Account of Flying with Firearms

Deviant Ollam
Lots of trouble transporting ammo on some flights to and from Illinois. The tips in this account can really save you trouble if you use them to plan ahead!
PHL --> ORD
2011-03-30

ORD --> PHL --> FRA --> WAW
2011-04-08

Luggage & Gear
For this quick bounce out to Illinois and Indiana i traveled with a Pelican 1610 and a Pelican 1700. This is due to the fact that, in addition to casually visiting local friends, i am getting together with some of the security folk out here to do some shooting. I figured that since (for once) i'm not traveling with loads of locks and presentation hardware, i might as well travel with lots of guns and ammo!

I think on this trip i may have outdone myself for seeing exactly how much ordinance a person can fit into a Pelican 1700 case...

... it's hard to imagine all of it from just this one photo, actually. I removed a lot of the lower-level foam (beneath the convoluted egg-crate pattern) and used that second layer of space for more ammo and cleaning supplies.

No photo of the Pelican 1610, but it contained even more ammo, as well as my carry piece. Both cases locked up with paired Abloy Protec PL321 and PL330 padlocks.

Outbound Travel
My check-in at PHL started out rather routinely. I waltzed up to the Envoy counter and was pleased to see Carmen working the morning shift. As i started opening the cases in order to insert the Firearm Declaration cards, another nearby employee took notice. Seeing my open 1700 case (as shown in the photo above) a woman named Abigail inquired, "Geez! Who you gonna kill over there?" It was all in good fun, and as Carmen dealt with the luggage tags and so forth, Abigail and i spoke about defensive firearm ownership, where she could learn to shoot, and the laws surrounding the possession and use of guns in Pennsylvania.

With the conclusion of that lovely little chat, i walked down to Counter #19 with Carmen. There were already a number of pieces of sporting luggage (mostly golf bags) on the special belt...

.. but we called back to the TSA who hustled them aside so that my two cases could be processed right away. It's so nice getting to skip the line like that! :-) I became surprised when things started taking a while. Usually this screening point is no-hassle and no-wait. A quick hit through the CTX 9000-series machine in the back and you're golden. Instead, i found myself waiting here for 15 minutes or more. As i stood around idly chatting with Carmen, i noticed that the airport hasn't changed the code for their Simplex locks in a while. ;-)

Eventually a TSA screener stuck his head out to the check-in hall and informed me that he wanted my key. I'm not accustomed to surrendering it when I'm not in the presence of my bags. When i balked at this, he immediately disappeared, mumbling something to himself about a supervisor. Ten minutes later, Supervisor Knapp from the TSA came out and greeted me.

It turns out the problem pertained to some of my ammunition. While much of it was new factory ammo in "traditional" boxes and such, there were some "loose" rounds that were causing the TSA some distress. I eventually demurred and allowed this Supervisor brief access to my key in order to sort out the problem with the ammo. He reported back to me in greater detail once he had pulled things out...

The "loose" rounds in question? A box of .22 Long Rifle and a bag of surplus 5.56 on stripper clips.

Well great, i thought to myself... if the TSA expects these rounds to be in any sort of factory-looking box, they're in for a disappointment, given that the surplus ammo came that way from the supplier and basically none of the .22 you can buy in bulk ever comes in a nicely sorted and divided box. I had even re-packed the loose tiny rounds (which have a tendency to burst everywhere if the cardboard box gets crunched) into a sturdy Glad-ware kitchen container.

Supervisor Knapp seemed totally clued into this whole situation. He was well aware that many types of surplus ammo don't come in a "proper" store shelf style box. He also understood that .22 LR basically never comes in such a box. The TSA folk were in full "Cover Their Ass" mode, however, and didn't want to clear the luggage outright. At one point they suggested seeing if it can ship "as cargo" instead of "as basic luggage" since apparently the rules are different there.

Ultimately, it was a US Air supervisor who took care of the situation. Sandy pulled up the regulations on her computer screen (as i quoted them aloud from memory while she read along) and she felt that the fact that the ammo was all in some various forms of "wood, cardboard, metal, or plastic containers" (indeed, even the bagged stripper clips were in cardboard boxes) and that it was all under eleven pounds (i always weigh my ammo in at 10 lbs when packing, just to be sure) that it was ok to go. She decided just to be extra prudent and apply some wrapping of tape around the plastic bin of .22 LR and i didn't object...

