Traveling as a photographer can often be difficult at times due to the amount of equipment we have to travel with, not to mention travelling with large batteries. I have been fortunate enough to travel a lot over my career as a photographer, and the nature and style of my work means I have to travel with a fair bit of lighting equipment as well as cameras. The Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS location lighting pack is my gear of choice. I’ve used it for a long time and I’ve never had a single issue with it. The Elinchrom Ranger is a battery powered unit that uses a non-spillable Sealed, Lead-Acid (SLA) battery to power it. This is my main go-to lighting equipment for use on-location. It’s brilliant and packs plenty of punch (1100WS). Some of you might wonder why I don’t travel with something more compact and lighter like the Elinchrom Quadra, or the amazing new Profoto B1 units but they just aren’t powerful enough for my liking, and I don’t really want to burn my wallet having both systems just yet.
Due to the larger batteries the Elinchrom Ranger requires, it makes travelling by air a little bit harder. The reason for this post is because I have had a lot of experience travelling with this unit, and I have put in a lot of time and effort into research enquiring about this issue. So I wanted to share all my research and first-hand experience to try help all the other budding photographers out there who wish to travel with their gear. To give you some reference, I have spoken to the Perth Airport (my local), Virgin Australia, and CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) regarding this matter so I’m pretty confident I have the best answers you’ll find. Please note I am based in Perth, Western Australia and all the travel I refer to is domestic travel within Australia. Other countries may differ.
Travelling with batteries has been a well discussed topic amongst the photographic community, especially online for a long time now. There has even been documents made available from the manufacturer (attached to the end of this post) which provide sufficient evidence that these packs are airline friendly and exempt from the dangerous goods act. Now most people out there have misinterpreted these documents. While they claim it is exempt from dangerous goods regulations that doesnt mean it can fly commercially. This document just means it can be transported by air on a freight carrier. This was pointed out to me by a CASA officer. What’s worse is these documents are getting old now and the rules that govern our safety in the sky are always being updated.
In my experience though the staff on the ground at the airport don’t care much at all for what paperwork you have. They just completely ignore it. A majority of the time you will get past airport security with these batteries as they don’t pick them up as a security breach, but in fact they are in breach and it is illegal.
Lets take a look at what exactly is inside the Elinchrom Ranger and its battery compartment. The Ranger consists of an electronic control pack, which requires a large proprietary battery pack inserted into the bottom. If you unscrew the 6 little screws on your Elinchrom battery housing, you will be able to invert the battery upside down, remove the housing and reveal the actual non-proprietary battery within. This battery is an industry standard maintenance free, wet, non-spillable, rechargeable, Sealed Lead-Acid battery unit. You can actually pick these up from your local Battery World, Jaycar or other electronics stores at a fraction of the cost that Elinchrom will charge you. You just have to replace them yourself but they are very simple and safe to do so. If however you need the actual casing which inserts into the Ranger, I’m afraid you will have to go to Elinchrom for a replacement.
Below you can see what it looks like when you take the housing off.
I purchased one spare from Elinchrom so I have two housings, but then I just buy replacement batteries from my local electronics store if the batteries start to die or I’m travelling and choose to buy them locally at the destination.
The batteries that come with the Ranger are rated at 12Volt, 12Ah (rated at 20 hours). A common measurement for batteries is Watt Hours and this is determined by multiplying the Voltage and Amperage together. So this battery would be:
12 x 12 = 144Wh (Watt Hours).
Batteries are typically rated at their 20hour discharge rate because it’s unlikely they will discharge in one hour. Some batteries provide multiple values so when making any calculations be sure to use the 20 hour value.
TRAVELLING WITH ELINCHROM BATTERIES
Now I know some of you are going to jump out and say it’s fine if you take the battery as a carry-on, and some of you will say it’s fine if you check it in, but there is no full-proof way regardless of the rules. The airline & security staff are getting better and more consistent though. Trust me I’ve clocked up dozens of flights and I’ve been through all the scenarios and been advised different ways by the airline & security staff each time. Every staff member I encountered seemed to class the battery differently. Some say it needs to be detached from the Ranger and carried on the plane, others say it needs to be kept in the Ranger it’s used with and checked-in as baggage. Bit confusing eh!
When I spoke to CASA (who were very helpful) they knew there had been a long time misconception with batteries and they were often dealt with incorrectly. CASA thinks this is why it was always something different for me. However new rules have been enforced in early 2014 to combat this. Just by looking at the old guidelines on the Virgin website it was difficult to determine the right course of action as it was difficult to see which category these batteries would fit under. I won’t go into that because things have already changed and its simpler now, and we are only concerned with the current rules.
