Account of Flying with Firearms

Deviant Ollam
When booking your flights, always beware of code-shares!
PHL --> IAD --> MCO

MCO --> FLL --> DEN --> MSO

MSO --> DEN --> PHL

Luggage & Gear
This was the a most unique trip, to say the least. A mix of a whole variety of training, speaking, and visiting family in Montana for a long stretch (where I was also speaking and presenting). That meant a total of four pieces of checked luggage. Between training kits, student gear, my laptop bag, and not to mention all my clothes, this was a big one. Tossed a variety of range bags into my cases, with what I thought was a mix of my M9, my 1911, and an H&K USP. Abloy Protec PL330s and PL321s went on everything.

You'll later learn that my packing was not quite as intended.


First Leg
Getting down to SANS Orlando in Florida was a simple shot. There was no line at United's Premiere counter, and both Joe F. and Leslie McCalister helped out as Christopher from Prime Flight did his whole red shirt bag shuffle. They weren't using the front screening area, so everything went back behind the wall. Seven minutes later, a short blonde TSA screener came out, asking for just one key... the key for my large green case. When I offered it, saying, "This should be the key," she shot back, "Are you sure? Because I have to go through six doors."

I said that should surely be the key and if it's not, I'll be right here and I'll be the very first person she can tell about it. I was left standing there, puzzled at how opening and closing of doors is some kind of insurmountable challenge for a TSA screener. Six minutes later, Christopher came out with the luggage cart that I had used. He confirmed what I already knew to be true... there are only three doors to the secure area. Maybe the TSO was counting in both directions? Heh.

Two minutes after that (so eight minutes since I had seen my bags) the key was given back to me with a smile by a TSA staffer. I was on my way and there was zero line at the checkpoint.

Everything arrived just fine in Florida. Since I was at the Swan hotel (which isn't officially a Disney property) there was no Magic Express bus for me... just a plain old taxi. This town needs more Uber, that's for sure.


Second Leg
The SANS event went very well, but even after depositing a lot of equipment into students' hands, I still had four bags. Oh well, flying United I get three free checked items, so paying for the last one wouldn't kill me. Imagine my displeasure when, upon arriving in the airport, I was met with this message on the check-in kiosk...

"That isn't going to be good," I told myself. Sure enough, I had to head to the counters of Silver Airways, a fly-by-night bullshit regional carrier with no proper affiliation to United or the Star Alliance network. Also with no customers, it seems, given that this was how their spot in the airport looked at 13:30 in the afternoon...

Jessica from Silver attempted to check me in at the utterly vacant counter, but there were so many problems that it took me a full half hour to process things. The firearms weren't a huge issue. Assisted by Kikia from Silver (or from a third party contractor, I do not recall) we were able to get things declared, tagged, etc. The problem was that, without any connection to my main carrier, Silver was attempting to charge me over $300 for payment of all of my bags. And they have no affiliation with TSA Pre-Check. And their flights were all late. It was a shit show.

Eventually, me and my multiple pieces of luggage were ready for the TSA.

Screening at Orlando is typically easy. Things happen right in front of the passenger and if you need to open anything, they'll do it all right there as you look on. Nothing alarmed, so I was on my way.

Silver's colossal problems meant delays upon delays, finally landing me in Denver long after the last flight to Montana had departed. I spent the night at Banasidhe's place (thank god for 303 family) in nothing but my light Florida apparel because, as Jenny in the baggage office told me, we had arrived so late that operations had shut down the luggage movement. All items would be automatically re-checked on my next flight the following morning.

Thankfully, of course, all my bags were locked well so I had no worries about security, even on an overnight in the airport for them. Also thankfully, my carry-on has a thermal shirt, plus a change of underwear and undershirt and socks, among much else... I don't get stranded in other cities often, but this was one of those rare times when having the carryon that I do pays major dividends.

Things arrived just fine with me in Montana the following day. All locks were still on, and all firearms were (ostensibly) still accounted for.


Third Leg
Well here comes the kicker. After an amazing series of weeks in Montana with my family there, it was time to head back to Philadelphia to prep for my next work event. At MSO I was (thankfully) only checking three items this time. The United process went smoothly enough, but I was surprised when the airline staffer asked to physically see each firearm in my cases.

Imagine my surprise when it came time to open up the range bag that ostensibly contained my H&K USP, only to discover... nothing.

That's right, a totally empty gun case. Well, it not totally. It contained my holster, cleaning equipment, plenty of ammo (making it heavy), but no pistol. My mind raced a bit. Did I leave it at the house in Montana? No, certainly not. I hadn't even used it in Montana. I thought back further... could it somehow have been stolen during the awful flights? No, not possible. The bags were all locked and never even had to be opened in Orlando airport. If not the airport, then what... could it (I was fearful now) could it somehow have been stolen from my hotel room at the Swan? This was a long shot, but the only other possible explanation was that it was never there in the first place.

Figuring that I wasn't going to sort this out by standing around like a dope in the Missoula airport, I simply switched my Abloy locks to TSA locks on the large green case (which by now had only some clothes and a few less expensive odds and ends in it, so I didn't mind leaving it unlocked) and went to the TSA. The folk there know me well enough by now that they even joked, "What, no firearms in this one? That's surprising!" when the green case came through.

When I arrived in Philadelphia, I claimed all the luggage and Uber'd right to my place. I came inside, happy to see my roommate Chris for the first time in about a month or more. As he caught me up on things that have happened while I was away, I opened one of the gun safes... and there was the H&K. Not stolen, just forgotten. It was in a different range bag. I simply had grabbed an empty range bag and no one in PHL or MCO airport had noticed, even on the CTX machines.


Final Details & Thoughts
While I'm relieved that my firearm wasn't stolen by a character-head-wearing Disney actor or anything, this whole experience was pretty surprising. The fact that I was apparently able to "declare" a nonexistent firearm in multiple airports and no one batted an eye gave me something to think about. I wouldn't advocate doing this intentionally just to lock up one's luggage (as we've seen, some airports do want to physically see the gun during check-in) but it's really surprising to me that none of the TSA folk noticed a "gun case" with nothing in it, or if they did... they didn't think to tell anyone or confront the passenger.

Ah well, I won't make that mistake again!


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