... so that's how my bin of plinker ammo wound up coming with me to the midwest. All in all, i was down in the check-in hall for a little over half an hour. In the end all went well, although i did wind up arriving at my gate just prior to the boarding process. And what a delight to see... the US Air staff was actually waiting for entire zones to finish before calling out the next zone. I can't tell you how much that helps smooth the process, eliminating messy clusters of people.

When we arrived at ORD my bags came out of the regular belt (even the long Pelican 1700 case) and i opened them for a moment to verify that everything was ok. Even the 1610 case (the one which had been opened and extensively re-packed) was in good shape. Everything seemed to have been handled with care and respect and all was placed back in more or less the proper position.

Homebound Travel
When checking-in at ORD i wasn't 100% sure of what i might expect to happen, given that region's lunatic policies concerning firearms. Susan from US Air was no stranger to guns, however... being a native of Arizona (and formerly with America West airlines) she described how her family friends ran Phoenix Shooters and that she had been around assorted small arms most of her life. In between friendly chatter about the terrible laws of Chicago and Cook County she shared with me a startling story of a negligent discharge that took place right there at the ORD check-in counter about a decade ago.

While she wasn't able to recall all of the details in perfect clarity, the gist of the situation was that an individual had been traveling with an antiquated firearm given to them by an older relative. No one had opened the action in ages, let alone cleared it, and no one thought it could have been loaded. When the question arose during their luggage check-in process concerning the firearm's unloaded status, the passenger remarked "oh yeah, there's no way this thing is loaded," and then proceeded to point it off to the side and casually pull the trigger.

A shot rang out, startling everyone present, and blasted into the wall behind the Air Canada counter, where thankfully no one was stationed at the time. Apparently this has become a little piece of local lore, with some of the more veteran airport employees still recalling it in conversation from time to time.

As i say, Susan was wonderfully knowledgeable and things went perfectly smoothly at the US Air counter. The TSA screening area (which was just off to the side and easy to get to) was another story, however. It started off easily enough, with my cases being run through the CTX machine...

... in my opinion, that should have been it. There was nothing suspicious in any of my bags, all of the guns are clearly visible, and (because of the difficulty experienced in PHL as described above) i made sure that none of the ammo was "loose" looking... so no bags of 5.56 (because we shot it all) and no cartons of .22 LR (because i gave it to a buddy from Michigan). And yet, like so many other times before, a TSA screener came by and informed me they wanted to open the cases.

Puzzled, i inquired why. They didn't give any convincing answer and just said they "had to check things out" which is never a satisfactory explanation. Since their inspection tables were right in front of me (about ten feet away behind a small rope barrier) i didn't particularly care, given that i could monitor their actions and ensure that nothing was done improperly.

After they had the cases open, i observed that quite a bit of discussion started taking place. More TSA screeners started to hang around and look at each other, as well...

One thing in particular that seemed to occupy their attention was my ammunition. As you can see in the following video that i shot, the TSA screeners were methodically pulling out every single box of bullets and conferring with each other about them. I helpfully called out to them, reassuring that US Air's policies specifically allowed me to have bullets in the same cases as the guns themselves (something not all carriers allow, and this is one of the reasons that i specifically like to fly with US Air) and also assuring them that the total weight of the ammo was only 10 lbs. They behaved as if this information was not relevant to the current proceedings. Eventually, one fellow wandered over to the US Air counter and had a little conference with them for a few minutes...

Shortly after the older TSA fellow returned, they told me everything was OK and began packing up my cases. I walked over closer to more directly inspect the process, occasionally correcting the younger man from the TSA (seen to the far right in these images) on how he was packing a few items. I do enjoy having the benefit of being directly present when my bags are opened so i can dictate exactly how things belong before the luggage is closed.

The whole affair added maybe 10 to 15 minutes of extra time to my check-in.

After the cases were sent along on their way, i asked the one remaining TSA screener nearby (the woman in the above images) exactly what the trouble had been. She flatly refused to inform me of anything. I was surprised and taken aback, and i asked again... Was there anything wrong with the way i had packed? What did they discuss with the folk at US Air? Her response was even more curt and unhelpful... "Just something we have to ask them." I pressed further, "So are you saying it's something you're not allowed to talk to me about?" She shrugged and walked away.

