Traveling Armed Part 2: Airplanes

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This is our second in the Traveling Armed series. As you could tell from the title, it concerns air travel. Read up, and if you have extra tips or any horrifying experiences, tell us about them in the comments below. Mad Duo

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Traveling Armed Part 2: Airplanes 

Dave Merrill

Post 9/11 air travel is already a pain in the ass without throwing guns into the mix. However, it really isn’t all that much of a headache–at least not in comparison to x ounces of liquid in a plastic bag, taking off your shoes, and suffering the indignity of the naked machine.

There are many reasons for transporting a firearm via an airplane. You could be taking a class or participating in a competition, heading to a friend’s place across the country to do some shooting, planning on CCWing  at your destination if legal (or illegal I suppose), or simply protecting yourself in your hotel room. It’s not unheard of for criminals to look for rental cars leaving an airport when identifying good targets–because the occupants are much less likely to be armed.

For first timers, and even second and third timers, it can seem to be a daunting task. It doesn’t help that the process and rules seem to shift from airport to airport and even shift to shift. There are a couple reasons for this. First, not all airports have the same equipment. One will screen firearms by swabbing the seam of the case and putting it through a mass spectrometer, another will just X-Ray it, and others will open them up for physical inspection. Not all TSA employees have the same training or experience, so never hesitate to ask for a supervisor if needed. In many cases you will know the laws and regulations better than them. Don’t be bullied into doing something you’re uncomfortable with.

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Let’s start with the laws

Get a Hard, Lockable Container for your Firearms

A Pelican or Storm case is the obvious choice here. Don’t expect a $20 Walmart-special case to survive a flight (I never understood the false economy of trying to cheap out on a $50 case for a $2k rifle). The last thing you want is for a seam to burst and dump a few grand out the side. Borrow one if you have to. You don’t have to pay through the nose though (an alternative was covered earlier this year). While some like to use the larger Pelicans even when transporting a handgun or two (in order to prevent sticky fingers) it’s not a requirement and can be a PITA. Most airlines have added baggage fees unless you’re flying First Class. To avoid that, you are allowed to put a handgun in a smaller lockable case such as a car vault or even a OEM Glock case and then place that inside your normal luggage .

[UPDATE: Container Rules Have Changed–See this post for the latest regulations]

Do NOT use TSA Approved locks. I tend to stick to the high-end combination locks. Keys can be lost, or you can put them in your carry-on and forget about them if you’re forced to check it at the gate. No one at TSA should be opening the case outside of your presence. More on this in a minute.

Have Everything Unloaded

Before you set foot into the airport, ensure everything is unloaded. Clearing out your hot handgun in the middle of an airport is a good way to miss your flight. If you want to be armed while enroute to the airport, clear your CCW and pack it away while still in the parking garage. Ammunition may be packed in the same case as the firearm, but it can’t be loose. I do know guys who have gotten away with filling magazines and then putting tape or a cover on them and been good to go in the past, but I can’t recommend doing it. I always make sure ammo is packed in boxes;  You can transport ammunition in your regular checked luggage provided it’s packed correctly, but expect one of those “Hey, we searched your bag!” notes in it upon arrival.

Declare Your Firearms at the Ticket Counter

You don’t have to make a big deal about this. When I approach the counter with a rolling Pelican in tow, about half the time the ticket agent hands me the declaration form without me asking. Fill out the form and sign the declaration that all firearms are unloaded. On larger cases they usually ask you to put it inside the case, and if you have a smaller case that’s going into luggage sometimes they tape it to the outside. Yes, sometimes you’ll have to open the case right there at the counter. Ensure the case doesn’t take the weight of four gorillas to close all the latches so you don’t have to make a spectacle of yourself.

This is the point where different airport procedures will show themselves. Sometimes the [locked] case gets put on a belt and they’ll ask you wait wait around for a few minutes. If TSA needs your attention for some reason, you’ll be called. If not, they won’t. In other airports they’ve called an escort to bring me to a secure area where TSA does the inspection. Sometimes the case is open, sometimes it isn’t. Thumbs up and be on your way.

