Magazine Article


Is Your Film Airport Safe?


Is Your Film "Airport Safe?"
How to Protect Your Film from Airport Security


Terminal C - Signs at security checkpoints and terminal TV monitors remind travelers FAA regulations allow them to request hand inspection of film and photographic equipment.
Terminal A - No signage at checkpoints or on TV monitors regarding film inspection. A photographer requests hand inspection citing FAA regulations. He is rudely rebuffed by security personnel unaware of the policy, threatened with charges of interfering with airport security, and made to put his film through the X-ray scanner. He was prepared for this eventuality but the delay generated hostility toward the photographer from other travelers, who had been waiting in line more than an hour for inspection.
Though we've been told airport X-ray machines are "film safe," most photographers have avoided such problems by packing film, especially large amounts, in their checked baggage. Now that may be the worst thing to do.

New security regulations mandate that checked baggage is subject to screening procedures to include both X-ray inspection and newly developed high-intensity scanners, where available. Two types of new scanners are federally certified and in use and three others are in development. To detect explosives, they use the same technology as medical CT (computed tomography) scan machines. These scans cause damaging streaks and fogging in unprocessed film of all types and speeds. PIMA ( tests show they "damage film significantly."
Certified are the CTX 5000, made by InVision Technologies, and the eXaminer, made by L-3 Communi-cations Holdings. About 160 scanners (most CTX 5000s) are in use at about 50 airports. The FAA will not reveal locations, but it can be assumed they are in major U.S. airports and some major airports overseas. The goal is to have these units in all 400-plus U.S. airports by year's end.
A word or two about the X-ray machines long used for screening carry-on bags. While PIMA tests say they are "not likely to produce noticeable damage to film," PIMA also suggests you request a hand search if you are traveling with high-speed film (ISO 400 or higher) or expect to go through multiple X-ray examinations during a trip. The machines in use in the U.S. are supposed to put out low-intensity X-rays (less than 1 milliroentgen), but outside of the U.S. many airports use high-intensity X ray machines and hand inspection is not an option.


• In the U.S., request hand inspection. The FAA guarantees hand inspections of carry-on bags with film and photographic equipment at domestic airports, when requested. Place film in clear plastic or mesh bags, first removing film cassettes from their packaging to reduce bulk and make visual inspection easier. I carry a wallet-size card with the FAA regulation printed out from their website ( Unfortunately, it doesn't always work with some of the poorly trained, harried inspectors.
• Protective pouches and wraps designed for high-dosage X-ray and CT scanners, as well as lead-laminated pouches for high-intensity X-ray protection, are available from SIMA Products Corp. (
• Carry protective pouches or wraps with you. If denied hand inspection, place film and loaded cameras in these pouches or wraps and put them through. Or pack your film in protective pouches and/or wraps, put it in your carry-on bag, and send them through. This is a must for all overseas travel, where hand inspection is almost never granted. Use of the protective pouches/wraps designed specifically to protect against CT scanners is especially important if you are randomly selected and your carry-on bags are X-rayed and scanned.
I have used these protective pouches when denied hand inspection for more than a year (in a few instances in checked luggage) with film ranging from 50 to 1600 ISO. On some trips, the film went through multiple exposures. While this is anecdotal, not scientific, evidence, so far I've seen no ill effects.
• If carrying large amounts of film, contact local airport officials well in advance of departure to arrange a hand inspection of film. Or ship your film via a cargo carrier—if they can certify that it won't be subject to scans or X-rays.
• Consider purchasing and processing film at your destination.
• Always be professional with security personnel. Never make flip remarks or be argumentative.

Arnold H. Drapkin retired as Picture Editor after 38 years with TIME magazine and now travels extensively as a guest lecturer on photography for major cruise lines.