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|| News Item: Posted 2006-03-30

On The Road: The Joys of Shipping: Drop it, weigh it, and go.
By Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Shipping your gear can be easy and fun!
Freelancing is fun, right? Absolutely. One of the "fun" parts of this job is the knowledge that schedules can change on a dime. Another is that we work at the pleasure of our subjects. And still another is the constant travel. So when I found out last Friday morning that a portrait subject had agreed to a shoot and that I'd need to be in Palm Springs first thing Monday morning, I thought nothing of it, and booked a flight out on Sunday. And when a client called later that Friday afternoon asking me to head to Dallas for a shoot on Saturday morning, I shrugged. Flight up at 10, flight back at 3.

But this left me with a bit of a problem. Monday's portrait would be a large, in-studio production shot on 4x5. I might need every bit of lighting gear I own, plus my view camera cases. Add to that my assignment to cover a golf tournament in Palm Springs later that week, and I'd need all of my 35mm gear, too. The last-minute Saturday portrait meant I couldn't ship the lights--or the 35mm cases--on Friday. FedEx doesn't deliver on Sunday. So how would I get all of this crap out to California?

All in, we're talking about 12 cases, weighing in at about 650 pounds. They can't get there on Monday, and they can't go out until late Saturday. In a previous life, this would have meant uttering the two words any air traveler understandably despises --- "Checked Baggage" --- and all of the hell that comes with it: Excess baggage fees bordering on highway robbery (in this case, it would've been $550.00 each way).

Waiting an hour for a dozen cases to come trundling off the belt, and if they all arrive, having to lug them to, then on to, then off of, a rental car shuttle. If they don't arrive, another half hour filing a lost luggage claim, and the subsequent ulcer-inducing aggravation of not knowing when, or if, the stuff I need to do my job will arrive. After doing that more times than I care to remember, I began thinking that there must be a better way. There is: it's called Southwest Airlines Cargo.

Air freight is oft-dismissed as complicated, unreliable or simply too expensive, and in the hands of any other airline, it is. But I can honestly credit Southwest Cargo for saving several things, among them my lower back, my time, my sanity, my equipment, and, most importantly, my clients' money. Frankly, there is no better way to safely, efficiently, and cost-effectively move equipment around the country. I've been using them for ten years now, and will tell anyone who will listen what I'm telling all of you now: If your work, like mine, keeps you on the road most of the time, get yourself an account today, and stop worrying about lost or late baggage and broken gear. Stop worrying about FedEx deliveries showing up a day late, or the unfathomable expense of checking the "Priority Overnight" box on a 500-pound shipment of arena strobes.

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll
Of course, in this age of heightened security and the bloated mess of Federal idiocy that is the Transportation Security Administration, you can't just pull the car up to the cargo office and ship your stuff. You need an account, and something called 'Verified Known Shipper" status first.

Here, then, is step one: go to and fill out an application. Pay a one-time fee of $50 to have your place of business inspected and verified by a Southwest representative, and prepare to have your life get unbelievably easier. Pull up to the loading dock at the airport, drop everything on a pallet, and go directly to the airport security line with nothing but your carry-on baggage. No waits in line to check bags. No skycaps. No trudging through the airport with a loaded, broken Tri-Kart. No arguing about excess baggage fees. No hassles. Drop it, weigh it, and go.

Beyond the simplicity of it all, there are additional advantages to air freight over checking luggage. At $50 per excess bag (and $25 per otherwise "free" piece over 50 lbs.), shipping via Southwest Cargo is usually cheaper than checking your bags these days. And on the rare occasion it isn't, it's pretty damned close, with advantages that make any meager extra expense worth it. Like what? Well, for starters, you can declare a value on your shipment. No airline on the planet will accept financial responsibility for loss or damage to camera equipment in checked baggage. But cargo isn't checked baggage. Sure, you'll pay a little extra for the insurance, but it beats not seeing a penny for that 400/2.8 that just got dropped out of the back of the regional jet on to the concrete, right?

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

One of the benefits of shipping gear- you can declare a value for your equipment!
Next, you can lock your bags, with your own locks, not one of those "TSA Approved" things that anyone with the right key can get into. That's because your cargo shipment is hand-inspected, right in front of you if you so desire. That's right. Hand-inspected. Which also means, for those dinosaurs out there that are still shooting film, there are no CTX zappers to worry about (for now, at least).

And what about FedEx? First of all, try getting something somewhere via FedEx on the same day. Or on a Sunday. And if your stuff doesn't show up the day it's supposed to, you're SOL until tomorrow. With Southwest, it'll probably be on the next flight. And if it isn't, a real person can look up your shipment right in front of you, figure out where your stuff is, call another real person wherever that may be, and get it on the next plane. Not that that's a major concern of mine; in hundreds of shipments with Southwest, I've needed to track down a missing shipment exactly once. And it showed up on the very next flight. But the fact remains: no 800 numbers. No hold music. No bullshit. You're dealing with helpful people, who want to get any problems solved, and quickly.

It all sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it isn't. If there's any downside to it, it's this: while Southwest may be the country's largest airline in terms of market value, it still has a somewhat limited route network. Sometimes this causes a little tinkering with itineraries, like flying into Ontario instead of Palm Springs, for example, or even Little Rock instead of Memphis. But inconveniences like that are minor compared to gear that arrives broken, or doesn't arrive at all. Besides, the airline is adding cities steadily--Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Denver are recent additions, with more undoubtedly on the way. By the way, if anyone at Southwest HQ is reading this, Atlanta would be nice. As would Charlotte (just looking out for Mr. Leverone on that one).

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll
As it stands now, my American Airlines flight left Austin at 10:50, and then sat on the ground at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport for half an hour waiting for an open gate, leaving me 20 minutes to make my connection--which, I might add, took me from Terminal D to Terminal A, a distance so vast that it confirms the decision to name the airport after not one, but two cities. There is no way in hell any checked bags would make that connection. But I'm not worried. In fact, I'm now finishing this up aboard American flight 1649 en route to Ontario, relaxing with a glass of Scotch and some Robert Earl Keen tunes on the iPod, with the safe arrival of my luggage the furthest thing from my mind.

Why? Simple. Because it's already there. Before I left this morning, I logged onto the Southwest Cargo website, threw in an airbill number or two, and discovered that my cameras, lights, clothes, and stands were safely aboard flight 692, due in at Ontario at 10:30 am (try doing that with your checked bags!). And when I get there, I'll stroll off the plane, right past the baggage claim, and straight to the rental car bus. I'll back the rented Explorer up to the Southwest Cargo loading dock, toss everything in the back, and be at the Starbucks on Archibald Rd., and then headed down I-10 on my way to Palm Springs, 20 minutes after the pilot has turned off the "Fasten Seatbelt" sign.

How's that for peace of mind?

(Austin-based freelancer Darren Carroll is a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest, and Golf World magazines.)

Related Links:
Carroll's member page

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