Now each time I have travelled by air on a commercial airline with my Elinchrom Ranger, fortunately I have been able to take it with me one way or another, but the problem is it causes a huge amount of frustration each time as I don’t know how to pack it, and on multiple occassions I have had to repack my suitcase in the airport flashing my manly underwear to those in line behind me.
The problem is the airlines don’t know the in-depth rules, and every time you try to take it through as checked-in baggage or as a carry-on item, it’s up to the discretion of the staff you happen to run into on the day, how well educated they are, and what mood they are in. They aren’t photographers, and they haven’t done the research like we have. An interesting thing you may not know is all the screening staff at an airport, for both checked-in and carry-on items are employed by a third party security company. They do not work for the airline or the airport.
IN THE REAL WORLD
Not too long ago I travelled to Melbourne on a very important assignment for Performance BMW Magazine in the UK. The airline decided they weren’t going to send my bags over at all, and I just about fainted when I arrived in Melbourne and heard the news. There’s a horrible tingly feeling that goes down your spine when you hear your name being called out at the airport and you’re not running late for a flight. After a lengthy correspondance between the baggage staff at Perth and Melbourne airports they agreed to send my luggage, however the spare battery inside my suitcase was removed. Only the Ranger and the battery inserted inside the ranger were allowed to be sent over. Fortunately, that would do the job and I managed to get my bags there at the crack of dawn the next day.
On the return flight, I checked the Ranger with the battery inserted as my checked-in luggage (because thats what they allowed on the way over). I brought it to the attention of the airline staff when checking in, and after checking with superiors, I ended up having to remove the battery from the pack, and carrying it on the plane with me. That then means I have to go through the screening process with the battery and it gets scrutinised again. On this occasion there were a couple of staff that looked at it, but they let me proceed without too much hesitation. They were just really curious as to what it was exactly. So as you can see, how I travel with these batteries changes each time I fly. It’s a royal pain in the you know what!
So I set out to try and fix this disambiguity, starting with my airline of choice down under, Virgin Australia. I wanted to find out from someone senior, with a deep understanding of dangerous goods, and get a ruling on this item for good, and find a way to successfully travel with the Ranger without these hassles.
VIRGIN AUSTRALIA’S RULES ON BATTERIES
In 2014, Virgin updated the baggage section of their website with a specific Batteries page, which provides information on all kinds of batteries and what is permitted on an aircraft. This guide is very helpful and provides a much cleaner cut rendition of the rules. For Sealed Lead-Acid batteries such as the ones in the Elinchrom Ranger, it states that they are permitted provided they are under 100Wh (Watt-Hours).
So these types of batteries are perfectly acceptable on aircraft now. The Elinchrom Ranger battery however, is technically not permitted because it exceeds the watt hour limit.
This unit has gone through rigorous testing by the manufacturer conforming to UN2800 classification as a result of passing the Vibration and Pressure Differential Test described in DOT [49 CFR 173.159(d) and IATA/ICAO [Special Provisions A67]. This basically makes these batteries exempt from hazardous goods regulations for the purpose of transportation by DOT, and IATA/ICAO, and therefore are unrestricted for transport by any means.
The documents available to support this are a Material Safety Data Sheet, a notification of non-dangerous goods signed by the battery manufacturer, and there is documentation in the Elinchrom operating manual citing IATA compliance too. These three documents are attached to this blog post.
Now having spoken to an expert from CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) he informed me that while some things may be approved to fly, it does not neccesarily mean for commercial airline passenger travel. It may simply mean these items are permitted to fly on a cargo plane or freight carrier. So you can stop waving these documents at the airlines thinking it means anything, because it doesnt really mean anything to them.
THE DEFINITIVE RULING Elinchrom Batteries
So after all the headaches of first hand experience I’ve been through, and with a lot of research under my belt, I have now learnt the exact ruling when it comes to flying with the Elinchrom Ranger and its batteries.
The Elinchrom Ranger Speed AS unit is perfectly fine to transport on a plane without the batteries. You will need to check the unit in as luggage.
The battery in the Elincrom Ranger is NOT permitted on any passenger commercial aircraft domestically in Australia. The battery exceeds the watt-hours limit. So that means you are not legally allowed to check it in OR take it as a carry-on.
So bottom line, Elinchrom batteries are not allowed on planes in anyway within Australia.
But do not fear, I have multiple solutions for you!
