So, you want to check your camera gear for your next flight. Your gear is valuable, both in terms of cost and in terms of getting the job done on the other end of your flight. Thus, you need a completely dependable case. What is the best case for airline-checked cameras and lenses? The Pelican 1637 Air Wheeled Hard Case got my vote.
Not flying? Perhaps taking a bus, train, van, SUV, car, etc.? The Pelican 1637 Air case is still a great choice for the protection of important gear.
Here is how this story went down.
I frequently fly into or out of regional airports, and the aircraft flying these legs are often small regional jets. My latest series of flights (6 planes) started with a grumpy gate attendant that insisted my MindShift Gear FirstLight 40L would not fit onto "our plane". While I knew from experience that this backpack fit under the center seat of her plane, the attendant could not be reasoned with. I pulled as much gear as possible from the backpack (including all batteries), wrapping cameras in shirts, jackets, etc., and stuffing them into packing cubes that I carried onto the plane. Fortunately for the Canon RF 600mm F4 L IS USM Lens and numerous other lenses that were gate-checked, the FirstLight 40L provided adequate protection for the dreaded slide down the tube and handling that ensued.
The next leg of this journey started with a delay on the Anchorage runway while the plane was de-iced. The second flight of this trip, in Seattle, had begun boarding 4 minutes prior to when I stood to get off the first flight. Getting overhead space is a concern when flying with camera gear, and I often have priority boarding privileges or, minimally, get in line early for my boarding zone. After fast walking through a very long gate, taking three (!) trains, and walking through another long gate, I arrived before the doors closed, near the end of the final boarding line. Fortunately, overhead storage space remained available. However, the additional stress was not appreciated.
On the final flight home from Denver, a gate attendant (a different airline than the first) walked up to me with a gate check tag, saying that the backpack had to be gate-checked. Here we go again. Fortunately, this attendant could be reasoned with. While she was not happy with me (I was very polite), she conceded to allowing me to attempt to get the backpack under the center regional jet seat, with gate checking becoming mandatory if I could not do so. That was a fair offer, and the backpack fit fine as expected.
In addition to the stress and hassle, I've been growing weary of carrying a 35+ lb backpack on my back and a 25+ lb backpack on my front while navigating long hikes to connecting gates (why do all connections seem to be at opposite sides of the airport?) and shuttle transfers. Also, I can never get everything I want to take into the carry-on and person item (I used a MindShift Gear BackLight 18L).
Before leaving for this trip, I found the weight of that gear daunting and began looking a hard case that I could trust to securely hold a large camera backpack with a significant amount of gear packed into it. The industry standard is Pelican Hard Case. I have had many of these cases and love them for the extreme protection and reliable functionality they provide.
Pelican offers their Protector (the long-standing favorite), Air, and Storm series cases. The Air cases are 40% lighter than the Protector cases and the Storm cases, acquired through the Hardigg Industries acquisition, are also lighter. The Storm cases feature a push-button latch, while the Air case latches have recently been upgraded from a push-button design to Protector case-like latches. The Storm and Air cases are just slightly less durable and rigid than the Protector cases.
Initially, I opted to stay with the Protector series for this selection. I completely trusted the protection these cases provide and went to work selecting the optimal model.
If you are paying for checked luggage, take advantage of the space allotted. The dimensions do not add to the cost. That is as long as the case remains within the standard size allocation (usually 62" — W+H+D). Oversize charges are significant — for each flight.
Weight is an issue when flying, and exceeding 50 lbs with checked luggage weight comes with significant additional cost — to every flight. While larger cases provide more carrying capacity, they also weigh more. Pelican Protector series cases take a significant chunk out of the standard weight allocation.
Dealing with the size of a case nearing the standard checked luggage size limits can be an issue before and after the flight. Some of my hotel rooms are rather cramped, and another huge case takes a bite out of that space. Also, getting an additional large case in a car or even an SUV can be an issue when traveling with a family.
On my first case selection round, I opted for the Pelican 1650. This is a very popular model that is sized to adequately store a large camera backpack with room for plenty of extra gear and clothes surrounding it for additional padding.
This case weighs about 24 lbs (10.9kg) empty, providing 26 lbs of gear capacity while staying within the 50 lb limit. I would have preferred the gear to case weight ratio to be higher, but the about 1:1 ratio seemed acceptable for the peace of mind protection provided by this rugged case.
Then, I changed my mind. Upon seeing how large the case was, I checked the exterior dimensions. That is when I realized the exterior dimensions exceeded the standard checked luggage size, requiring a steep oversize luggage cost that would nearly exceed the case cost on each round-trip flight.
That is when the Pelican Air 1637 came to my house. Unfortunately, it was too late to get this case delivered for use on my recent trip, but after researching the Air models, I denoted the 1637 as "Perfect" and planned to place the order when I returned. Then my friend rolled a 1637 out of the airport, sealing that designation.
