Packing & the Friendly Skies
Why Transporting Firearms May Be The Best Way To Safeguard Your Tech When You Fly

Deviant Ollam

video - This is a recording of the earliest presentation of this material, at CarolinaCon in March of 2009. Edited to include high-res versions of my slides, it's both easy to follow and enjoyable to watch.

legal help sheet - The document seen a number of times in the above video and referenced during the presentation and text below, i created this two-sided sheet for people traveling with guns to keep at the ready, in case they need to educate airport staff or TSA employees who are unaware of how the laws and policies are worded.

airline report cards - A brief synopsis of the firearms policies every major commercial air carrier in the United States along with a simple letter grade that they merit. Avoid unforseen headaches and vote with your wallet to encourage change in the marketplace.

air traveler accounts - Reporting from the front lines... members of the public who fly with firearms recount the details of their trips here.

omg my locks were cut! - A guide for those passengers who experience the worst possible outcome

- TL:DR -

Many of us travel in ways which involve the transportation of computers, photography equipment, or other expensive tech in our bags. This almost always means being separated from our luggage for extended periods of time and entrusting its care to a litany of individuals with questionable ethics and training.

After a particularly horrible episode of baggage pilferage and tool theft, I made the decision to never again fly with an unlocked bag. However, all "TSA compliant" locks tend to be rather awful and provide little to no real security. It was for this reason that I now choose to fly with firearms at all times. Federal law allows me (in fact, it REQUIRES me) to lock my luggage with proper padlocks.

Here, I've tried to summarize the relevant laws and policies concerning travel with firearms. It's easier than you think, often adds little to no extra time to your schedule, and is in my opinion the best way to prevent tampering and theft of bags during air travel as well as having the virtue of being an exercise in celebrating our freedom to travel as well as to bear arms in the United States.


- Safe Travel -

When many of us fly, either for business or pleasure, our bags tend to contain technology items of significant value. It is reported that airlines mishandle some one percent of the two billion or so bags that they carry every year. Now, over ninety-five percent of these are eventually returned to their rightful owners, often within twenty-four hours… but any degree of separation from ones possessions is a risk. Theft, damage, or potential misrouting and subsequent shipping through varied carriers are all risks that can be alleviated with adequate bag security.


- Luggage Incidents -

This author has dealt directly with luggage mishandling in the past. One incident happened on a domestic flight from Philadelphia to Seattle and involved luggage being opened in transit, the theft of many tools and lock picks, and significant paperwork hassling with the carrier for compensation. After that incident, I vowed to never again fly with anything short of ironclad security for my luggage.


- Heavy Locks -

Nowadays, I travel to conferences and jobs with my equipment packed exclusively in metal cases that are secured with heavy-duty padlocks that are resistant to cutting, prying, and picking. Many people express surprise when they learn that such locks are legal for air travel. There is no secret trick, really… all one has to do is fly with firearms.

Yes, traveling with firearms in checked baggage is not only easy and relatively hassle-free, but it also results in very strong security due to the wording of federal laws.


- Federal Law -

If you are traveling by air with firearms, federal law allows (in fact, it compels) you to secure your luggage with a non-TSA approved lock. Naturally, they must be unloaded (although transportation of ammo is also possible, if one follows airline policies), packed in a hard-sided case, and declared. Once the check-in process has been completed and the bag has been locked and screened by the TSA, no one is allowed to unlock the bag for the rest of its journey.


- Procedure -

Traveling with firearms is not all that different from traveling with conventional luggage. You must still present yourself at the airline's check-in counter and offer your luggage forth for weighing and tagging. (There do not tend to be any special overweight/oversize allowances for gun-bearing cases. Plan to comply with all the airline's policies for checked baggage.) Declare to the check-in agent that you are traveling with guns and you should be presented with a form to be filled out (stating you are the owner of the luggage and that any firearms within are unloaded) which will be placed inside of the locked case.

After that, the luggage gets screened by the TSA like everyone else's bags. Whether this takes place at an "oversize" or "special" checking station right there in the terminal or in a back room elsewhere, the TSA will subject your case to either in-line CTX scanning, chemical residue swab testing, or a manual hand scan. If they need to open your case, hopefully you'll be right there with them (or at most standing just outside their screening room) and then you'll be informed of when the process is complete.

After leaving the secondary area, you are then free to proceed through passenger screening, to your gate, and board the plane, secure in the knowledge that no one else (neither airport employees or even additional TSA agents) can re-open the luggage at any other time on its journey to your travel destination.


