Account of Flying with Firearms

Deviant Ollam
An error by a United staff member leads to PHL Airport Police stopping by, then an errror by the TSA in HNL leads to destruction of Abloy padlocks!
PHL --> IAD --> HNL

HNL --> SFO --> PHL

Luggage & Gear
For this flight to ShakaCon we were heavily loaded down with gear. I had two large Pelican cases and a smaller Pelican Storm case, all bearing an assortment of pistols and locked with Abloy PL321s. In the end, as you will see, I should have used at least one PL330 padlock on the cases.


Outbound Travel
The check-in for our flights was rather hectic. The United counter was exceedingly busy, even in the Premiere lane, and some staff members were actually walking down the lines of people, applying baggage tags as they went. I informed these folk (who were probably merely airport sub-contractors) that we were flying with firearms, but they didn't hear me or didn't know how to react. The luggage was sent to the special TSA screening area right there in the lobby -- which is typically used for firearms -- however, no one ever seemed to get the word and pass this detail to the screeners.


Gary Dombecki of the TSA wanted to open the cases when the CTX machine revealed the pistols. When no small orange cards were found, the TSA spoke to Chris from United Airlines. He stated, inaccurately, that "the passenger never declared any" and this sent things in a unique direction. Per policy, the TSA had to contact the Airport Unit of the Philadelphia Police.

J. Pagano of United did some hasty firearms declaration paperwork and one of my cases had the orange card inserted while it was sitting on the TSA screening table. Also standing by was a three-stripe TSA screener, Terrence Johnson, who spoke to officers Kramer and Smith when they arrived. The officers were completely professional and excellent in handling matters, immediately understanding the situation. All parties were satisfied with the hurrily-prepared declaration card, eventhough only one of the three cases had been properly documented and declared.

The luggage all arrived in Honolulu without any trouble. Our flight to IAD was brief and orderly and the long haul from there to Hawaii went like a dream, given the use of some upgrade certificates.


Homebound Travel
Coming home from ShakaCon wound up being a serious ordeal, although we wouldn't know this until the end of our flights.

I should have known there would be a possible problem when, upon attempting to check in, the United staffer Leanne Goin seemed confused regarding firearm rules (claiming that ammunition was not allowed in the same case as firearms). Ultimately, she backed down when I was able to quote the FAA & TSA regs from memory, but this didn't seem to clear up the matter completely. I had to make repeated assurances to her that I knew what I was doing, that the bags were indeed hard-sided, etc.

There were mix-ups regarding whose bags were whose (lord knows how, given that Lady Merlin and I have clearly distinct luggage and we were clear, repeatedly, when telling Leanne which luggage was which) but in the end, orange declaration cards wound up in the correct cases. Leanne requested all of the firearms be displayed and shown as clear, although no one wanted to inspect or weigh the ammo.

The luggage was all checked-in fully and we were told to standby and wait for word from the TSA. After 14 minutes, Leanne was on the phone with them (whether she made the call or received a call was unclear... and indeed now I am not sure at all with whom she was speaking) and told us specifically, "you're good to go!" and off we went. Our flights back home were a little bit delayed and our connection through San Francisco was rather tight... but all worked out just fine and we made it back to Philadelphia well-rested and on-time.

Then things soured...

Down at the United bag claim, we encountered an older man who was awaiting the arrival of his daughter. He expressed this to anyone near him, in a sort of semi-chatty way that many older folk have. His mannerism became more peculiar, however, once the luggage started to cycle along the baggage carousel. It appeared that he was picking up and inspecting many articles -- all of them very distinct -- and he seemed confused and out of sorts. I began claiming luggage from the belt... bags belonging to Lady Merlin and to me. But I kept my eye on the strange man.

I'm glad I did, because it wasn't a few minutes into the process before I noticed some of my Pelican cases were off the bag belt and in the odd man's possession. I called out across the arrival hall, politely but firmly, saying, "Excuse me, those aren't your bags, sir!" Imagine my surprise when he didn't immediately recognize and own up to his mistake, but instead he kept insisting that these were his daughter's items.

I walked all the way around to the other side of the hall and sternly explained that the bags had my names and, what's more, my locks. At least, they should have. One of the cases no longer bore Abloy padlocks... but instead there were two small TSA-compliant locks. Well, shit.

I left much of the luggage with Lady Merlin while I went off to discuss the luggage situation with authorities. My first stop was the United baggage office. A woman there who said her name was "Martin" (whether that was just an odd first name or her last name was not made clear) almost audibly sighed while rolling her eyes at me when I expressed a need to speak to someone from the TSA.

"Before I get into that," I first stated, "I must however tell you about a person out here in the luggage claim area. I don't want to ruin anyone's day or get anyone in trouble, but there's a man out here who is behaving rather strangely. He is picking up a lot of other people's luggage -- including my own -- and he generally seems out of sorts. I don't know what his story is, but it just seems rather suspicions to me." Ms. Martin showed no initiative with regard to addressing that matter.

She also informed me that "no one from the TSA will speak about cut locks" and that I should just "call their phone number." I noted that my luggage was now completely locked in a way that (ostensibly, if someone didn't know I pick locks for a living, hah) I would not be able to open! I proceeded to walk all the way up, over, and around to the ticketing and check-in area of Terminal D in order to find someone from the TSA who could use their master keys in order to open my case. As I walked, I was texting back and forth with Lady Merlin who informed me that the odd fellow claimed some other luggage from the belt and was walking away. No "daughter" was in sight.