No One Opens the Case When You Aren’t There

Do Not allow your case to be sent back unlocked or for anyone to open your case not in your presence. This is both for your protection (so guns don’t get stolen) and their protection (so you can’t accuse them of stealing guns). Federal Regulations § 1540.111 covers this. Sometimes they will ask that you send it to screening unlocked, or ask for the combination. This isn’t allowed per the law.

Don’t have Shit, Dick, or Ass in your Carry-On Bag

This is something that sounds simple, but is often forgotten. Nary a minion hasn’t been busted with an inadvertent round in a carry-on. After the first time, I started following the rules laid out here. It may be overkill, but the consequences increase rapidly if travelling internationally. An associate traveled to Vietnam a couple years ago and upon arrival he was greeted with a, “Welcome to Vietnam: All Gun and Drug Smugglers will be Executed” sign. Later, he found three 5.56 rounds in his bag. Whoops.

And it’s not just ammunition. No, you cannot put your suppressor in your carry-on. Yes, it’s expensive, but no you cannot put it there. Same goes for magazines. Optics on the other hand I have taken in my carry-on.

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Best Practices

Know the Laws of Your Destination State

Part 1 of the Traveling Armed series discusses this. Do at least a modicum of research before you fly and make no assumptions. Just because TSA didn’t say anything does not mean it’s allowed in the destination state. They barely know the current regulations, let alone mag limits in California and New Jersey.

Know the Rules for your Given Airline

While it may be the first time you’ve traveled with a gun, it won’t be the first time they’ve dealt with firearms, ammunition, or other “hazardous” materials. Just like with luggage size and weight, the webpage for your airline will clearly state any restrictions. Some have restrictions on number of firearms per case, others do not. All have limits on ammunition weight, but they will vary from airline to airline (Alaska Air allows up to 50lbs of ammunition, for example). Put your magazines with the gun in the hard case and not in other luggage.

Print out TSA Rules and Airline Rules

Do this beforehand so you aren’t arguing with someone while searching for a regulation on your smartphone. Always try and be polite, even if the person you’re talking to is inept.

Arrive Early

We’re all used to arriving dick-hard early to the airport because of increasingly long screening times, double early for weekend flights. Add at least an extra thirty minutes if you’re traveling with a weapon, just to avoid missing your flight if there’s some dickery.

Weigh Luggage Before Arriving 

You know what sucks? Digging through your Pelican to ditch weight. Lots of, “well fuck, can I fit that into my carry-on?” Bonus points if you have to do so with a rifle all out in the open.

Strip Everything Down

I do this for two reasons: First, it’s really obvious that everything is unloaded if physically inspected. Second, you can fit more in a case that way. I also always take the batteries out of my weapon lights. If one gets tripped on during handling, it’s entirely possible to start making the internal foam go smokey/melty. I leave the battery doors open on flashlights when I remove the batteries, so I don’t neglect to put them back in when I reach my destination (happened once, but never again).

Know Your Inventory

Preferably have a checklist and a photograph. If nothing else, at least snap a picture with your phone before closing it up. Have a list of serial numbers of all items in case the worst happens.

Never Use a Case Which Previously Held Plastic Explosives 

Even if it was ten years ago. Even if it was only briefly. The mass spec will go bananas and you’ll have a lot of talking to do. Seriously, just buy a new case.

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[Pelican case of an obviously crazy OCD person]

After Arrival 

 Alright, so you managed to get your gun checked in, made it through the anal probing of security, squeezed your happy ass into an uncomfortable seat next to a kind-but-corpulent midwestern mommy with a body-odor issue, and survived a few hours. All is good! Well, hopefully. After you get up, stretch your legs and untwist your back, it’s time to head down to baggage. Just like with check-in procedures, how you get your bags may depend on the airport and airline. I’ve had them come right on the normal belt (what doesn’t scream “gun!” more than a coyote Pelican?) and I’ve had them be held at the luggage office for the airline. I much prefer them being held, because they have always asked for my ID for confirmation.

