by Carl Filoreto
Video production and air travel have had an uneasy coexistence for a long time. Excess baggage charges, varying weight restrictions, and the most penal indignity – delayed or even lost baggage – create high anxiety for any video crew. Many times I’ve anxiously waited at the baggage carousel wondering if those last three cases are going to appear, or whether I’ll be heading to the lost luggage office while trying to figure out how I’m going to explain to the producer how we’re going to do the shoot without a tripod and a battery charger. Now, the ante has been raised a notch.
Beginning in January, the Department of Transportation through the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, no longer allows loose lithium batteries in checked luggage. That simple declaration has created a major buzz in the video world.
Lithium ion batteries, the form of lithium battery used by many professionals and a lot of amateurs as well, are very popular, and are widely used to power video cameras, camcorders, portable monitors and decks. If you shoot video, the likelihood is that you’ve used these batteries at some point. From the relatively small and very popular Sony InfoLithium series of batteries used to power many small format cameras and decks to their larger cousins hanging off the back of a full size ENG/EFP rig, lithium batteries are well liked for their light weight and ability to hold a charge. They’re used as the power source for many cell phones and laptop computers as well.
Unfortunately, lithium has proven to be a somewhat unstable material, and it can become a fire hazard. Now that’s a serious problem. And it’s understandable why regulations are being put into force to keep them out of hard to reach cargo holds. There have been some well documented cases of cell phone and laptop batteries erupting into flames. Some of these batteries have triggered massive recalls. “The number of incidents is going up everywhere,” warns Paul Dudeck, manager of the Product Specialists Group at Anton Bauer, “it hasn’t been primarily video batteries, but the potential still exists.”
So what does this mean for the video traveler? Well, while the new regulations prohibit putting the batteries in checked baggage, it does allow you to bring as many as you’d like and can reasonably fit into your carry on bag(s). This applies to lithium ion batteries rated as containing less than eight grams of lithium. Now I’m not going to launch into the scientific explanation as to how this is determined, I’m not really sure I understand it anyway, but for our purposes the vast majority of lithium batteries in use are rated at less than eight grams of lithium.
In a nutshell, if you’re using a small format camcorder like a Sony Z1U or a Panasonic HVX-200, then just put all your batteries into your backpack or carry on travel bag, and that’s it. TSA recommends attaching a battery to any device you’re carrying on board, so put a battery on your camcorder, and place the extras in their original packaging. Okay, so nobody has the original box. Instead place a piece of gaffers tape over the exposed terminals, those shiny strips at the bottom of the battery, and you’re ready to go through security.
But what happens if you’re on a production using a regular, full size camera? Here the plot thickens. A lot of HD cameras, or standard def cameras using 24p, can be power hogs. They require a lot of battery power to get you through a long day of shooting. “The regulations are a bit vague,” advises Tony Iwamoto, vice president of sales and marketing for IDX. “It depends on each airport and how they interpret the regulations. Of course, nobody wants to carry on ten batteries.”
Very true. In most cases, you’re already carrying on the camera, now you need to figure out what to do with the batteries. Ben McCoy is a DP who shoots for programs like Frontline and spends a lot of time in the air. He also owns lithium batteries. “I had an out of the country shoot and an East Coast trip as well early in the year,” he relates. “To hedge my bets I bought four nickel metal hydride batteries and a charger. I checked the case holding them and carried four lithium ion batteries on board,” Bill Hitchcock, a regular DP for shows like CBS’ 48 Hours and 60 Minutes, took a different course of action. In January, he had a long term assignment covering a trial and its aftermath. “When I knew I was going to be in one place for awhile, I shipped the batteries via Fed Ex to the location,” he explains.
Another well traveled video veteran, Tony Cacciavillani, who DP’s for many shows on HGTV, Animal Planet and the Food Network, muscles up and carries his lithium batteries on board, “It’s a lot to carry, but at least I know they’re going to get there.” And that’s comforting.
Personally, I’ve had several different experiences in this realm. I flew to Iowa on January 2 to assist with some live shots for the Today Show at the Iowa caucuses, and unburdened by the knowledge of the new regulations, I calmly checked all my lithium batteries. I did the same on the return, and lo and behold, all the batteries made it both ways. I’ve been spooked by the new policy, though, and I now also carry my batteries with me in the cabin of the plane.
Carl Filoreto is an award-winning DP, and his company is Elk Run Productions, Inc. (www.elkruntv.com), which has a roster of clients that spans corporations, production houses, crewing agencies, and broadcast and cable networks, including Dateline NBC, The Food Network, and The Travel Channel. Prior to starting his business, Carl won seven regional Emmy awards, numerous national and regional National Press Photographers awards, and multiple awards from Colorado Ski Country and the National Snowsports Journalists Association, while working at KMGH-TV in Denver, WTNH in New Haven, and WGGB in Springfield, Massachusetts.