Account of Flying with Firearms

Deviant Ollam
A trip through Hawaii that doesn't involve any difficulty, wow!
IAD --> SFO --> HNL

HNL --> LAX --> ORD --> PHL

Luggage & Gear
This trip to ShakaCon came right on the heels of my being in Virginia for a family event. So after leaving my suit and dressy clothes with my family, they dropped me at Dulles and, loaded with my cases of locks and safe dials along with some clothes in a duffel, I checked-in my pistols which were secured by Abloy PL330 and PL321 locks.


Outbound Travel
Lisa L from United checked us in efficiently and quickly, assisted by Zeyeed from AirServ. Lourdes Torres from United came by to help a little bit when Lisa was unfamiliar with some of the firearm policies and procedures. A nearby United employee, Lynn, told us about her favorite places in Honolulu to see while we were there.

Something interesting happened when we were checking the firearms, by the way. Lisa and her other associate Lourdes looked at the details of our flights and entered more details into their computer. Then an additional slip of paper was printed out and given to me...

... I rarely see these, and so often I'm puzzled as to why some carriers make notes about firearm-bearing passengers while others do not. I don't particularity mind (as this gives me good standing to claim a loss if the airlines mishandle my bags) but these Special Services Forms are always a bit of a surprise. We turned to the TSA screening table which was right next to the priority counter.

Getting things handled with the TSA were a bit of a hassle, unfortunately.

At 12:02 we were sending our firearm-bearing luggage through the CTX 5500 DS scanner. Mr Oshea, The TSO who was charged with opening my cases (the reasons were not explained, but I presume it pertained to all the metal along with my laptop) fumbled around a lot with my pepper spray. He took out my flask of whiskey and swabbed it for chemical traces.

Then an STSO, Mr Parris, came over. "The pistol in the big green case, it has a magazine in it," he remarked. "Yes, it does," I replied. His look turned dour and severe. "Please tell me that there's no ammunition in that magazine!" he painfully asked. When I assured him that, naturally, there wasn't any -- because all firearms in luggage have to be unloaded -- he responded, "Even an empty magazine is still a magazine. That means the gun isn't really unloaded, it's unsafe, and we usually have to call the police."

I shrugged, failing to give him an alarmed response or even so much as a raised eyebrow which he was apparently expecting (or wishing to see).

I offered an explanation as to why this is not the case and why the FAA and TSA regs don't speak to anything about the placement of magazines... just that they contain no ammunition. I also went on to mention that my opinions were my own, and he surely holds his own opinions just as seriously, so he should go ahead and call whomever he wants and we'll sort it out. This comment was also surprising to him.

STSO Parris leaned in and said, "Well... we'll let it go this time."

I offered to go ahead and pull the magazine. He said that there was no way I could handle the luggage once it's in their care. This is incorrect.

I offered to have the TSA go ahead and remove the magazine and stow it elsewhere if it would make them more comfortable. He said that they couldn't touch it. This is slightly more correct, but I doubt express policy forbids it.

Whatever. I was done trying to unpack the oddities of this screener's logic. The unloaded firearm was still "loaded" in his view and thus so dangerous that he would normally call the police but he won't this time and plans to leave it alone despite my offering him various options to rectify the situation.

I have spoken to the TSA and gotten various half-answers, but mostly I am correct. The TSA follows FAA regulations pertaining to how firearms must be stored. Magazines may be used to contain and transport ammunition if they are not inside of a firearm. The regulations say nothing about empty magazines... in or out of firearms. Anything not expressly prohibited cannot be punished or a cause of hassle.

It also surprised me that STSO Parris gave me static about my pepper spray. "You know, United does not allow that," he asserted. I corrected him, saying that they expressly do as long as it's the correct size, correct concentration, and has a lock to prevent discharge. He continued to push back on this point, but then --again-- he demurred. His quote on this was even more shocking, "what United doesn't know won't hurt them, so we'll just pack it back in there for you." Really? REALLY? So TWICE now this person, a three-stripes-on-the-shoulder supervisor, was just going to decide on a whim to "waive" rules that he felt were unnecessary?

Don't get me wrong, I'd LOVE IT if the TSA actually empowered their staff to make rational decisions in the field. But I do not know if that's the case right now, and I do not think what STSO Parris did was proper. He could have spoken to United directly (as I did) and gotten the correct information...

...STSO Parris supervised the re-packing of the cases and continued to insist that the magazine issue was "supposed to be a nation-wide regulation" despite not having any logic to back up this statement.

At 12:20 I was told we were good to go, but the were still farting around with my locks and still had my key. (This whole screening was taking place more or less right in front of me.) Seven minutes later, things were finally re-packed correctly and we were on our way to Honolulu.

All luggage made the transfer in SFO and arrived on time and without incident.


Homebound Travel
Honolulu is always a strange airport when flying with firearms. The staff never seem to be expecting them and the TSA always have some catastrophic problem with actually paging and locating passengers. I hoped for the best as Jasmine Jacky from United checked us in for our flight home.

Three minutes after approaching the counter, our regular non-firearm bags were sent back. Three minutes after that, our firearm cases were back, as well. Jasmine asked if I had any ammo and I immediately spouted the policy verbatim, assuring her that anything I had was under 11 lbs and packed properly blah blah blah. She was pleased that we knew our stuff.

Eleven minutes after sending the bags back, I was paged to the counter. The TSA needed my key. Ah well, it was at least announced to me this time. My key went back behind the main wall to the screeing area. Four minutes later, my name was paged again for some reason, despite my key already being back with the TSA. Who knows what's up back there, but it surely isn't running very smoothly.

Fully thirteen minutes after my key went back, it was returned to me. We easily made our flight after good times relaxing in the HNL lounge. The layovers in LAX and ORD were fine and the lounges very nice. We even showered in Chicago, just for the fun of it.

All luggage arrived in Philly on time, but wildly separated as the bags came out on the belt. All luggage that had been screened was re-packed properly and things were not disturbed or broken.


Final Details & Thoughts
This experience in Hawaii went very well, especially compared to some other times we've flown out of the Aloha state. It was honestly our interaction with the TSA at IAD that took the cake on this trip! Remember, when bozo bureaucrats are wrong and in your face about nonsense, stay calm! YOU have all the power. Escalate if necessary, but remain polite and steadfast. Keep smiling. They will invariably back down, offering up no end of bullshit reasons why they are suddenly not making good on their previous assurances of a need to do things their way.


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