Taking a gun on an airplane?
In October 2006 I posted a message here on the forum requesting information and experiences regarding taking a handgun on a commercial flight. I received some good replies, and I read all the information on the TSA website as well as the Delta Air Lines website.
After consideration of all the credible information I could find, I still did not feel I really knew how to legally pack a firearm in my luggage. Those who travel will not be surprised by my experiences, but others like me who rarely fly may be interested in my story...
Picking a flight…
My flights both ways were “Delta Connect" non-stop flights. The "Connect" planes are the small executive sized aircraft that only have three seats to a row. While these smaller planes are somewhat cramped, after this trip I actually prefer them. From Columbus OH to Orlando FL was less than 2 hours in the air. Nice!
If there is a way to make my trip a non-stop flight, I would do it for the convenience and speed even if I weren’t packing a gun. However, the non-stop flight also means my checked luggage gets handled less, and therefore should have less opportunity for a screw-up. The fewer times my luggage is transferred or handled, the better! I recommend that when you travel with a firearm, you choose a non-stop flight if possible.
Obey the law…
In my research I found that the TSA and Delta websites were consistent but vague in regards to specifics on packing my gun. Obviously both said the gun must be unloaded and secured in a locked case, but after that the details seem open to interpretation to some degree.
Desirous to be law-abiding, I did not want to make a scene by causing alarm or inconvenience to other travelers when declaring my firearm at a crowded check-in. The only insurance I had is the fact that I have been a police Detective for over 20 years in the city of the airport I was departing from. I figured that would give me some leeway in the event I was not exactly in policy, and offer me a chance to correct any shortcomings when I checked in for my flight. As it turned out, that meant nothing.
Packing a gun…
I decided I could make do with a small carry on bag and one medium sized checked suitcase. Part of my decision was determined by the TSA rules that are not related to firearms. Air travelers would be wise to thoroughly investigate the TSA website for information on what is allowed in regards to carry on luggage. The rules change frequently for carry on items, so check every time you fly. Otherwise the prohibited items will simply be confiscated, or you cannot board the flight!
My checked luggage was a semi-rigid suitcase on wheels with a pull-out handle. Although the suitcase is a high-speed low-drag 5.11 “tactical bag”, it is not much different than other black nylon luggage – and that is the problem. Since my bag looks just like every other piece of luggage from a distance, I learned right away that black luggage is a liability. It was hard to spot my bag on the conveyor at luggage pick-up, so it would be easy for someone to walk away with my suitcase and gun! All that is needed is a large wrap of neon tape, or you can buy a big bright colored luggage strap. Pick a color like pink or lime green so it is unique and you can easily spot your bag. This small modification will give you peace of mind as you pick your bag from the jumble of luggage on the conveyor.
Also consider the size of the checked suitcase in regards to the locked gun case that must fit inside. If you are using the suitcase for more than just holding the firearm case inside it, then you need to choose a larger suitcase than normal. All of my clothing and toiletries were packed in the same bag as the gun case, so I used my carry on bag for all other small items. I found that I prefer to have a carry on bag for magazines, snacks and small electronics. Those things made the trip more enjoyable and I also packed a heavy sweatshirt for the change in climates.
The final consideration when selecting the bag that will contain firearm case is the obvious security factor. It must not pop open during rough handling, and it should have a provision for locking it. The best choice is a bag that is designed to accept a small lock, and then attach a TSA approved lock. TSA locks operate by a user set combination but also have a keyhole for a TSA key, allowing agents to open and search your luggage. Obviously TSA can just cut off any lock, but if you use the TSA design they can re-lock your bag after searching it.
If you are declaring a firearm the TSA will probably not open the luggage without you present, but why take a chance? I recommend the TSA locks and also attaching your name and cell phone number to the bag. That way the TSA or the airline can call you regarding any issue concerning your bag or the firearm inside it.
For the firearm case inside the luggage, I chose a model 1400 Pelican case. Most people are familiar with the high quality and security of the excellent Pelican cases. The “pick and pluck” foam inside allows one to customize the interior to a snug padded fit for a particular handgun. I also plucked out foam to make areas to hold my extra magazines, weapon light, and a 50 round box of ammo:
Every source I checked mentioned storing ammunition in factory packaging, and that was the only consistent rule I could find. Therefore I chose to pack a new 50 round box of 124gr Speer Gold Dot 9mm in my luggage.
Many people claimed the ammo could not be with the gun, yet I could not find any such policy in writing. If you have one piece of checked baggage, obviously the ammo will be “with the gun” in the same bag.
According to the TSA:
Any ammunition transported must be securely packed in fiber (such as cardboard), wood or metal boxes or other packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition.
Firearm magazines/clips do not satisfy the packaging requirement unless they provide a complete and secure enclosure of the ammunition (e.g., by securely covering the exposed portions of the magazine or by securely placing the magazine in a pouch, holder, holster or lanyard).
The ammunition may also be located in the same hard-sided case as the firearm, as long as it is properly packed as described above.
I decided to put the new box of ammo in the Pelican case along with my empty Glock 19, two empty magazines, and a Streamlight M3 weapon light.
I secured the Pelican case with two beefy Master padlocks that shared a common key. These are the standard padlocks, not TSA locks. I briefly considered TSA locks for the Pelican case, but since the gun is normally checked by TSA at airline check-in, there is no reason for anyone to open the case after that.
Airline check-in procedures
I found that airports and airlines handle check-in, the declaration of a firearm, paperwork, and the handling and inspection of the luggage all differently. The inconsistency can be frustrating but remember that the TSA or the airline can refuse to accept the luggage, and/or not allow you on the flight. Losing your temper because of the incompetence of airport employees will only make things worse. So be smart and check your ego at the airport door.