Upon arrival at the United check-in counter, another staff member (Katherine? Kristin? A pretty girl with red hair) greeted me immediately and was helpful and attentive. I explained that I actually was there to speak with an LTSO or STSO, but before that happens I felt the need to tell her about something strange down at the bag claim area. She instantly grasped the severity of the situation and understood that there was something very fishy afoot. Sensing (as we now did, too) that this might be an incident of luggage theft, this United employee called the Airport Police.

I told Lady Merlin via text to be prepared to speak with the police upon their arrival down at Bag Claim D. In the meantime, I needed my case opened up. Someone from the TSA eventually came out and spoke with me. Initially, they didn't understand what I attempted to explain: that screeners in some other airport, either HNL or SFO, must have cut my locks off and then -- unable to send firearm-bearing luggage through the system unlocked -- they had applied some old, junker TSA-compliant locks to my case.

Once he understood, the TSA screener stated that he would have been happy to open the case for me... but there was a problem. As some point either that morning or possibly the previous day, he said, someone had inadvertently lost the master keyring. He posited that they must have been put inside of someone's luggage during a screening process. Awesome.

"Well, you've got bolt cutters back there, don't you?" I asked. He stated that, yes, they did. "Well let's saddle up that horse and ride, then," I declared. The TSA complied, proceeding to cut off the locks that their own co-workers had applied, after having cut off the proper locks from my case...

Once the locks were cut and I got the case opened, I was able to determine where things had gone awry. It was the airport in Honolulu, where United's Leanne Goin had assured me that the TSA cleared all of the cases... my locks had been cut there. How do I know this? From the declaration card which was inserted...

... it had to be HNL airport screeners -- and not anyone at SFO -- who opened the bag improperly because of the kind of paperwork I found within. San Francisco has outsourced all of their security operations to a private contractor: Covenant Aviation Security Services. Their screeners use entirely separate and distinct baggage inspection notices. They also have RapidPrint stamp machines at every screening station. Anytime luggage is opened, the inspection notice gets a stamp showing date, time, and station ID before it is inserted and the luggage closed again.

Now THAT'S the right way to run an airport screening operation!

The notice in my Pelican case -- shown amid clothes, towels, my pistol, and some of Lady Merlin's sundries -- had no stamps or even hand-written numbers. There it sat, right next to the cut and destroyed Abloy PL321 locks. Staff in Honolulu were to blame. Either the United staff did not properly talk with the TSA or the TSA screeners were too lazy to be bothered with contacting me. And we're talking almost criminally lazy... because as you can see in some of the above photos, my Pelican cases all bear my name, phone number, and email address right on the ID plate directly in between the latches and the locks. (See the red text, visible in some of the previous images.)

I returned to the Baggage Claim area and Lady Merlin and I interacted further with uniforms and plainclothes from the Airport Unit. Officer Bowe took down all the details and told us that we may hear from Detectives in the near future...

... imagine my pleasant surprise when I spoke the next day to Detective Wojo who asked if I would be free to come by their offices. I asked if this would be for the purposes of a photo array or just to take more statements. With a chuckle, he told me it was the former. What good fortune, then, that I was flying back out of PHL the very next day... we set a time and I me with him on my way back to San Francisco for band practice the next day.

Ultimately, I was able to easily identify the perpetrator's mug shot from a set of 8 photos. We discussed what items of mine were nearly stolen, including the firearms, and we talked about the luggage which Lady Merlin did actually see the man take. Two rolling bags -- one black, one dark green -- were missing at the end of the baggage delivery process that day. I recalled seeing two families who had been speaking with the unhelpful Ms. Martin, when they were missing bags. I asked if anyone from the Airport Unit had spoken with those passengers (Ms. Martin had made herself scarce when Officer Bowe came looking for her that previous morning!) and Detective Wojo indicated the far corner of his office, over my shoulder. Imagine my surprise when I saw a dark green rolling suitcase there!

Ultimately, the officers of the Philadelphia Police Airport Unit found the luggage thief that very same day. Not only did they recover the two pieces of luggage, but he was even in possession of an iPhone which an airport employee had left plugged in against the wall. Serious balls on that guy, I must say... and we were thanked by the police for our help in identifying him.

None of that can replace my destroyed locks, however...

... so there they sit, along with the two TSA-compliant locks which were applied in Honolulu.


Final Details & Thoughts
I am very pleased that none of my belongings were stolen -- and that we were actually able to prevent other passengers' loss, as well -- but the way things went on this trip home is utterly shameful. I would LOVE to see legislation and policy requiring that ANY TIME a bag screening takes place, the TSA would be obligated to insert a paper notification slip and that slip should be marked with the date, time, and station ID of the inspection.

Anytime TSA encounters luggage with a proper lock applied, it should be policy that they contact the airline to determine if it contains firearms and/or contact the passenger if a phone number is on the luggage somewhere visible.

Anything short of this is, in my view, nothing short of either silly or lazy. It would prevent a great deal of property damage and would allow for instant identification of what screeners were involved in any inspection of a passenger's belongings.


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