- Extra Pointers -

Here are a few extra bits of information that can help the whole process go more smoothly…

Don't Be A Dumbass...
When declaring at the front check-in area that you have firearms, choose your words with some degree of sense and caution. While you may be fully complying with all relevant federal laws in the process, using a sentence like, "Hey, I've got a gun!" anywhere in an airport is never sensible. Simply breaching the subject by asking, "By the way, I'll need some declaration forms since I'm traveling with firearms today," is a better tactic.

Name Tags on Everything...
Lost or mishandled luggage is returned to its owner over ninety-five percent of the time due to the fact that airlines can almost always determine the rightful owner, either by reading their own airport tags or discovering the owner's identification on or in the bag in question. Placing your own information outside and inside the bag dramatically reduces the chance of catastrophe.

Get Confirmation of Cleared Luggage...
This is increasingly a problem. At some airports, you do not accompany your luggage to TSA screening. It goes on a belt to "the back room" and is inspected out of your view. Normally, this will result only in a pass through a CTX machine and a green light and it's on the way. On occasion, something alerts and someone has to open it. The thing is... you do not know which has happened many times. Often, airline staff at the check-in counter will say "just wait here about 10 minutes and if we don't call you, you're good." No. This is never the right way to proceed. Passengers should always insist that they cannot leave for their gate without confirmation that the luggage has cleared TSA. Make them call down to the screening area. If the check-in staff claims they cannot or do not have a number, then make them contact their supervisor or airport Ops and have them reach the TSA. And always, always, always... get names.

Insurance Can Vary...
Flying with firearms often generates a livelier response from airport employees if you make a lost luggage claim. In the event of such a problem, however, please note that sometimes airline insurance coverage will be different or difficult in some unanticipated way. If you are flying with a very expensive match-grade piece or flying with super-expensive tech in your case it will likely be safer than a regular bag, but airline liability may not be fully what you expected. Consult their airline ahead of time and consider additional traveler's insurance if you deem it prudent.

Keep Everything Locked...
During every step of the check-in process, keep your luggage in a "locked" state as much as possible. When opening bags temporarily, return them to a secured state immediately afterwards. You don't need to have a bag handler toss your unlocked cases onto a conveyor belt when your back is turned or as you are busying yourself tucking boarding passes into your pockets. It's a disheartening feeling to be kept standing by a nameless door in a corner as you await the return of your bags from the bowels of the facility where they vanished on a conveyor belt during a moment of distraction.

Getting to the Secondary Area...
The secondary area to which checked luggage must sometimes be taken can be some distance from the check-in counter. If your bags are heavy or numerous, do not surrender any cart or skycap that you may have used when transporting the luggage earlier.


- Stand Your Ground on Regulations -

Do not allow anyone to force you to comply with policies that are not in accordance with federal law as described above. Neither airline staffers nor TSA agents can prevent you from flying with your guns (and even some ammo) if it's packed properly.

If anyone attempts to impinge upon your rights, stand your ground. Escalate the matter to a supervisor if necessary. It is often helpful to carry a copy of the relevant laws and regulations with you, although this author has never personally had to present such paperwork to anyone directly. I have prepared a two-page document that some folk opt to print and laminate for such a purpose.

Remember, no identifying labels of any kind are permitted on the outside of firearms-bearing luggage in the United States. International travel is another matter (and some such carriers do utilize these tags) but within the USA, no tags or stickers regarding firearms can be affixed to your luggage. (Being familiar with traditional TSA cleared stickers as well as other general tags like those used on overweight bags will help reduce your concerns if you see airport staff marking your luggage in some fashion.) NOTE - Some air carriers have special luggage codes that are entered into the system and will result in very small print remarks on your luggage tag. Delta, for example, has a general "Care And Give Protection To" code, used for firearms and other special luggage. Such bag tags will usually have a very small print "CAGPT" string somewhere on them. This is generally regarded as all right, since a firearm-bearing case will have other subtle distinguishing characteristics (like visible locks, typically) that someone will notice if they're looking carefully. What the rule is designed to prevent is attaching large and conspicuous signs or tags.


- International Travel -

It is certainly possible to travel to international destinations with "firearms" in your luggage, provided the guns in question are legal where you are going. There is much flexibility concerning what counts as a firearm during this process (see below) and consequently it is quite possible to travel to a number of other nations (including parts of Europe and Asia that aren't very firearm-friendly) using this technique.

Typically, the chief difficulties with international travel come not from dealings with customs agents and those on border control detail (who despite often being surly tend to be exceptionally informed and familiar with regulations and policies) but from airport staff who do not encounter firearms-laden passengers under most circumstances. Expect more quizzical looks and misunderstandings of policy and the law at the Lufthansa counter than you'd get when checking in for a Delta flight to Montana.

