Account of Flying with Firearms
Loads of flights to and from Montana... they treat firearms just fine in the Treasure State. Flying through Denver gets interesting, however.
Luggage & Gear
On all of my trips, my customary setup of Pelican case(s) with either PL330 or PL321 padlocks were used. My firearms were an assortment of shotguns and pistols... most often my Walther PPS or H&K USP Compact carry pieces. Sometimes, due to space or other logistics (like heavy coats) I would pull out the large canvas duffel bag which I keep in the bottom of my Pelican case and use that as a spare (albeit, unlocked) additional checked bag.
Sheldon in Philadelphia processed me at 6:20 in the bloody morning... my flight was around 7:30 AM. Christ. The luggage went back and I was told immediately that it cleared with no alarms. An easy time in Philadelphia.
Raj from United processed our check-in quickly and I headed to the TSA station for a scan of the cases right there in the airport hall. The CTX machine alerted on my laptop and screener Soplermott (spelling?) did a hand scan of the luggage on a small table right in front of me. The whole process took no more than a couple minutes. Easy peasy. Major delays in Denver caused us to sit for hours without any place for the kids to play or rest, however.
Renee from United was processing our check-in this time (again, around 6:30 in the morning) and she was her customary halfhearted self. The whole family's bags went back and after 10 minutes there was no word from the TSA as to what was happening. I repeatedly asked Renee to call back to them and she repeatedly deflected the question or refused outright. I found someone from the TSA who said there were no recent bag alarms. Ultimately, however, I had to ask Angela from the United Club to call both the TSA and our departure gate to ensure that no one had been paging us. No one had, and apparently all our luggage had cleared, laptops and all. Again, we were delayed in Denver with virtually no feedback from the airport as to what was happening. The fact that they eliminated their kids play zone a while back really stings.
Joanne Davis from United processed my check-in very quickly and efficiently along with Sheldon from Prime Flight, whom I've met many times before. By 06:50 we were heading around the check-in hall to the TSA screeners who were using the public-facing CTX machine. They were pretty backed up but screener Sue Ignozza processed my firearm in front of the other waiting bags. My laptop alerted, as usual, and they used my key to open the case and do a chemical swab test while I looked on. This all took 5 minutes, maybe. By 07:00 I was through passenger screening and headed to the lounge. I think that I actually managed to get through Denver without very much difficult on this hop.
Bruce Meyer from United handled my check-in at Montana's little airport. They do the CTX screening in public there, and TSO Stewart ran my things through the x-ray machine. It almost appeared as though the CTX unit alerted, but the screeners manually overrode that and I was told there was no need to open the case. One minute after presenting my Pelican case to them (and only five minutes after speaking with Bruce) I was on my way.
Things in Denver took quite the turn this time around, however.
Our plane arrived late from the Mile High City (due to the aircraft being delayed on its route to us in Montana) and thus we took off late and landed later than expected at DEN. With mere minutes to make my connection, I hustled to the next gate (which had changed a couple of times, apparently) and learned that I had missed the door closing by a minute or two. Some other folk were in the same boat, and we watched as the aircraft began to push back onto the taxiway.
I called the United Premiere desk and staffer David searched for more options for me to get home. With many flights already full on that carrier, it turned out my best option seemed to be an itinerary on American Airlines through Chicago, which ultimately would arrive in Philly around 01:30. I proceeded down to the gate for this American flight (in an entirely different terminal, so no lounge time for me) and waited for over 30 minutes as various AA staff members appeared then disappeared without helping or speaking to the passengers who had queued up there.
Eventually, Cheryl from American helped to print out my new boarding passes. When I asked about my luggage being transferred, she wasn't sure how to respond. "I'm sure it will eventually be routed to Philadelphia," she assured me. I explained that mere feelings of certainty weren't enough... given that there was a firearm in my locked case. This is when she became worried and I learned something new. Allegedly, when one's flight plans change dramatically (like bumping from one carrier to another) there is an FAA regulation that states a customer must re-claim and then re-check firearm-bearing luggage. (This seems bizarre and no one could cite this directly or quote it for me.) "United didn't tell you that when they were re-booking you?" she asked me. Why or how a United rep on the phone would have known to think about the possibility of a firearm in my luggage was not indicated.
Cheryl spent about 7 to 8 minutes on her phone, calling all sorts of extensions in an attempt to figure out (a) where my luggage actually was and (b) how to handle this situation. In the end, it appeared that my luggage was being routed on other eastbound United flights and thus wouldn't run afoul of any mysterious FAA rules. I was pleased at this, but then concerned about how this would affect their actual arrival in Philadelphia.
As folk may have seen from a previous post here, I had an incident of attempting bag theft unfold right in front of me at PHL bag claim once, with Lady Merlin and I almost having luggage taken away by a shady fellow until we intervened and called police (who then arrested him for stealing other people's luggage and also an iPhone) so I was leery of my gun case appearing on a baggage belt without me present. It turned out, the route the bags were taking home was more direct... they would be arriving HOURS before I was.
I again called the United Premiere desk and spoke with Melinda. She confirmed that my luggage was arriving a little after midnight but then stated that United baggage agents would be sure to keep an eye out for them, pick them up, and protect them. My luggage would be "in the baggage office" upon my arrival where "I could collect it after I finally land," she said. That sounded like a fair plan, so I went about the rest of my journey casually and listening to podcasts. The American Air equipment is modern enough and comfortable. Their coach class doesn't seem to be divided into "Economy" and "Economy Plus" like many of the aircraft in the Star Alliance and SkyTeam fleets, so it seems all seats were a nice distance apart. With Philly not being a major hub city for American, the late eastbound flights were roomy and I could spread out.