THE CLEVER WORK-AROUND
As we now know, the Ranger battery pack simply contains an industry standard SLA battery inside which is easy to remove (6 simple phillips screws). So, here’s what you do. Pay a visit to your local battery or electronics shop and buy an SLA battery that conforms to the watt-hour requirements set out by the airlines (100watt-hours). This battery below is the best option. As you can see it is 12V but it is only 7.2AH which means it has (12 x 7.2) 86.4 watt-hours. That comes way under the 100WH limit, so this is perfectly fine to take on a plane.
Now this battery has to be taken as a carry-on. Whether you put it inside the elinchrom battery housing or not, you need to take it on the plane with you. Virgin and Qantas let you take two of these on board.
This battery easily replaces the exising Elinchrom battery although you may want some rubber or foam to make sure it stays securly in place within the Elinchrom housing because it’s not as wide as the previous battery. Due to the decrease in size, there is also a decrease in the amount of shots you will get. An Elinchrom Ranger will give you 200 – 250 full power shots, but with this battery you go down to about 150 or so. If you arent shooting on full power though you should be fine, and you can always have spares.
THE SNEAKY WORK-AROUND
Now while technically the original SLA battery is not allowed to be taken on a plane, the security screening staff at the Airport don’t usually check throughly enough to stop you. They only ever look to see what it is, and what type of battery it is, I’ve never once encountered someone who calculated the Watt-Hours of the batteries.
The Elinchrom housing states the voltage and amperage on it, you can’t miss it. I have never had anyone question it yet though. The staff just ask what it is and what it’s for and as soon as they establish it’s an SLA battery for photography they wave me through.
As a precaution, what I have done in the past is I take an additional spare SLA battery, but my spare battery is the smaller one that I mentioned above which conforms to the Watt-Hour rating that is permitted on-board. I take this battery in the cardboard box I bought it in so it can be shown to the staff. This gives the security staff the impression that the battery inside the Elinchrom housing is of the same size. As I said though, they never really check the ratings, they seem to make a decision based on what it is, what its for, and the physical size and weight of it doesnt seem to concern them.
Keep in mind, yo unever know when they are going to crack down on batteries harder, but this has been my extensive experience this far.
THE EASY WORK-AROUND
What I have done to save myself carrying these heavy batteries on planes, is I simply remove the SLA battery from within the Elinchrom Ranger battery housing, and just take the housing with me. I actually take two, I have a spare of everything. Before I travel however, I source the SLA batteries from an electronics store at my destination and get them to put one or two aside for me. Then when I arrive at my destination I simply pick up the full size batteries from the store and install them into the battery housings in my hotel room over a beer and some bad late night TV. It only takes 5-10 mintues to do.
I have done this multiple times and when the job is big enough and the client is paying for it, it’s a piece of cake. Even when the job isn’t that big, these batteries only cost $50ea AUD, so its worth it to save the hassle of carrying them around.
When it comes time to fly home, I either go through the trouble and try to bring them back with me on the plane, especially if I’m due for some new batteries. The alternative is to network with some local photographers and see if you can donate them to a worthy comrade before you leave.
Alternatively leave them with a friend, or if the client is a regular, you could try kindly ask them to hang onto them for you!
WHAT ABOUT LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES?
Units like the Elinchrom Quadra and the Profoto B1 have these Lithium-Ion batteries. These batteries have a higher Watt-Hour limit with the airlines compared to SLA batteries. A rating of 160Wh and less is permitted and you are allowed two spare batteries. The airlines state these can be taken as cabin baggage in the equipment their supposed to be used in, but in my experience, I would recommend taking them on the plane with you which you can also do. See the Qantas & Virgin links at the end of this post to see exactly what to do with your battery. Their easy to use table will get you on your way.
PRE-APPROVAL AND PERMISSION TO CARRY SPECIFIC ITEMS
I had a very brief discussion with the CASA officer and I asked if there was a possibility to get pre-approval for this kind of thing. Where you might be able to present an authorised certificate allowing travel with these items to make checking in a simple process each time. Not just that, but guaranteed that your gear would travel with you.
Well, this is actually a possibility, but from memory it was a tedious process and an expensive one so I threw it out immediately as an option. If you want any more info you can contact CASA.
So there you have it. Taking Elinchrom Ranger lighting equipment with you on your travels is now a piece of cake. You know what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do and how to get around it all easily. Flying used to be so frustrating for me but with all this knowledge now, I feel confident about it all and it doesnt bother me, and I hope you feel the same way now too.
If you have any questions or have some experiences of your own to contribute, please drop a comment below!
For more information you can find some rulings on batteries here from the two major airlines:
Here are the relevant documents for the Elinchrom Ranger Battery.