Flying in the United States these days is a huge hassle. Besides all the normal stresses of air travel, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is constantly implementing, modifying, and shifting the rules to get through security.
You can bet if they give a mother a hard time about breast milk, that you won’t be convincing them to let your extra battery slide.
So save yourself the hassle of a TSA shakedown and learn what you can and cannot include in the camera kit you bring to the airport.
Okay: Basic tools like screwdrivers, wrenches, etc.
Not Okay: Sharp tools or longer tools (7+ inches) not allowed in carry-on bags
When I worked on a feature out in Las Vegas, I lugged my stuffed toolbag to the airport to have it checked by a TSA agent. He was surprisingly friendly and found no issues with what I had in my bag.
I had half expected to have to defend what I was bringing, but despite all the liquids, metal hand tools, and other questionable items, he sent me on my way with a smile.
When reviewing the TSA’s prohibited list on tools, you find most items are allowed to be brought into checked baggage. This even includes items like axes, saws, and drills.
The most important takeaway when it comes to general tools is that you will definitely have to check them, especially with a large kit.
To make sure nothing slips out of your toolbag on accident, take a large luggage bag and place your toolkit inside of it, adding another layer of protection from wild bag handlers.
Lastly, it’s a good idea to remove unnecessary tools or pair down on heavy ones to remove weight and reduce costs.
Okay: Non-flammable aerosols less than 18 oz./17 fl oz.
Not Okay: WD-40, Dust-Off Plus, aerosol cleaners, anything flammable
The TSA allows aerosols to be brought on board aircraft that are less than 18 ounces or 17 fluid ounces. But this mostly involves aerosols that aren’t flammable — body sprays and toiletries are a general rule provided by the TSA.
For camera assistants, that means you will have to leave your WD-40 or other spray lubricants, your coveted Dust-Off Plus, and any other compressed gas containers you have lying in your kit that can easily ignite near a flame.
It’s hard to be against these stipulations — they makes sense and you can always purchase those expendables locally or have them shipped there.
Okay: One larger battery installed in a device, two spares; Spare smaller batteries in carry-on baggage only.
Not Okay: Batteries rated over 300 watt hours; Spare smaller lithium ion batteries in checked baggage.
Where I see most difficulties arising with the TSA is with the transportation of batteries. The agency classifies batteries into multiple categories, such as normal batteries (AA and AAA) and then lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries are further segmented into two groups:
1. Small/regular lithium-ion Batteries: These include batteries used in camcorders, DSLR’s, and other smaller electronics.
2. Large lithium-ion Batteries: Classified as batteries that rate between 150 – 300 watt hours. Think of the large Anton Bauer batteries used to power higher-end digital cinema and film cameras.
The smaller size batteries can be transported only in carry-on baggage and, in terms of numbers, is vaguely said to have, “generally no restriction on the number of spare batteries allowed in carry-on baggage.”
The larger batteries are limited to a total of three: one installed in or on the device and two spares. This I can see being a problem. It’s not unusual to have 6 batteries or more in a larger digital cinema camera package.
If you plan on travelling above the limit, battery wise, split up the spares between other crew traveling, use a parcel service to ship the spares, or rent the extras locally.
Do: Ask for hand inspection of all film stock
Don’t: Check film as checked baggage undergoes even heavier x-rays than carry-on luggage
Celluloid film stocks are the most fickle you’ll be traveling with because the onus is on you to protect them and not the TSA to catch them.
Film stock is not prohibited by the TSA, but their x-ray machinery has the potential to severely damage it.
Their website strongly recommends you carry-on stock and have it hand inspected by an agent rather than processed through an x-ray machine. Checked baggage is worse as it goes through an even stronger x-ray machine that will most definitely ruin the stock.
If you’re traveling with too much to make this a viable option, consider having the stock shipped to location or processed locally and shipped from there.
It’s Their Way or the Highway
Like it or not, the TSA is the security authority in the airports of the United States. If you want a seat on an airplane, you have to go through them.
You can try and fight the system, but it’s not worth the hassle when simple requests like asking for hand checks of luggage can go a long way towards easing the pain of flying.
Not all difficulties will be avoided when it comes to the TSA (I mean, it is the TSA), but your best bet is to be polite, follow their suggested guidelines, and hurry up through the line already — the rest of us are tired of standing in our socks!