Account of Flying with Firearms

Deviant Ollam
A bounce around California takes me through both LAX and SFO without any real difficulties. Each airport still uses stupid procedures, however.
PHL --> ORD --> LAX



Luggage & Gear
This was something of an involved trip. Given that I was participating in security workshops in both L.A. and the Bay area, I had a wide assortment of gear with me. TOOOL public supplies for the impressioning workshop I where I was assisting Jos Weyers in Southern California, CORE Group kits and locks for the private event where I was presenting in Mountain View, not to mention my clothes and supplies for a full week away from home. This turned out to be a three-case pack job... with a larger Pelican 1620 and two smaller Pelican Storm cases (approximately 1500-sized). Since I would be in California for more than just a few days, I didn't have the luxury of bringing in my usual pistols and instead opted to pack flare guns and blank-firing training pistols in the cases. Naturally, everything was secured with Abloy Protec padlocks.


Travel to Los Angeles
While checking in at PHL airport, Naimir Miller from United assisted me. He wanted to see each individual gun, which was fine by me. Not all airline workers do this, but I don't mind opening all actions, clearing things, etc. We flipped through all the cases very quickly. At first, Naimir wanted to go through all the cases at the same time, but I explained we would do it each in turn, as the bag tags and declarations became available. There isn't enough room at the check-in area to spread out all three cases, open, at the same time. The United staff at check-in didn't fill out the orange tags in any way, they just asked me to sign them. Bizarrely, however, they wanted to fill out a separate orange tag for my knife for some reason. Whatever, i didn't really mind.

My bags were sent back for screening and I stepped aside to wait. Seven minutes later I was told that the TSA would need my key. I explained to the United rep that I only hand my keys to the TSA themselves, not to airline personnel. Naimir accepted this and sad they'd be right out. Barely a minute later, John Barfield of the TSA came out, all polite and smiling. He joked with me about the fact that screeners can't use the airline door just behind the counter and instead have to walk far around the check-in hall. He assured me that it would be just a few minutes for the case screening.

Ultimately, it took nearly 15 minutes for Mr. Barfield to come back to me with my key, and while that's a little longer than one would like it's not an inordinately insane delay. I had a LOT of oddball gear and tons of metal upon metal in those cases. In the time while I was waiting for the TSA's return, I was asked no less than three separate times by United employees as to whether I needed any help. It was nice customer service. When Mr. Barfield came back with the key he was all polite and said there was no problem.

My luggage arrive in LA on time and without incident. All goods were packed back proper, more or less, and care was shown in the handling of things.

Travel to San Francisco
The Los Angeles airport is massive, and United has two whole separate terminal areas for passenger check-in. Terminal 7 is the main United terminal, but terminal 6 is for special purposes, including Premiere check-in. However, as is always the case when I fly out of LAX, I was thwarted by the fact that the Premier counter in terminal 6 doesn't accept firearms. So, i had to walk outside (thankfully I had grabbed a baggage cart at the curb) and down to terminal 7. Also thankfully, there were no huge crowds there. I was shuffled around to various counters until ultimately D. Georges from United processed my check-in at counter #39. He and Marcus D Simon of the TSA were fastidiously serious about matching up all bag tags and declaration forms with luggage tracking numbers (showing far more attention to this than I've ever seen elsewhere) and then Marcus took my key. Screening took place just behind the check-in desk. Thirteen minutes passed before he returned my keys, asking if I was an MP in the Army, heh.

I arrived easily down at SFO with all three bags rather quickly.


Travel back home to Philadelphia
My flight out of San Francisco involved a variety of United staffers figuring out how to process my check-in. Jesse Ferrer (actually more of a baggage transporter) initially started my check-in, but was then assisted by Shelia Ann Morales and Marius G. who prepared the firearms declaration cards and called down to the TSA. As is the case in SFO with United (something that's been written about in other travel accounts) after check-in concludes, one's bags are transported down to the lower level (near the bag claim carousels) and taken to the TSA screening table in the Small Package Shipping Office.

Jesse wheeled my luggage through the terminal and to the elevators, and within minutes we were down there.

The TSA screener in that office remembered me from my various times coming through SFO in the past. She did not want to handle the firearms and asked if they were in smaller pistol cases within the Pelican cases. Sadly, here at this location there is no CTX machine and she had to do a manual screening of all bags. This involved taking everything out, pawing through it, and running chemical swab tests. At least it all happens in full view of the passenger. Seven minutes after we had entered the Package Office, we were done. With the cases re-locked, Jesse would take them to the baggage handlers elsewhere and I proceeded to passenger screening.

All three cases arrived in PHL on time and with no problems.


Final Details & Thoughts
This was a fine trip overall, but I can't help but shake my head at the minor weirdness with regard to how California's two major airports operate when it comes to flying with firearms. The SFO screening situation is strange enough, and it doesn't impact anyone that badly... but the fact that United gives utterly no way for Premiere passengers to check-in with firearms at LAX is unbelievably frustrating. They could at least allow conventional check-in and baggage tagging at the Premiere desk in terminal 6, then the passenger could walk down to counter 39 in terminal 7 (with a brief call-ahead establishing the fact that the customer will be there shortly and just needs to send bags back) which would allow long time travelers to still enjoy the benefits of priority check-in while not disrupting their existing firearms screening process.

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