I went back over to the check-in counter and simply asked Susan, who had been so helpful and pleasant earlier. Her demeanor hadn't changed... and she simply and plainly told me that the TSA was concerned about the weight of the ammo. They wanted to check how much mine weighed and to check that US Air was fine with up to 11 lbs, the Federally-allowed maximum.

On my way to my gate, i stopped by the USO office in search of my buddy William who works there and who has been a big supporter of the Traveling Terabyte Project, but he was not around. I did, however, get to express some gratitude to various soldiers for their service as i walked through the terminals. One of them was a Major, actually... that was unique, as i hardly ever see Oak Leaves when encountering traveling servicemembers.

My arrival in PHL was timely and although this was not my final destination (not by a long shot) i had to proceed down to the baggage claim in order to obtain my cases. After all, i was flying on to Poland and didn't want to deal with the hassle and paperwork necessary for international firearm transportation. Susan at ORD was quite helpful in ensuring that the luggage was only checked to PHL and that it would be pulled there. Both cases arrived on-time and in perfect condition at the baggage area...

The next part of that day's plan went off very smoothly. I walked out to the curbside where my mother was meeting me. She was in possession of a duffel bag that i had packed before my journey to the midwest. It contained clothes, locks, and tools for the event in Europe. I had swapped my H&K carry pistol from the deeper Pelican case into the long rifle case, thus making the former piece of luggage nothing but clothes. I placed the long, gun-laden case into my mother's care. (Those items will be locked up with my father's collection until i return.) Then i took the duffel and the remaining Pelican case over to the US Air international flight check-in and proceeded along to Frankfurt, then Warsaw.

The only sour point at this phase of the process was dealing with Cynolia, a significantly uppity and huffy staffer at the US Air counter who kept complaining about baggage weight issues. Although my overall luggage weight was well below my personal allotment (50 lbs each for two bags) she wasn't happy that one bag was 57 lbs. while the other was only 24 lbs. After i made a half-hearted show of feigning attempts to shift a few items around, she eventually demurred (only further proving that this is an entirely contrived policy and that check-in agents have the power to do pretty much whatever they want with respect to allowing certain bags) and i was allowed to check-in without any extra baggage fees.

My travels through Frankfurt airport were as miserable as ever, but my arrival in Poland has been as pleasant as expected. I look forward to my journey back to the USA just in time for NotACon!

Final Details & Thoughts
How you pack your ammo can clearly be just as important as how you pack your guns. I almost had to miss a flight (or ditch a lot of nice ammunition) because someone got a little uneasy over the "non-use of any original manufacturer's box" in how my rounds were stowed. So let that be a lesson to you... keep those extra, empty ammo boxes when you buy off-the-shelf. That way, if you ever have huge bags of Lake City or Brown Bear surplus loads (or just homebrew handloads) you can always place them into "proper looking" factory boxes to keep the TSA and the Airlines happy.

As for .22 LR, i can't say for certain that i have any particularly insightful suggestions there. Aside from opting for brands that package like this...

... as opposed to the bulk boxes that are packaged loose and ship like this...

... there's not much you can do other than to hopefully encounter TSA officials and airline representatives who understand how cheap ammunition gets packaged and sold in the real world.

As far as the issue of weight is concerned, it may be helpful to always weigh your ammo separately before you fly, just so that you can be doubly-sure it is under 11 lbs (or whatever arbitrary limit your chosen air carrier may use) and thus you can reassure anyone with questions when you're checking-in.

Air Travel Ratings
If you don't have the time or the desire to read the full text of someone's account of air travel, you can simply refer to the rating shown at the conclusion of each portion of that person's journey. The following criteria are used in assigning these ratings...


Four Stars
  

check-in - no hassle, no delay
screening - in full view, lock and unlock yourself
luggage - all on time and intact


Three Stars
  
check-in - some delay or mild hassle
screening - somewhat obscured, locking and unlocking yourself or it's done directly in front of you
luggage - all on time and intact

Two Stars
  
check-in - major delay or major hassle
screening - in a room or area that you could not enter and could barely observe
luggage - luggage opened non-destructively

One Star
  
check-in - flight missed or passenger delayed from flying, properly packed items denied as luggage
screening - luggage unlocked and opened totally in another area fully removed from you
luggage - destructive entry into luggage and/or tampering with firearms

Zero Stars
  
This is a special category for outright theft, loss, or damage of firearms during air travel
half-star results are possible... naturally, they involve partial or mitigated problems that somehow fall in-between the above categories