As soon as it’s both possible and appropriate, check your case for contents. Make sure there is nothing missing, and arm yourself before leaving for town if you’re going to CCW.

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Nightmares

If your bags don’t show up right away, your pulse will no doubt begin to quicken and you’ll get that feeling in the pit of your stomach. Many have espoused that having a gun in your luggage makes it safer. I don’t know if that’s urban legend or there’s a grain of truth to it, but regardless sometimes things go missing. Follow the normal procedures, with the caveat that you must be prepared to file a police report and call the BATFE if NFA weapons are involved.

What if you’re in a non-gun friendly place and you miss a flight or have one cancelled? This is the stuff of nightmares. FOPA is supposed to protect you during travel, but it doesn’t always work out that way, as seen here:

Revell was flying from Salt Lake City to Allentown, Pa., on March 31, 2005, with connections in Minneapolis and Newark, N.J. He had checked his Utah-licensed gun and ammunition with his luggage in Salt Lake City and asked airport officials to deliver them both with his luggage in Allentown.

But the flight from Minneapolis to Newark was late, so Revell missed his connection to Allentown. The airline wanted to bus its passengers to Allentown, but Revell realized that his luggage had not made it onto the bus and got off. After finding his luggage had been given a final destination of Newark by mistake, Revell missed the bus. He collected his luggage, including his gun and ammunition, and decided to wait in a nearby hotel with his stuff until the next flight in the morning.

When Revell tried to check in for the morning flight, he again informed the airline officials about his gun and ammunition to have them checked through to Allentown. He was reported to the TSA, and then arrested by Port Authority police for having a gun in New Jersey without a New Jersey license.

As far as avoiding that last one? Do your best to book your travel without connections in states where your guns are illegal. This may prove completely impossible, but always try. Definitely do not take custody of your firearms if you’re in a situation like the above. That incident happened ten years ago, and we can hope it’s a little better since then, but Supreme Court-type situations are something we generally want to avoid.

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Final Tips and Conclusions

Just because the BATFE or your state laws don’t consider something a gun, that doesn’t mean TSA won’t. BB guns and starter pistols have to be treated like firearms and all the same rules apply. TSA will also consider barreled uppers and other legal non-firearms as firearms.

I like to fly Southwest Airlines. Not only does it reward you for checking in early (your boarding order is your check-in order unless you upgrade), you also get two free checked bags like you’re flying back in the 90’s. My normal modus operandi is to put most of my camera gear in my carry-on, have one normal luggage item, and one Pelican case chock full of weapons. I’ve run into issues by having cleaning gear in the Pelican, specifically with lubricants. Either cross-load a small bottle lube in your carry-on or purchase some at your destination.

Whatever case you end up with, get one with rolling wheels. Not only is this easier on you when you’re schlepping it around, but baggage handlers are less likely to treat it like a newly minted stripper “aerial dancer” at a club just off post.

Stick contact information into the case itself and/or attach it to the exterior with clear durable cellophane tape. It’s not hard for those bullshit tags to get ripped off and even the thicker luggage stickers require little effort. Name/address/cellphone/email–you get it.

For the frequent traveler, or for someone with something particularly expensive, consider a luggage tracker. I haven’t personally used one but am giving them some consideration (if you have, please give your experience in the comments). This page has a listing and some reviews.

If you find the ammunition restrictions too restrictive you can either purchase locally or, my preference, drop ship some to your destination. If it’s a class no doubt the instructors or organizers can help you accomplish this, and if it’s a match talk to the match director.

Bottom line for flying armed: do some research and follow the laws. Don’t just load up and hope for the best.

-DFM



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DFM

Emeritus Dave Merrill wrote for Breach-Bang-Clear from late 2013 until early 2017, including a year as its Managing Editor. He departed our ranks in May of 2017 to accept a well-deserved position as social media manager for RECOIL Magazine. He is a combat veteran of the Marine Corps who describes himself as a "...former urban warfare and foreign weapons instructor for Coalition fighting men." Merrill's articles are well worth the time it takes to read them - there's a lot of knowledge tucked away in that skull.


