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Airport Security: Better, But Still up in the Air

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

You will be happy to know that cooler heads have prevailed on the difficult issue of airport passenger screening. Under regulations recently promulgated by the new Transportation Security Administration, you once again can carry your nail clippers and nail files – even your corkscrews and your knitting needles–on board your next flight.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, there also is no guarantee that every passenger or piece of luggage is being effectively screened for explosives.

But rest assured that the TSA is ever-vigilant against passengers trying to carry meat cleavers, swords, sabers, cattle prods, crowbars, axes or other such items I have plucked from their actual list of no-no's, onto your airplane.

The TSA, created by congress last year to oversee the maddening task of making flying and other forms of transportation safer in the wake of 9/11, has been trying to meet its goal with a beefed-up team of inspectors that is better trained and far more professional than the god awful bunch of rent-a-cops who used to handle passenger screening with rude incompetence before the civilized world got exponentially more dangerous a year or so ago.

And I must say I give these new folks a lot of credit.

It's a lousy job; somebody's got to do it, and, on balance, they appear to be doing it well. But that doesn't mean life has gotten all that much easier for the traveling photographer. In some ways, things are going to have to get worse before they improve.

Flying, never a joy in recent years because of airline cutbacks, schedule tightening, legroom truncating, bankruptcies and all-around nastiness, has gotten to be even more of a hassle because of necessarily tighter security. More of a hassle especially for photographers

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States, the government, for example, and to a much larger extent the airlines, reacted with hysterical, Draconian measures that made it near-impossible for photographers to travel with equipment. Carry-on regulations, miserly to begin with, became downright ridiculous on some carriers. The new incarnation of the bankrupt Pan Am even went so far as to require passengers to check all bags, including briefcases and laptops (yeah, right). Carry-on items were to be limited to wallets, purses and diaper bags.

In addition, though no one ever repealed the federal regulation giving travelers the absolute right to demand hand inspection of their film, that right went out the window as rent-a-cops all over the country (many enjoying an obvious power trip) lorded it over photographers, amateur and professional, and said, in effect, "zap your film or stay home."

Happily, those days seem to be over.

From current TSA regulations – as well as from recent conversations with TSA officials – it appears that common sense, at least as it pertains to camera gear, has won out, to an extent.

For example, the TSA says flatly in its regs that "equipment used for screening checked baggage will damage your undeveloped film" [emphasis added] –a reference to the high intensity CTX scanners now in place across the country to zap checked baggage going into the hold of an aircraft.

The regs go on to tell travelers with carry-on luggage that, even though the much less powerful X-ray machines currently at security checkpoints will not affect unprocessed film under ISO 800, "You may request hand-inspection of any undeveloped film." Almost as important, this is the first federal agency in my memory anyway to concede the deleterious effect of multiple X-ray inspections. (TSA mentions "more than five times" though, in fairness, low and medium speed films have been shown to be unaffected by far more exposure to conventional airport X-ray.)

So, if you are going on a trip within the US, and only will be shooting, say, Kodacolor Gold 400, or Fujichrome Provia 100, should you blithely let your camera bag go through the scanner and not worry?

No. Or at least I wouldn't do it.

Separate and apart from the cumulative effect of multiple X-ray, TSA spokesman Brian Doyle, as well as TSA executive Carol Worth, both conceded the likelihood that carry-on inspection machines will one day also be CTX machines. And when that happens it means that all US airport screening devices will damage undeveloped film.

That's what I meant by saying things will have to get worse before improving: once every scanner is a film-destroyer, no one will be able to deny a photographer's right to hand inspection.

Isn't that right? Hope so anyway.

[In fact, on a recent trip to Dulles airport in suburban Virginia, I saw at least two huge InVision CTX-5000 scanners taking up space at airline ticket counters, where they were being used to inspect checked luggage. A nearby sign read: "Passengers may request physical inspection of photographic equipment and film packages."] Several months ago the Chicago-based "film advocacy group," FSTOP (for Film Safety while Traveling On Planes) noted that "increased security means that many airports now use high-intensity scanners, such as InVision's CTX-5000 series, on all luggage – whether checked or carry-on. It is no longer safe to make the assumption that scanners viewing carry-on bags are using only low-dose X-rays." Note: FSTOP is an all-volunteer group of some of the best known photography writers and picture editors in the country–in other words, an outfit worth listening to.

All of which might be acceptable if these behemoth CTX machines were in fact the be-all and end-all when it came to detection. But they are not. It is this machine's very inability to unfailingly detect explosives that has prompted TSA to issue its most unsettling announcement to date: a request to all travelers that they not lock any checked bags, to better let TSA staff open any suspicious luggage for human inspection. That's because, so far anyway, such mundane – and dense – items as thick books, and jars of peanut butter (!) – have set off the CTX machine's alarms. In addition, these machines apparently do nothing to detect liquid explosives, or thin sheets of explosives.

And, of course, false-positive signals from a multi-million dollar gizmo just translate into time-consuming inspections, out of the sight of passengers. These, in turn will lead to inevitable finger-pointing should passengers find anything missing from their bags.

Still, for all this, I have to say that reports from colleagues, as well as my own recent flight experience, confirm that things are improving.

Do your part. Remove film from packaging and lump it all together in a clear plastic or mesh bag. (Hint: include a few rolls of really high-speed film, like Fujicolor 1600 or Delta 3200, just to get the inspectors' attention.) Arrive at the airport early to request hand inspection.

Does the job have to be shot on film? Or will digital – so far seemingly impervious to current screening techniques – suffice?

Can you buy film at your destination – and have it processed before returning home? (zapping doesn't affect negatives or slides.)

Above all, treat the TSA inspectors with courtesy and respect, because the chances are much better now that that's exactly how they will treat you.

When each of you is on the same page of politeness, good things will happen and pretty soon all you'll have to worry about will be a cramped seat and lousy food.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Frank Van Riper
The new Transportation Security Administration has taken over security screening at US airports (Dulles airport in Virginia is pictured here) and the change does seem to be a big improvement over the sometimes arbitrary, incompetent operation that preceded it. But traveling photographers still have much to deal with every time they fly.

© Frank Van Riper
Thing of the past? My solid–and locked–Pelican case holding two pricey studio strobes has traveled all over with me. Now, though, the government says those locks have to go to facilitate inspection. But it also will make my equipment fair game for any larcenous baggage handler.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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