When I checked in at the Delta counter in Columbus, I told the airline employee I needed to declare a firearm in my luggage. She simply initialed an orange tag that states the firearm is unloaded and asked me to sign the tag and place it with the gun. I then took my luggage over to the TSA area where luggage is searched. I stood in line for about 20 minutes where a half dozen uniformed TSA agents were sorting luggage and placing it on a conveyor belt to be run through an x-ray machine. As each person placed their luggage on the floor near the conveyor, the TSA supervisor asked “is your luggage locked?” Regardless of a yes or no answer, the luggage was placed in a big pile by the x-ray machine.
When it was my turn I told the TSA supervisor I had declared a firearm with the airline. She simply said “Is your luggage locked?” I told her that it was not, showed her my orange firearm tag, and said my gun needed checked. She became irritated and said “Isn’t the gun case locked? That tag should be in the case with the gun!” I replied “If I lock the tag in the case with the gun, how will anyone know it has been checked?”
The TSA supervisor huffed “Well obviously the tag must be with the gun! Sir, you will need to step out of line and secure the gun and the tag in your luggage. When you have done that you will need to get back in line.” She then spun and trotted off.
I had to walk my luggage out of the way, and then open everything up in plain view of everyone so I could put the orange tag in the pelican case with the gun and replaced the padlocks. I even placed the TSA locks on my suitcase, and then stood in line again for 20 minutes. Fortunately I had arrived at the airport 2 ½ hours early in anticipation of such shenanigans. When I got to the front of the line again, the same TSA supervisor asked “Is your luggage locked?”
She apparently did not remember me, so I reminded her that I had a firearm in my luggage, and that my bag was equipped with TSA locks. As she moved the suitcase to the pile with the rest, I asked if I should remain until they checked my bag. “Did you put the orange tag in the gun case?” she asked. I said I had, just as she instructed, but how would the inspector know that since he could not open the locked case? She just walked away.
I decided to remain in view of my bag until it was loaded on the conveyor to the airplane. I did not want the TSA to have any excuse for not loading my luggage. As I waited for another 30 minutes, a gentleman got in line with what I recognized as a very expensive portable vault that holds two fancy shotguns. When the trap shooter got to the front of the line he called a different TSA supervisor over and whispered to him. The TSA agent took the metal case and set it aside. When the trap shooter moved to a location where he could watch his guns, I approached him and said “Trap shooter?”
I told him I was also declaring a firearm, and related my story. He rolled his eyes and said that as a competitor he traveled frequently and always watched his guns at airports until they were loaded onto the plane. “Every airport is different” said he.
I approached the same TSA agent the trap shooter had spoken to, and called him over: “Sir, that black bag there is mine, and it also contains a checked firearm.” The agent put my bag next to the shotgun case and stood over them until the x-ray conveyor was clear. He then approached the operator of the x-ray machine and said something before loading my bag. The operator very carefully looked at the screen, and studied the x-ray of my bag. When my bag was removed from the machine I asked the TSA agent if he wanted to open my bag. He said everything was fine, and loaded my suitcase on the conveyor to baggage handling.
I still felt that the firearm had not been properly checked, and that the orange tag was incorrectly placed in the locked gun case. However, I had run the TSA gauntlet and the suitcase was loaded on the plane with my gun inside. I went to get a sandwich before my flight, and after the onerous passenger search process I boarded the plane normally with my carry on bag. My flight to Florida was terrific, and claiming my luggage was the usual affair of snatching it off of a carousel.
The Tampa airport is totally different!
My departure from Florida was handled expertly by the Tampa airport staff. When I declared my firearm at the Delta counter the ticket agent asked if it was loaded, and then took me aside and asked me to show him it was empty. I did so and he taped the orange tag to the outside of the pelican case. The ticket agent then verified the case was securely locked and asked me to lock my luggage. I related my story about the TSA agent who insisted that the tag go inside the locked gun case. The Delta agent looked disgusted and said “That’s stupid. How would anyone know it is there?”
A TSA agent then arrived and escorted me to a separate area. He took my suitcase to an agent running the x-ray machine, and they ran the bag through it before loading it on a conveyor. The TSA agent walked back to me and said everything was taken care of. The whole affair was much faster than checking my wife’s luggage that was processed normally. The gun in my luggage actually made check in faster at Tampa airport!
Later when going through the onerous passenger search to board the plane, a TSA agent took me aside: “Hey Detective, don’t put your shield in the tray when going through the search point! Heck, just approach an agent and tell them you are a cop. We don’t want scumbags to know who the cops are on a plane. That way you can blindside them on the plane if necessary!”
The same agent even gave my wife a special plastic bag for her cosmetics so that they would not be confiscated from her purse. He is retired from the US Air Force and was very knowledgeable, professional and thorough - but probably not typical among TSA agents.
I have since been advised by those who fly often with a checked firearm to add one more preventive measure: you should carry copies of airline and TSA regulations concerning firearms and ammunition. One person who flies weekly told me that he has laminated copies of the airline policy and TSA regulations in his luggage with the checked firearm. Another traveler told me that he is out to educate the agents, and carries spare copies of the rules and regulations to give to airline and TSA agents!
Whatever you decide, you should be patient and expect a hassle when declaring a firearm in your luggage. If things go smoothly you will be pleasantly surprised, and if you have problems you will at least be prepared. Remember that you are representing gun owners at large, and therefore have the responsibility of taking the high road. Besides, exercising your rights and having the ability to protect yourself is worth the aggravation.