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Traveling with Camera Equipment - Mitigating Loss

Traveling with Camera Equipment - Mitigating Loss

Pelican cases loaded up on a pack horse in AzerbaijanA good friend and colleague of mine recently had the misfortune of arriving home from a shoot to find that nearly $10,000 worth of camera equipment had been stolen! Everything was there when he checked in at JFK airport for the flight home.






A plane sits at the gate in Frankfurt, Germany


If you do much traveling you're probably familiar with those little TSA approved locks. Recommended by the TSA and all airlines for "securing" checked baggage, these little locks provide more peace of mind (deceitfully so) than they do actual security. When traveling with little more than a suitcase of clothing the TSA locks are ok. The total value of the contents of your suitcase will more than likely fall well within the amount covered by the airline in the event of theft or loss. Not the case when it comes to expensive camera equipment. As my colleague found out first hand, Delta will only reimburse up to $3,500.



When flying with firearms, the TSA regulations state that passengers should use non-TSA approved locks. Why, you ask? Because even the TSA knows their approved locks are easy to get into. Even without any lock-picking experience one can easily open a TSA lock with a simple paperclip. The liability that surrounds checking a firearm is much higher than the security provided by these locks. And so the TSA requests using normal keyed or combination padlocks. This is also the case when it comes to flying with expensive equipment of any kind.



Caveats of flying with non-TSA locks


Locking checked (or even carryon) baggage with a high security padlock requires some additional steps to check in at the airport, with the most important element being patience.


High security padlock on a Pelican case


Be sure to arrive early. Add a minimum of 30 minutes to your normal arrival time. If your departure airport does not have a TSA screening station close to the check in counter, you may need to arrive as much as 45 minutes early.


When you check in go to the full service counter - don't use the self service kiosks. For one, the kiosks do not allow you to select the airline discounted media rate for checked baggage (something you should seriously look into if you travel with excess, overweight, or oversized bags for media related business purposes - most airlines have a $50 flat fee per bag). Second, you must let the ticket agent know your bags are locked and that you have the key available should the TSA need to inspect your luggage.


This is when patience comes to play. Depending on how far your bags have to travel from the check in counter to the TSA, and how busy the airport is, will determine how long it takes before you are either asked for the key or given the green light to proceed to your gate. Whatever you do, DO NOT leave the check in area until you have confirmed your bags made it through the TSA security check. If you are not around to provide your key, the TSA will cut your locks or hinges on your case in order to inspect the contents. This completely defeats the purpose of locking up your gear with high security padlocks!


Once your baggage clears the TSA check point, it will be safely locked all the way through to your final destination. The process is exactly the same even if you're traveling internationally. Just be sure to keep your keys handy in case you need to open your gear when you go through customs.


Initially this process was something I somewhat stumbled across as I was researching requirements for checking my pistol on a trip to Florida. For some time I never ran into a problem. Then the St. Louis airport underwent renovations and the TSA baggage x-ray was moved to the basement - a 15 minute conveyor belt ride from the ticket counter.


About a year ago I arrived at the airport with several Pelican cases, all padlocked as usual, destined for the backcountry of Northwest Territories, Canada. I waited at the ticket counter for nearly 30 minutes and hadn't been asked for a key, which was very unusual as the TSA in St. Louis ALWAYS checks my bags. After speaking with the ticket agent for a moment, she said if they hadn't asked by that point my bags were clear.


Fast forward a few hours to the Customs terminal in Edmonton. My cases arrive with no locks! I immediately had my assistant (who happens to also be my wife) get in touch with both the airline and the TSA office in St. Louis to find out what went wrong. When I got home two and a half weeks later I spoke with a manager in the St. Louis TSA office. I garnered a wealth of information on that phone call.


I explained my reason for calling was not to file a complaint or claim for damage, but rather to find out what I had done wrong in the situation. She immediately jumped in to say I had done nothing wrong, and that the agents working at the time had been given quite the verbal lashing as they did not follow the appropriate procedures of first asking for my key. So what wealth of information did I get from this call you ask? Confirmation that everything I had been doing was exactly what should be done when traveling with expensive camera equipment.




High security padlocks aren't a fail safe option to keep your expensive gear from being stolen. They create a reasonably difficult barrier to entry that your average baggage handler cannot get through. Should this line of security get breached, there are a few other things you can do to help deter theft.



Asset Tags


Asset tags are little stickers with the property owner's name, some basic contact information, and most often either a barcode or number. The stickers have a very good adhesive and are made to withstand equipment handling. If sourced from a company specializing in equipment and gear asset labels there is an option for a "security" asset tag. These stickers usually leave behind the word VOID when removed from a piece of equipment. The remaining material is very difficult to remove.