Again, politely stand your ground and cite the law.


- Ammunition -

Your rights to transport firearms anywhere in the United States extend beyond the mere steel and also cover the transport of ammunition. Here is where things get a bit more interesting sometimes, however. Other than the federal policy of no more than eleven pounds of ammo per traveler, many airlines make up their own rules (which are often highly irregular and sometimes very frustrating) so it's important to check how various airlines differ and see which one will suit you best.

Invariably, passengers run aground in the uncertain shallow waters of "how ammunition should be packed" regulations. The spirit of the law is geared towards two things: preventing loose rounds from rolling around loose in someone's bag and preventing crushing or other forceful disturbance to any explosive compounds. This is usually interpreted by airlines as requiring that ammo be packed "within" some sort of "container" but details vary on this point. Some airlines want the container to be "wood, metal, or plastic" while other carriers specifically deny one or more of those materials. Sometimes rules specify that only the "original manufacturer's box" is allowed (no generic plastic bullet bins from gun shows which are popular with home reloaders) and other times you'll see officials insisting on "separation of the ammunition" which is occasionally interpreted as meaning that no two cartridges may touch.

Naturally, that last point is of particular concern to folk who want to transport .22 LR or who purchase surplus ammo in bulk containers. Feel free to read this passenger account for more details on how this impacted me. Other passengers, too, have encountered maddening bureaucratic hassles... with at least one woman telling me how she and her husband were required to use an entire package of tissues, wrapping them around individual bullets before being allowed to check their luggage. Those of us who like to plink with .22 caliber rounds can always try to obtain this simple ammo in "orderly" cases...

... but when it comes to personal reloads or bulk bags of surplus bullets, i strongly recommend having some "factory" looking boxes and using them for travel. After all, i don't think anyone from the TSA or from the airlines will ever pull out individual rounds and inspect the headstamp. Stuffing a few hundred rounds of Lake City ammo into old, used boxes from Winchester or Federal, etc. is an easy way to smooth your luggage screening when it runs through the CTX machine.


- How Many Firearms -

While the Federal policies don't have anything specific to say on the topic of how many firearms a person may have in their checked luggage, certain airlines like to make up their own arbitrary rules here. So keep that in mind if you, like my friends and I, like to pack for all occasions...


- Not Just Lethal Firearms -

One needn't travel with a fully-functional and lethal firearm in order to avail themselves of the protections afforded by federal luggage regulations. The letter of the law states that objects which expel a projectile by means of combusting a propellant (thus, lethal guns, flare guns, and some blank-firing guns) are mandated for secure travel. Many TSA staffers seem to be confused about this policy, but I have obtained definitive confirmation from the TSA's main office that flare guns and blank-firing guns should be treated like lethal firearms... declared and locked.

At various times I have declared all of the following items as firearms and involved locking a hard-sided case with a proper padlock… handguns, rifles, shotguns, flare guns, starter pistols, theatrical blank-firing replicas, and bare receivers. Essentially, however, the policies are in place in order to prevent screeners from becoming alarmed at an image on their x-ray machine while a bag is in the bowels of the airport, away from the relevant passenger who can open and/or explain its contents. They like to know ahead of time about anything that looks significantly like a gun.


- Skipping Ahead -

There will be times that this process adds a few more minutes to your travel plans. Allowing for the potential of the secondary security screening of your checked bags at the airport (and any time necessary to secure a staff member who can perform this task… which sometimes can be hard to do at very late hours or small airports where the TSA presence is limited) is a valid point.

However, you have an equally good chance of getting to skip ahead of some lines during check-in, as well, if you are flying with firearms.

My advice on this point is to grab a skycap at the curb. Instead of paying three dollars for a self-operated luggage cart, have a five dollar bill ready as a tip. Inform the individual with a hand truck that you can't do curbside check-in since you are traveling with firearms. Inquire (as if you are not certain) where you must go. Many times the skycaps will know the desk staffers and will escort you along a side wall past the lines of waiting travelers to a separate desk where they will ask an associate to handle matters. Often they will wait right there, possibly because they wish to assist you on your trip to any secondary area but also because they possibly wish to see what sort of steel you're packing!

NOTE - This tactic seems to work a lot less frequently than it used to. Nowadays, due to heightened security concerns, many skycaps will tend to just direct you to the inside counters and not wish to handle your gun cases at all. Still, I guess it never hurts to try?