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The PRO-Files: Know Before You Go, Air Travel Regulations That Impact Photographers

Does your driver’s license have a star printed on the top-right corner? If so, it’s compliant with the federal Real ID Act. If it doesn’t, however, you’ll need to take action—and soon. Starting next fall, a Real ID-compliant driver’s license or valid passport will be required to board aircraft in the United States. Most states are already well along in the process of upgrading their identification to meet Real ID requirements (which require additional paperwork such as birth certificates, social security cards and multiple proofs of residency) but that deadline will be here before you know it. If you want to board a plane after October 1, 2020, be sure to upgrade your driver’s license to a Real ID-compliant version before then.

Real ID is just one of the ever-changing rules, regulations and policies that working photographers must deal with when flying. Sure, every traveler has to deal with such regulations, but the impact on photographers is exaggerated because we’re traveling with expensive, fragile equipment in baggage that is often oversize and overweight, and which usually includes batteries that are deemed hazardous by the Federal Aviation Administration. Here’s a look at the air travel rules and regulations that most pertain to traveling photographers.

FAA Battery Restrictions

Earlier this month, a Virgin Atlantic flight from New York to London was forced to make an emergency landing due to a cabin fire that authorities say was caused by a cell phone battery charger. The crew extinguished the fire and the aircraft landed safely, but the incident serves as a reminder of the seriousness of the regulations pertaining to rechargeable batteries onboard.

Per FAA regulations, all major airlines prohibit spare lithium ion batteries (as well as non-rechargeable lithium metal batteries) from inclusion in checked luggage. The key word here is “spare,” as lithium ion batteries are permitted in checked luggage so long as they are installed in the equipment for which they are made—meaning laptop batteries in laptops, camera batteries in cameras, smartphone batteries in smartphones. Extra lithium ion batteries are permitted in carry-on bags, however, as long as they are protected from short circuit and damage. Rather than piled loose in a camera bag, this means stowing each individual battery in its original packaging, in a battery case, in individual plastic bags or with terminals covered by insulating tape. But even with these protections, spare batteries are not permitted in checked luggage.

The aforementioned restrictions pertain primarily to the kind of batteries that power cameras and small electronics, rated under 100 watt hours per battery. But larger lithium ion batteries, the kind that power some strobe units, LED lights or video cameras, are treated differently. Batteries rated 101 to 160 watt hours include popular batteries such as the Anton Bauer Digital 150 and Titon 150 that weigh in at 156 watt hours. (The firm makes smaller 90wh versions of these batteries that fall under the restrictions of the aforementioned typical camera batteries, and larger 190wh devices as well—the latter of which is not permitted on board.) Like their smaller counterparts, 101-160wh batteries are not permitted as spares in checked luggage. They may be carried on, but are limited to just two spares in carry-on luggage and the airline must be notified of their presence.

Because of these restrictions, most new batteries have watt hours printed on the unit, but older batteries may not. To determine the watt hours of a battery, multiply its voltage (v) by its amp hours (ah). For instance, a 29.7-volt, 3.3-amp-hour battery would measure 98.01 watt hours.

Like non-rechargeable dry-alkaline batteries (disposable Duracell and Energizer AA and 9-volt batteries, for instance) older style nickel cadmium (NiCad) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are permitted installed and as spares in both carry-on and checked luggage. Damaged, defective or recalled batteries of any type may not be brought onboard.

Note, too, that these restrictions are for batteries intended for personal (and, for photographers, professional) use. A photographer on assignment may carry a dozen batteries for her own use, but the manufacturer’s representative across the aisle may not carry those same products for distribution or resale.

Strobe maker ProFoto goes the extra mile to help photographers who may be traveling with its li-ion batteries by publishing information sheets for each battery that can be provided to airline gate agents to outline the permissibility of a given battery based on its makeup and capacity. Those travel documents may be downloaded here.

Although each of the aforementioned regulations is dictated by the United States Department of Transportation and FAA, international policies generally concur. For travel abroad, and because an individual airline can implement a more restrictive regulation even domestically, the best approach is to confirm airline-specific policies prior to departure. We’ve highlighted more restrictive battery regulations where applicable in the airline-specific information below.

TSA Pre, Global Entry And Media Policies

Traveling photographers almost always need to check bags, though it’s good policy to carry on cameras whenever possible. Thankfully many airlines offer discounted baggage fees or waived weight restrictions for members of the media—which includes even a commercial photographer on assignment. Seriously frequent fliers should invest in TSA Pre, which offers a five-year, $85 certification that allows travelers to skip the security lines and save time and stress in the airport. U.S. citizens who travel internationally with regularity should upgrade to Global Entry, a $100 trusted traveler program from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that permits pre-approved low-risk passengers to speed re-entry into the U.S. by clearing customs at automated kiosks. Learn more about these programs and more at the Homeland Security Trusted Traveler page.

Checked Baggage Policies By Airline

Unless otherwise noted, each of these airlines conforms to a fairly standard set of policies that includes one complimentary carry-on bag and a 50lb. weight limit per checked bag, with a maximum size limit for checked bags of 62 linear inches (measured length + width + height). They also adhere to the battery restrictions outlined above, unless a more restrictive policy is noted. If a bag is intended to be carried on but ends up gate checked, any extra batteries must be removed and carried with the passenger in the cabin.

