Last week Sedagive? and I flew to another state to visit my dad. It was too far to drive, and that meant checking my handgun on our flight. I haven’t flown with a firearm since before 9/11, and I had read all sorts of horror stories about inconsistent policies, hostile and/or ignorant airline staff and TSA agents. I did some research on best practices, bought a few things, and hoped for the best.
It turns out that I had an easy, seamless, positive experience and it was a very pleasant surprise.
I followed the best practices from some firearms instructors that belong to an agency I train with. I also made sure I understood the specific policies of my airline carrier. In my case, it was Frontier Airlines. Here’s what I did.
Warning: this procedure is current as of October 1, 2012. Regulations are subject to change, and your airline may have different policies. It’s your responsibility to know the regulations of both the TSA and your airline.
- Accept that some of the rules you need to follow won’t make sense. For example, Frontier allows you to fly with loaded magazines, as long as they are “secure” (e.g., locked in a case, more on that in a sec), and as long as the exposed round is completely covered. The firearms and ammunition policy on Frontier’s Web site suggests using duct tape, which I did. On my return trip I didn’t have any duct tape, so I used plastic wrap instead. It’s a weird restriction, but don’t ignore stuff like this and get hung up at the airport.
- Put your handgun in a hard case that can be locked at multiple points and cannot be pried open easily on the corners. I used the Pelican 1170 hard case. Its biggest advantage over other Pelican models is its shallow depth, but I wish I had purchased a larger size. I was only able to take one pistol on the trip, and I usually carry two. Anyway, as far as flying goes, the Pelican 1170 did the trick. It can be locked at two points near the handle. The plastic is very very tough and I really like the other Pelican products I own.
- Tape your personal information on the top of the hard case. My instructors tape their business card to the case; I taped a white piece of paper with my name, phone number, and email address on it. You want to do this in case TSA decided to take a peek in your bag and you’re not around. Give them the best shot at contacting you.
- Make sure your handgun is unloaded. There’s no definition of “unloaded,” and while it sounds kind of dumb to argue over an explicit definition it would have been helpful. For example, does “loaded” mean an empty chamber but a loaded magazine inserted into the firearm? The spirit of the request is to not have the firearm discharge a round in-flight. I wasn’t sure, so I kept both the chamber and the mag well empty.
- Put your locked firearms container inside your checked luggage. I wouldn’t recommend just checking your gun case. Frontier gave me a big red tag that said FIREARMS UNLOADED on it. None of the baggage handlers saw that I had a gun tucked away inside my checked luggage. Do all you can to keep your firearm from turning up “missing.”
- Use the right locks in the right places. Use a TSA-approved and accessible log on your suitcase, but lock your hard case with your own locks. Some travelers reported problems with using TSA-approved locks on their gun cases. I figured better safe than sorry, and I used MasterLocks on my Pelican 1170.
- Put spare locks inside your container. TSA is supposed to try to contact you if they need to inspect your firearm. Apparently this doesn’t always happen successfully, and instructors have had their locks cut off by TSA in the past. If you don’t have spares, TSA can’t re-lock your case, and an unsecured firearm can’t go on a plane. I bought a four pack of keyed-alike padlocks, and put two inside the Pelican with my gun, magazines, and knives. I put the spare key inside one of the locks just in case the padlock got mysteriously “locked.” I didn’t want any excuses for why my firearm couldn’t go on the plane.
- Keep your firearm case near the top of your checked luggage. Your hard case will be accessed at least twice when you check your bag: once when you declare it at the airline counter, and once by TSA. Do yourself and everyone else a favor by keeping it accessible. Don’t bury it beneath your lacy underwear and souvenir snow globes.
- Get there early. Getting to the counter early will lessen any anxiety about missing your plane, which should help with your demeanor at the counter and with TSA. I think my demeanor had a lot to do with how smoothly things went. Stay calm, cool, collected, and educated.
- Be friendly and polite, but keep it short. Smile. Say, “I’d like to declare a firearm, please.” The ticket agent will ask if your firearm is loaded or not. Reply with the shortest answer possible to this and any other questions. Don’t volunteer any information about the condition of your firearm or any ammunition. This didn’t come up with the fine people from Frontier, but it is possible that the agent you speak with don’t know the company policy. Try to minimize any arguments or issues by keeping everything short and sweet.
- Stand near the TSA screening area if possible. In both airports I was able to stand by and watch the TSA agents inspect my bag. However, some airports may not accommodate for this, or you might be in a hurry. At one airport the TSA agent opened my bag, looked at the case, and gave me a thumb’s up. At the other airport the TSA agent ran the bag through an X-Ray machine and then opened the case up to inspect my hard case. “Everything looks good,” he called out. In the former location the agent inserted a notice that he opened my bag. I did not receive any such notification the second time.
- That’s it, hopefully! Both flights were direct; I don’t know what happens on flights with connections and if there’s a possibility that your bag will be inspected again at each connecting airport.
I expected my hard case to be inspected by the Frontier counter agents. They never handled my baggage. They only asked if my firearm was unloaded, and then they either directed or escorted me to the TSA agent.
All of the folks I encountered were very nice and professional. I expected some hostility and problems, especially with the TSA agents, but the process was very easy. As I wrote before, I think my attitude had something to do with it, but having my stuff together ahead of time probably didn’t hurt, either.