Asset tags are not only great for organization, logistics, and identifying your gear apart from others, they are also a great theft deterrent. Its easy enough for a thief to resell stolen goods with no ownership identification. Add a quality asset tag and now said thief has a lot more work to do in order to turn their boost into cash. Thieves by nature are normally lazy. Seeing that every single piece of gear in your case has an asset tag that isn't easily removed will make them think twice about whether taking your gear is worth the effort.


A quick Google search for Asset Tags will return several pages of results. There are several good companies out there who specialize in this sort of product. I order my tags from MaverickLabel.com and have been very pleased. They had features such as a metallic sticker (instead of vinyl or plastic), lamination to extend the usable life of the tags, and free customization. All of this at a reasonable price.


I ordered serialized asset tags so I could tie each tag to a database of my gear with serial numbers and replacement costs for insurance. The numbered tags are also a great way to help keep track of batteries and memory cards.



Carry on what's important


The ability to arrive on location with the necessary gear is very important to my livelihood. On three different occasions I have arrived at my destination without my checked bags. We're talking two Pelican 1650 cases FULL. All was not lost as in my carry on was my camera, lenses, memory cards, and batteries.


Regardless of what your shoot requires, be sure to carry on the essentials. Personally I prefer the Pelican 1510 for my gear. A lot of regional flight require you to gate check suitcase sized carry on bags. Should that happen, I have no worry about my camera gear being damaged. If you're not a fan of Pelican cases, or need something with a bit more flexibility, there are several great options in both backpack style and wheeled luggage built specifically for camera equipment. Regardless of what case or bag you choose, be sure to lock your carry on with a standard keyed or combination lock, not a TSA approved lock!


Locked carry on case


If your kit is too big to all fit in your carry on, triage it. Camera body is a must. If you have multiple lenses, grab your go-to and check the rest. If your camera breaks down, be sure to pack all the required parts such as viewfinder, grip, etc. Do not check an item if your camera cannot run without it.


Packing batteries in your carry on is also a must for the obvious reasons, however, I want to make a quick aside regarding batteries. It is illegal to check spare lithium batteries. If the battery is easily removable it is considered a spare battery. This is relatively new, implemented roughly two years ago. This rule is getting enforced more and more and some airlines have zero tolerance, especially on the international scene.


The fear is that when lithium batteries are punctured, they will burst into flames as the lithium reacts with oxygen. The rationale for carry on only is a fire in the passenger cabin can be quickly identified and extinguished before causing severe damage to the aircraft, whereas in the cargo area the fire will go unchecked likely resulting in a crash.



DICE Insurance


Most freelancers and one-man-band production companies I know have an insurance rider on their homeowners insurance to cover camera gear. A few others have independent policies specifically for their equipment. Both of these routes are better than nothing, however, they are far from ideal. These types of policies often do not provide coverage if your gear is off site or in transit. If your policy does extend coverage outside of your home or office, check to see what exemptions are not covered. Also check to see if your policy covers lost income and rental expenses while you wait for your insurance payout. More than likely not. This is where DICE Insurance comes in.


DICE stands for Documentary, Industrial, Commercial, and Educational. DICE insurance is for the world outside of feature filmmaking. Because DICE is built specifically for the creative vocations of video production, photography, graphics, and more, there are some coverages included with DICE insurance that you won't find elsewhere.


About a year and a half ago I started researching insurance options as my homeowners policy would not cover any equipment used for business purposes. I ultimately landed with TCP Insurance. For a very reasonable rate, my insurance plan covers general business liability, owned equipment, rented equipment, computers, hard drives, reshoots, and more. Should my gear get stolen or damage while I'm traveling, it will also cover rental expenses and lost income as a direct result of the theft or damage.


Own a drone? Depending on exactly what you have, what you shoot, and how large a percentage of your annual revenue the drone generates, operating your drone is covered within the general liability of most DICE insurance programs. If not, a rider specifically covering drone operation can be added for a reasonable rate. With all the changes to UAV regulations taking place worldwide, one element is becoming a common thread - the requirement for liability insurance as a prerequisite to ANY operational green light.




At the end of the day, theft and loss happen. That's why insurance exists. However, following the above advice will reduce your risk and help to better manage the mess left behind should you fall to such misfortune. As a college professor of mine always said at the end of class, "Go forth and do good!"

Copyright © 2016 Michael Johnson Entertainment, LLC