X-rays, Film & Videotape

Get your media through airport security unscathed.

If you've traveled by air, you've probably worried about whether your precious magnetic recordings, be they tape or disc, will survive inspection by airport security. With the installation of even higher-powered scanning equipment, the concern is even greater.

Could these new, enhanced devices erase your data or are you just wringing your hands over nothing? While erasure is highly unlikely, there are reasons to be cautious, particularly if you are transporting older tape formats or floppy discs.

Check It In or Carry It On?
According to guidelines issued by the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, 100% of all checked bags must be screened before being loaded.

During the screening process, checked bags may go through as many as three types of scanners, including X-ray, and two different types of explosive detection systems. Still, it is doubtful that these systems will have a negative impact on magnetically recorded media. In fact, the TSA says, "None of the screening equipment...will affect digital camera images or film that has already been processed, slides, videos, photo compact discs, or picture discs."

But the main concern for media in checked bags isn't electronic damage - it's physical loss. Airport personnel have the authority (and the duty) to open and inspect any suspicious bag, including any bag that is locked. (HINT: Leave your bags unlocked or use a TSA recognized locking mechanism.)

With your bags out of your control, the risk of damage, loss, or even theft is greatly increased. Therefore, you should always carry on your tapes, discs, cameras, laptops and any other valuable or irreplaceable item. The TSA states that the "air carrier has no liability for photographic equipment, computers, VCRs and any other electronic equipment including software or components...TSA HIGHLY recommends that you do not pack these items in your checked baggage."

But even if you carry on these items, there are still dangers lurking. Your laptop and video camera must be removed from their carrying cases and placed in one of the TSA bins for security scanning — down the belt, through the machine, and out the other side where everyone else is waiting on their belongings.

Tips from the TSA

And as most travelers know all too well, while your things are being thoroughly inspected, so are YOU! You will be asked to remove your coat, and maybe also your shoes, jewelry, belt, etc. And if it's your "lucky" day, you could also be pulled aside for a thorough frisking. Someone else accidentally (or purposely) picking up your video camera, laptop, or other objects is not uncommon. So keeping a close eye on your personal items is vital.

To minimize the time you are separated from your belongings, think ahead and dress the part: Check your steel-toed boots and wear thin-soled flip flops instead. Unless you're willing to swap out your metal body piercings to plastic or bone, that hidden belly-button ring that makes your mama so proud will set off the metal detector - so take it out ahead of time! And don't forget that things like foil gum wrappers are metal, too. So, empty your pockets into your carry-on bag before going through security.

Handheld Wands, Metal Detectors, & X-rays
Okay, so you're going to carry on your tapes (and hope you don't lose them!). But even carrying the tapes on, they still have to go through scanning systems similar to those used for checked baggage. Can these X-ray systems cause data loss? Almost certainly not. To understand why, you need to understand how magnetic media is recorded.

Data is written onto tape and discs by arranging metallic particles with a powerful magnetic field. For tapes, magnetic energy is delivered by a recording head that comes into direct contact with the tape. For discs, the record head floats just above the surface. Both methods deliver a great deal of magnetic energy in close proximity to a tightly confined area.

To scramble your carefully arranged magnetic particles from a distance takes a tremendous amount of magnetic energy. How much energy depends on the distance and the coercivity of the media — the magnetic force required to "coerce" it into zero magnetism.

Floppy discs have a very low coercivity rating. In other words, it doesn't take much magnetic energy to scramble them. Ditto for non-metal audio cassettes. Older videotape formats based on metal oxide like 3/4 inch and VHS also have low coercivity ratings.

At the opposite end of the scale are modern tape formats using pure metal particles or pure evaporated metal formulations. These tapes, which include DVCAM, MiniDV, Hi8, and Betacam SP, have very high coercivity ratings and are the most resistant to erasure.

Obviously, X-rays are not magnetic and won't cause problems themselves. There has been some conjecture that magnetic energy created as a byproduct of producing X-rays and even conveyor belt motors might give some cause for concern. However, damage from these sources has not been well documented.

Direct sources of magnetic energy come from the walk-thru metal detectors and handheld wands. While it is doubtful that either of these devices would cause problems, some handheld wands, in theory, do generate enough magnetic energy to corrupt data on low-coercivity formats. This is only a theoretical possibility, however. Practically speaking, security officials won't allow you to walk through the metal detector with metal, and that includes recording media.

Unlike magnetic media, X-ray will most certainly ruin undeveloped film. While the TSA states that film below 800 ASA/ISO would be unaffected by passenger checkpoint X-ray, it also says that the cumulative effect of multiple passes through these devices can fog even low-speed films.

According to the TSA, and based on reports from customers, manufacturers and our own personal experiences, it is highly unlikely that any of the scanning devices in use today would corrupt magnetically recorded media. Your most likely source for trouble is damage or loss from the hand inspection of a checked bag or carry-on items lost in the hubbub of a security checkpoint. If you do discover you are missing an item, the TSA provides phone numbers for airport lost and found departments.

For complete information on airport security and other travel tips, please visit TSA's web site at www.tsa.gov.

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