The sum of the exterior dimensions of this case, rounded down slightly (0.2"), is precisely at the standard checked luggage size limitation. Thus, this case maximized the storage volume allotted while avoiding the large oversize checked luggage costs.
While few will call a 15.2 lb (6.9 kg) case lightweight, this case is nearly 10 lbs lighter than the only slightly larger 1650 I first considered. The nearly 35 lb of weight capacity remaining is adequate for a significant amount of gear.
While you may get everything for a trip into this case, most photographers will be checking two items to accommodate their needs. With two rolling bags/cases, pushing one in front and pulling one behind often works best in tight areas.
Carrying this case full of gear is not something you want to do for very long, but the wheels and retracting handle make transporting on smooth surfaces easy.
While the Protector series cases are more rigid, the HPX2 Polymer offers significant crush and impact protection. The slight flex on the larger surface areas may be advantageous for absorbing impact, but your gear should be packed within padding inside of the case. The waterproof feature will be found helpful in some situations, especially for outdoor productions.
The latches (there is no push button on the latest models) close firmly with a loud snap.
I struggled with this question. There are three models (in addition to color variations) to choose from.
The Pelican 1637AirNF Wheeled Hard Case with Liner, No Insert is the lightest and least expensive model. This model provides no interior padding for protection to the case's contents, but my intention was to load a camera backpack filled with gear, and the backpack and the surrounding clothing or other items provide the cushioning needed.
The Pelican 1637AirWF Wheeled Hard Case with Foam Insert is the mid-priced option. The layers of foam can be customized to hold specific items. While the lid foam and the base foam add nice protection to a camera backpack, the deep layers of middle foam seem awkward to use even in a customized layout. The full layers of foam increase the overall weight by 4.2 lbs (1.9 kg).
The Pelican 1637AirWD Wheeled Hard Case with Divider Insert is the most expensive option. However, the padded dividers are nice, having a considerably higher than average quality. Creating a highly-protective, easy-to-configure internal storage configuration, the padded dividers increase the versatility of this case.
Two levels of 5" deep storage areas (slightly shallow for a gripped mirrorless interchangeable lens camera inserted vertically, but the dividers can be compressed to fit such) are provided with an adequate number of dividers for each level. In addition, the top layer of padded dividers has a zipper-closed rubberized mesh cover for light impact protection and good visibility.
The yellow color of the padded dividers is ideal for visibility. Most cameras and accessories are black and contrast strongly against this color.
A handle on each side makes lifting the top section easy, and a small section of velcro on each side helps hold the top section in place. Leaving the only surrounding pad in the case provides excellent protection to a backpack and other items stored in the case, especially if TSA does not repack optimally after an inspection. Don't forget to protect stored items from each other if removing the dividers.
The full set of padded dividers increase the overall weight by 4.2 lbs (1.9 kg). The top section of pads weighs about 2 lbs (1 kg), and removing the bottom divider pads further reduces the weight, with the outermost padding weighing 1.45 lbs (0.66 kg).
After a long debate, I talked myself into the divider insert model and have no regrets.
A MindShift Gear BackLight Elite 45L, a relatively large backpack, is shown in the Pelican 1637 case above. The inner padded dividers are all removed in that configuration.
Don't forget to remove all batteries and other prohibited gear from the case if checked.
In addition to crushing and impact protection, security is a concern. The Pelican 1637 Air provides excellent protection from crushing and impact, but it is a case, and cases can be stolen. Being vigilant is an important deterrent to theft, but running away with a full Pelican 1637 is not as easy as getting away with a few items stolen from the case. Locking the case avoids the latter issue. Carrying adequate insurance coverage is always paramount.
The Pelican 1637 provides two metal-reinforced areas for locks, and if you are going to lock expensive gear in an expensive case, it doesn't make sense to buy the cheapest locks available. While I can't say that I scoured the world looking for the best TSA lock, the one that caught my attention was the Nanuk 900 TSA-Approved Case Lock.
The attractive Nanuk locks are materially substantial, weighing 3.1 oz (87.7 g) each, and are relatively inexpensive.
Yes, I know that some photographers use zip ties to lock their Pelican cases. While this technique works fine, it is easier to break into a zip-tied case than a TSA-locked case, I don't want to keep a supply of zip ties with me, and combination locks do not require a knife or wire-cutter to open. I expect TSA to re-lock the case without instruction if they open it.
Most photographers will find the Pelican 1637 Air Wheeled Hard Case the ultimate choice for checking cameras, lenses, and accessories when flying and for ground and water transport as well. When traveling with camera gear checked in the Pelican 1637 Air, there is no longer a stress or strategy to get overhead storage or fear of having a gate agent deciding that the bag will not fit on the plane. The Pelican 1637 Air provides significant protection for your expensive cameras, lenses, and accessories and peace of mind for you.
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