Then I ultimately arrived at PHL and I proceeded toward the luggage offices. I have never, ever experienced this airport so silent...
... since I fly United, I never arrive past about 12:30 or so, when their final flights touch down for the day. This was well after that...
... and this was the root of a new problem. No one was around. Remember, I had to claim my luggage "from the baggage office" in Philly. I presumed that someone from United would have realized their baggage office would be very closed by the time of my arrival, and that they would have naturally handed off my luggage to American Airlines, my arrival carrier.
I couldn't find anyone anywhere. I was without my winter coat (it was in a checked bag, since I didn't want to lug a huge overcoat through many airports) and, by now, I was outside of security. It's possible to pass from one terminal to the next in Philly if you're on the secure side of the airport. But, out in the check-in / arrival halls, there are no connecting corridors. So I hit the desolate pavement, in sub-zero conditions, in a button down shirt...
I suspected even before I made my way down to terminal D that no one would be around. I was right. The United office was totally closed. All offices everywhere were totally closed.
Yet another call to the United Premiere desk was placed. I reached Rich, a late-night operator who was a fine listener but not empowered to do anything. He transferred me to Linda. It was now 01:40 and I had no answers. She tried all the extensions she could on her Philly phone sheet and turned up nothing. Even the Operations office for United was closed at PHL at this hour. I joked that someone should just call up Steve Tanzella (the head of United in Philadelphia) and tell him to get down here with a master key to give me my bags. In the end, I was told that -- because I arrived on American -- technically I had to speak to them about a lost/missing bag claim.
So I walked all the way BACK across to the other end of the airport (again, freezing and outside) and finally found a late-night luggage office with two lone staff members. They quickly helped me file a report and they told me that most likely, my items were safely locked up down at United's zone in Terminal D. In the morning, someone would find them and assess the situation, then turn the over to American, who would turn them over to a delivery service, who would transport them to me. I washed my hands of it all, walked outside one last time to the bone-stabbing cold, and caught a cab.
I entered my house just after 03:00, so glad to be home, tossed my carry-on onto a chair, threw my clothes on a peg on the wall, and passed out.
NOTE - While everyone has their own standards of neatness, let me just say that I highly advocate the practice of "totally clean your home and put everything in its proper place before you leave on a long trip." It really pays off in the mental health department during times like this. My day went awry, my evening was a mess, and I didn't have most of my very important possessions... but my home was a sanctuary. No papers and other crap strewn about, no old trash in trashcans, no mess in my way as I arrived, just a small and orderly stack of mail greeted me. My home was the heaven I needed that night because I left it squared away before flying.
At 10:10 the next morning, I was awakened abruptly when United called me. They had my luggage (both pieces) and were wondering when I was going to claim them. I explained that a missing bag report had already been filed and that this was American Airline's issue. United was happy to pawn it off on them. I was happy to go back to sleep.
At 13:00, when I eventually awoke, I decided to make some breakfast and call American to check the status of my items. I went down to the basement and looked at what was available on the pantry shelves...
ANOTHER NOTE - this doesn't have anything to do with the luggage story, but it's a fun aside. I am in my mid-30s. My housemate is in his late-20s. We each have a shelf in the basement (stairs go down from the kitchen) for dry goods and other non-perishable food items. Can you tell which set of shelves is used by the 30-something fellow and which are used by the guy in his mid-20s? :-)
As I ate my food, I called the American Airlines baggage line. The automated system retrieved my information and informed me that my luggage would be picked up by a delivery company by one PM (basically, that should have already happened) and delivered to me by six PM.
At 15:23 I received call from "Same Day Delivery." The man on the other end stated that he had my luggage (both bags) and he was also kind enough to confirm that the padlocks were still in place on the Pelican case. He expected to be delivering them to me within the hour. Twenty minutes later, he called back and told me that he was out front. I was mildly surprised and amused to see that "Same Day Delivery" was not a service operated out of a box truck or large commercial van... but rather a Chrysler Town & Country.
The driver dutifully pulled my luggage from the back seat and brought it up to my porch, where I signed for everything.
And, just as he said, the locks were still there.
This is why I lock my luggage, people. This was a pretty crummy situation to be in (arriving somewhere without my luggage meeting me) but ultimately I was well-protected and confident that my items would be reaching me without much disturbance. The case was in the hands of various airlines, left unattended overnight, then given to a fly-by-night "delivery" service consisting of folk who operate out of what appear to be their personal vehicles. And all the while, the case was secure. No one was getting in there and I could see immediately that no one had tried.
I even chose to eat the rest of my lunch before taking the luggage upstairs and inspecting it.
As predicted, everything was just fine inside. My pistol was there. My laptop was accounted for. My little road kit for mixing proper cocktails was alright. Even the small plastic bear full of huckleberry honey that I purchased in Montana was in good shape and unmolested.
I put the Abloy padlocks back in my desk drawer... where they all sit with their brothers and sisters until the next time I have to travel. Rest assured, no matter how many folk are in my party or how many cases and guns we have with us while flying, this large array of locks (all purchased from my buddies at Security Snobs) can see us through.
Final Details & Thoughts
The photos and the story above really say it all. This is exactly why I advocate for people to choose to fly with firearms and to lock their luggage securely in the process... even if they aren't attending a shooting event or other range function. Having luggage properly locked and secured can ease a lot of anxiety if your bags are misrouted or otherwise delayed. It has worked well for a number of people in the past, and it worked well for me this time. Travel well and stay safe out there, everyone!
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...
hassle, no delay
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
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
flight missed or passenger delayed from flying, properly packed items denied
screening - luggage unlocked and opened totally in another area fully removed from you
luggage - destructive entry into luggage and/or tampering with firearms
|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