Regardless, it's unlikely that carry-on rules are going to get any better, and it's unfortunate that we as photographers will have to bear this unfair double burden. Remedies? I recently ordered a newer, trimmed-down version of a Tamrac Rolling Strongbox that is supposed to meet the new carry-on size restrictions. On my next out-of-town job, I will try to cram as much film and camera gear into it as possible and check everything else.
Though I once touted hand-inspection for carry-on luggage (U.S. travelers have that right under FAA rules), I don't think it is necessary, given the current safety of carry-on X-ray screening. Additionally, I have doubts about lead-lined film shield pouches, even ones like the Ultra FilmShield XPF 20 pouch ($39.95) that claim protection for all film up to ISO 800, even under CTX scanning. I'm sure they're effective, but their very effectiveness can be your film's undoing. As Kodak noted in this advisory about such pouches: "[I]n a typical airport surveillance, the inspector might hold the pouch in the X-ray field in order to penetrate the pouch and identify its contents, or the baggage may be pulled for hand inspection.