Account of Flying with Firearms

A negative experience flying out of Las Vegas after DEF CON that makes you think about baggage policies.

Salem takes privacy, security, and all assocaited rights and freedoms very seriously. This was the back-and-forth he had at McCarran airport when leaving Las Vegas this summer, in his own words.

Travel and Baggage Story
So, here's one for ya.

Flying out of LAS on Southwest. 81mm mortar case, loaded up with all my tech and such after con, with a single Beretta 9mm. I declare the firearm, airline agent sends me to the end of the row to await TSA to hand check the case. So far, all is as usual. Here's where it gets different. TSA doesnt come get me right away, guy behind the counter at the end of the row (not TSA attire) asks for the case so he can send it back to the TSA for screening. He puts the case on a different conveyor and I stand around waiting for them to come find me. Around 10 minutes pass and standard uniformed TSA agent comes out:

TSA - 'We need to check your bag, and it's locked'
Me - 'Okay cool, I've got the key, where do we go?'
TSA - 'Just give me the key so we can open it'
Me - 'Sorry, I can't give you the key. TSA regulations say that nobody else but me can have access to the key'

Agent requests the key from me several times, each time I refuse stating that I cant give anyone else the key as per TSA regulations. I even provided the specific website where that is said (thanks to your rules sheet). Agent leaves to find a supervisor, and eventually comes back to stand around. While standing around, Agent mentions to me that the specific alarm was for "media" and explained that if I had books and magazines and such it might cause the alarm. (this is the vital part...)

Supervisor comes out:

Supe - 'You'r bag alarmed, and we need to search it'
Me - 'Not a problem, take me to it and I'll unlock it.'
Supe - 'We cant take you to the bag, just give me the key'
Me - 'Sorry, but I can't give you the key' latherrinserepeat the last conversation.
Supe - leave to find management. While waiting for manager, plane leaves without me.

Manager - 'So there's an alarm, and we have to search your bag'
Me - 'As I said, your regulations say I cant give you the key, here's the wording' more of the same conversation. 'Just take me over to secondary and I'll get teh lock off for you, no problem'
Manager - 'We have no secondary screening area that the public can go to'
Me - 'Really? every other airport I've ever done this in has a secondary area where the TSA hand checks bags. Take my case and me to that place, and I'll open it for you'
Manager - 'we dont have anything like that and cant do it. Since your bag set off an alarm, we cant move it without checking it.'

Manager eventually calls Metro (scare tactic?), Metro asks what the situation is and I explain. Metro informs me that the call they got included the words "refused to allow the bag to be searched".

There's about an hour or more of conversation between myself, metro and the TSA manager. TSA refused to take my bag anywhere I could be to open the case. TSA refused to give me back my case so that I could leave. TSA refused to contact anyone else with more authority than the manager I was speaking with. TSA stated that if I didn't surrender the key they were going to cut the lock off, search the case, and then refuse to let me fly with the case because it wouldn't be locked and secure.

To ensure that nothing was stolen, Metro agreed to escort TSA to my bag and watch the inspection. I ended up surrendering the key. Approximately two minutes later the TSA manager and Metro came back and said everything was fine and the books/magazines were the problem.

The alarm was set off not by the electronics, the firearm, the knives, the batteries or the cables... no, the alarm was set off because I had a couple Defcon programs in my case.

Lessons learned:

Metro was actually really cool about the whole thing.
TSA still doesn't know their own regulations.
Need to find better phrasing/verbiage regarding not surrendering the key. This part here was teh one thing that the TSA kept fighting. Just like 'lesson learned #6' from Diablo on your site, the wording isnt strong enough.


My Take On All This
More and more, airports are now pressing the line of "If the TSA asks for your key, you must give it to them." and their own web site now has language to that effect. Personnally, I think the happy medium is allowing luggage to be unlocked out of your sight as long as you know the full name of any TSA screener to whom you hand your key. If they are taking the key, they are taking responsibility. Check your luggage out as soon as you land and if there's a problem, report it immediately.

99% of the time, this is enough. And it will result in far fewer hassles like the one above. Salem was in the right from a strict reading of the law and policies, but the result was needless trouble for him. I would have yielded once the STSO appeared, I think.


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