DFM has 82 posts and counting. See all posts by DFM

5 thoughts on “Traveling Armed Part 2: Airplanes

  • July 16, 2015 at 6:25 pm
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    I’ve had me a good experience going through JFK (yeah, *that* JFK), JetBlue being the airline.

    It’s been a while, so I do not recall if it was a local NYPD unit, or Port Authority PD who did the inspection. This was in 2012, going to a course in SC. Had some fun toys with me, but no NFA stuff.

    Two officers, one – by the haircut, lack of badges, and the uniform’s appearance was just out of the academy. The other – Sgt, whom I took to be the FTO.

    Once the obligatory “Did you stay in New York before coming to the airport” line of questioning was out of the way, the Sgt proceeded to simply have a “gun guy” conversation with me, asking me about why I had this and that on the rifles, et cetera. Nice, polite, professional.

    Two curious things about that conversation – first, the Sgt rued the fact that he, as an officer, was not allowed to own the fun toy(s) that I, a mere civilian, did. I could only commiserate.

    The other – at some point during this very friendly conversation, a call over the radio came in for this patrol. The gist of the call was that there was a taxi cab driver outside whose license these officers took right as they got called to do the checked firearm inspection, and now this taxi cab driver was somewhat anxious to get his license back.

    Sgt looked at me, looked at the fun stuff in the case about which he clearly wanted to know more, and asked me if I had time on my hands. When I said I had about another 90 minutes before the flight, Sgt keyed his mike, replied with a “He’ll wait”, and we continued to talk about BAD levers and efficiency of weapon manipulation for another 15 minutes or so.

    Reply
  • July 15, 2015 at 5:42 pm
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    I would also add that some airlines (American if I remember correctly) mandate that if you’re checking a firearm, you can’t use the normal e-ticketing counters. You have to go to other counter that usually only has one agent and invariably has a foreign family on vacation with 93,000 bags they need to check and a connection through Neptune that has been canceled. It always takes much longer and I have missed more than one flight because I went all the way through the normal check in line, only to be told at the counter that I had to go through the other one.

    Reply
  • July 15, 2015 at 10:14 am
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    Just remember when you arrive at the counter to say “I’d like to declare a firearm”, not “I have a gun here”.

    Might be understood in the wrong way…

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  • July 13, 2015 at 6:22 pm
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    Great article. Some stuff is simple, some is not, but either way people don’t appreciate how hard it is to write great, clear, informative copy..

    “It’s not unheard of for criminals to look for rental cars leaving an airport when identifying good targets–because the occupants are much less likely to be armed”

    Not only is is not unheard of, it tends to occur right after that state passes Shall -Issue laws for CCW permits. After Florida obtained CCWs in the 90’s, the criminals were forced to presume most locals could be armed and began dedicatedly hunting tourists leaving the airports. This happened so much, and with deaths involved, that Germany, for one, had warned its citizens against flying to Florida at all. Rental car companies made a workaround for this by disguising their vehicles somewhat with conventional state tags and less badging.

    Reply
  • July 13, 2015 at 9:49 am
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    A couple of years ago, I had to retrieve my firearms from a friend who had been holding them for me for about 10 years while I’d been overseas. I live in Kansas, she lives in Idaho. I had one hard case, acquired a second. At the airport, had no issues. Let them know I was transporting firearms with no ammo, TSA brought me back to a private area, examined both cases and the weapons, watched as I closed and locked both cases, and sent me on my merry way. Only additional thing I did was remove firing pins and bolt carrier groups from all weapons and put them in the opposite case, .30-06 pin and shotgun barrel with the SKS and the .45, SKS and .45 pin in with the .30-06 and the rest of the shotgun. I figure someone’d have to steal both cases to get functional weapons. Cases arrived in Kansas City with no issues, no muss, no fuss…

    Reply

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