American

  • Maximum Quantity: 10 bags

  • First Bag Free for: Eligible AAdvantage Aviator and Citi/AAdvantage cardholders (on domestic American Airlines operated itineraries); AAdvantage Gold, oneworld Ruby; Confirmed Business customers; Confirmed Premium Economy customers.

  • Bag Fees: 1st $30, 2nd $40, 3rd $150, 4+ $200 each

  • Oversize Fee: $200

  • Overweight Fee: 51-70lbs. $100, 71-100lbs. $200

  • Media Policy: Up to 25 bags permitted at $50 per bag, one way, for domestic flights. $90 per bag for international flights. Oversize and overweight fees waived up to 70 lbs. and 126 linear inches.

Delta

  • Maximum Quantity: 10 bags

  • Weight Limit: 50 lbs. normally, raised to 70 lbs. for first class, Delta Premium, Select 4 and Delta One customers.

  • First Bag Free for: first class, Delta Premium, Select 4 and Delta One customers. Two bags free for Delta Premium Select customers.

  • Bag Fees: 1st $30, 2nd $40, 3rd $150, 4+ $200 each

  • Oversize Fee: $200 up to 80 linear inches

  • Overweight Fee: 51-70lbs. $100, 71-100lbs. $200

  • Media Policy: Up to 25 bags permitted at $50 per bag, one way, for domestic flights, including oversize and overweight. $50 per bag on first two bags for international flights, $70 per bag if oversize/overweight. International bags 3-25 at $70 each if under 100 lbs.

  • Battery Restrictions: Limit of 20 spare lithium ion batteries per person.

Frontier

  • First Bag Free for: Elite customers. Two bags free for Elite 100k customers.

  • Carry-on fees from $35 to $60 per bag.

  • Checked Bag Fees: 1st $30-$60, 2nd $45-$55, 3+ $85-$95 each

  • Oversize Fee: $75 up to 110 linear inches

  • Overweight Fee: 51-100lbs. $75

  • Media Policy: Excess, oversize and overweight items at $75 per bag.

  • Additional battery restrictions: Limit of two spare lithium ion batteries (weighing 8 grams or less) per person.

Hawaiian

  • First Bag Free for: Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard customers. Two bags free for first class customers and Pualani Gold members. Pualani Platinum members receive three bags free.

  • Bag Fees: 1st $25-$30, 2nd $35-$40, 3+ $50-$100 each

  • Oversize Fee: $35-$100 up to 100 linear inches

  • Overweight Fee: 51-70lbs. $35-$50, 71-100lbs. $70-$200

  • No published media policy.

JetBlue

  • First Bag Free for: Blue, Blue Plus and JetBlue Plus customers. Two bags free for Blue Flex, Mint and Mosaic customers.

  • Bag Fees: 1st $30, 2nd $40, 3+ $150 each

  • Oversize Fee: $150 up to 80 linear inches

  • Overweight Fee: 51-99lbs. $150

  • Media Policy: Limited availability on select routes, with quantity of bags determined by aircraft. “Qualified members of the media traveling with excess bags may be considered for a media bag rate if coordinated in advance on JetBlue-operated flights.” Media bag request form available here.

Southwest

  • All customers are permitted two free checked bags.

  • Bag Fees: 1st free, 2nd free, 3+ $75 each

  • Oversize Fee: $75 up to 80 linear inches

  • Overweight Fee: 51-100lbs. $75

  • Media Policy: Media equipment will not be assessed oversize or overweight fees, and carry-on cameras are exempt from sizing box restrictions imposed on typical carry-ons.

  • Battery Restrictions: Limit of 20 spare lithium ion batteries per person.

Spirit

  • Maximum Quantity: 5 bags

  • Weight Limit: 40 lbs.

  • No free checked bags, though members of the $9 Fare Club receive discounted bag fees.

  • Carry-on fees from $28 to $65 per bag. (One small personal item, such as a laptop bag or purse, may be carried on free.)

  • Checked Bag Fees: 1st $23-$65, 2nd $33-$62, 3rd to 5th $76-102 each

  • Oversize Fee: $100 up to 80 linear inches

  • Overweight Fee: 41-50lbs. $30, 51-70lbs. $55, 71-100lbs. $100

  • No published media policy.

  • Battery Restrictions: A “reasonable number” of individually protected spare batteries may be carried on.

United

  • Weight Limit: 50 lbs. for Economy class, 70 lbs. in Business and First Class and for MileagePlus members.

  • First Bag Free for: MileagePlus Premier members in economy class. Three bags free for MileagePlus members in Business, First class and United Polaris.

  • Bag Fees: 1st $30, 2nd $40, 3+ $150 each

  • Oversize Fee: $200 up to 115 linear inches

  • Overweight Fee: 51-70lbs. $100, 71-100lbs. $200

  • Media Policy: $50 per bag up to 99 lbs. for travel within North America, the Caribbean and Central America. $70 per bag up to 99 lbs. internationally.

  • Battery Restrictions: “Lithium batteries that are installed in any checked or carry-on baggage must be removed by the customer. Once removed, these batteries can be transported on board [in carry-ons].”

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.

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