By Mike Keleher

I took a trip this summer to the Mohave Desert. Don’t ask me why, just know no one else flies into Palm Springs, lingers and then drives to Phoenix in 114 degree heat during the high point of summer-except me. Crowds are at a minimum.

I took two small 9mm pistols along for the trip, and wanted to report back how they (and their owner) were treated by the TSA and Airlines people for those of you who may be allowed by their local governments to leave their homes and engage in air travel again (probably after election day.)

I wrote a tidy piece on air travel and transport chock full of ins and outs of such travel back in January of this year in the Guns Save Life website blog, after I flew out to the SHOT Show in Vegas.

I was struck by the handling process changes via a different airline six months after I wrote the first piece and would like to share some of how it is currently being treated.

The major rules have not changed with TSA, but of course each airport and each airline can apply them differently. Best advice is to always look up your air carrier’s rules on their website before packing your guns and ammo and heading out to the airport. Make it easy on people behind the counters who really don’t want to see your stuff-and in fact should not be touching it either. Also, be prepared to see a wide variety of employees doing the same job-differently.

Pro-tip: When packing, I always take a cellphone pic of my gun, the serial number, the lock box and the luggage. If there is a problem, I have that info with me on my phone and not left at home.

Mid-summer Ohare was practically deserted on a week day. There were more staff in the ticket counter area than passengers. Do not be tempted to check in at the computer based unmanned kiosk and get your bag tagged- that is the wrong way to do it, and a fast track to missing your flight and talking to the airport police.

As an aside- you can check in online the night before, but you still have to see a ticket agent at the airport to get your guns checked in-they will tear up any pre-printed boarding pass and issue a new one.

I check in with a living, breathing, mask wearing, human ticket agent. If you don’t see one, go to the VIP or Special Services area and state “I have a special luggage issue I need to discuss.” When you have their attention you can then proudly relate you have an unloaded firearm in a locked container in the bag you wish to check for your departing flight. Prepare to be patient- you have just caused some stress to their otherwise stressful day crammed full of nasty and grumpy COVID travellers.

At Ohare, the nice ticket lady went slightly off the rails when she said “I have to see it.” Hunh? OK. I unzipped the bag and she saw a black metal box. Check. I guess she needed to ensure it was not in a ziploc baggie or wrapped in old underwear. She asked “Is it loaded? Is there ammunition in the box?” No and No.

I was travelling with two compact 9mm’s (never mind which ones you Nosy Nelly) in a Hornady pistol safe/lock box and had the magazines out of both pistols. I loop the aircraft cable connected to the box around the internal frame rails of my bag. You might steal it but you have to take the whole bag to do it! That Hornady is a heavy metal piece of equipment and may be defeat anti-tank rounds in the right caliber.

Next up, the nice lady had me sign their in-house FIREARM(S) UNLOADED tag which has my flight number, the date, the employee number and how I understand the rules of declaring the firearm, have it locked in a hard sided container and I will keep the key and there is no ammo in the locked box and no loose ammo in my baggage.

Then in a very regal ceremony, she laid the tag atop my lock box. The back of tag in large letters announces “FIREARM(S) UNLOADED.” Whew that sure is a relief isn’t it? In the old days airlines put a brightly colored bumper sticker sized sticker on the outside of the bag which was quite a help to the nefarious in the know by announcing not too subtly “GUN INSIDE-STEAL ME.” After that they started putting the large sticker inside the bag and now it is just the 2″x5″ card. Most of the magic is in the computer.

A red tag marked “RETURN TO BSO” was affixed to the handle of my bag. This BSO is the Baggage Service Office, and I was informed my bag would not be on the conveyor belt in Palms Springs and I should seek it in the Baggage Service Office (I know them well having traveled for the government for 30 years I have lost more luggage than most small airlines transport in a year and end up filling out the forms in the BSO to get them back.)

Once this was all done and the computer got it’s secret codes and I got tickets in hand and a luggage receipt, I thought I was good to waive by to the nice lady and my bag and guns. Oh, nay, nay.

“Wait here for an escort to X-ray.” Hunh. A luggage porter type came by a few minutes later and took control of my bag. I followed him 100 yards down to a TSA X-ray site, where I watched him hand the bag to a TSA Smurf (blue outfits are all the rage with them.)

The TSA guy opened the bag, saw the FIREARMS UNLOADED card and the black metal box. He did not look at the large clear zip-loc that held small boxes of defense ammo, spare empty mags, mag pouches and holsters. They ran the bag through the X-ray machine and handed it back to the porter. I then followed him and my bag back up the 100 yards to the airline counter and watched him place it on the behind the counter conveyor. He reminded me the bag would be at my destination luggage office and not on the conveyor, wished me a good flight and wandered off like any other hourly employee looking to slow roll their 8 hour shift.

At Palm Springs I saw my bag sitting in front of the lost luggage counter unattended. A clerk unit was about 100 feet away over by conveyor belts. When she failed to look at me for two to three long seconds, I took hold of the bag and she rushed over. “Oh, you can’t take that bag sir!” She made me show a photo ID and only then stood aside from the guardian position she had assumed in front of my bag. Good for her. I liked that attitude.

On the flight back from Phoenix to Ohare I found I could not check in online the night before the flight-even though the airline emailed me it was time to check in. I received an automated response back telling me I could not pre-check since “they” knew I was travelling with firearms on this trip and I had to see a desk agent to check in. Well that was different.

At the Phoenix airport check in, the ticket lady (not the same one from Ohare, but they could have been related) asked to see the box in the bag, then had me open the lock box with my key. (Insert Scooby Doo voice “Ruh-ro!) Why would she “need” to see in the box? She then followed this up by glancing at the slightly opened spring loaded lid-and did not actually look inside the box or at the guns. Weird-but it seemed to some how make her happy so I just kept my go-along, get-along attitude in place.

Next she asked if the lock embedded in the Hornady lock box was a TSA lock. Oh hell no. You see there is a post 9/11 thing called a TSA approved lock on the market-TSA already has a master key for them. If in transit they need to open your box (or any old person with a TSA master key) wants in, they just pop it open-how handy and convenient for them! “No mam it is not a TSA lock and I have the only key.”

She then had me lock the box but leave the aforementioned key in the lid and zip up my bag then got a teenager employee to roll my bag 60 feet to a TSA review station. The teenager turned around twice and had to swipe his ID on a scanner twice in that same 60 feet-I was sure he was lost-with my bag.

The TSA guy looked in the bag, peeked momentarily at the pistols and empty mags in the lock box, secured the box and handed me the key. He also quite marvelously checked all the linings and swabbed the bag-yes with guns and ammo and accessories-and put the swab in the machine that goes “ping. ” When the machine did not go ping, the handed the bag back to the teenager who had to sign a log book and scan his ID once again. OK, I thought we were tracking fine now. The kid then went half way back to the ticket counter then reversed course and went around a corner and looked at an elevator. The TSA guy came around the corner and used the Open Sesame code to call for the elevator. At this point I took a cell phone picture of the masked teenager holding my bag. Figured it would look good in court later as Exhibit (A) in the theft of my firearms.

Back at Ohare I tried not to hurry too much across the terminal (knocking over two hippies who walked way too slow, and some accountant with headphones in his ears who should have heard me coming) to the Baggage Service Office to uncover this tragic story of how my guns were stolen by some kid at the Phoenix airport.

My bag was not immediately there of course at the BSO. A nice young lady made three separate trips behind the scenes in search of it on my behalf. It may have been the sweat on my brow or the fact I had already located the closest police officer to begin making out my theft/loss report which spurred her on behind the scenes. She eventually rolled my bag out from behind the Great Oz -like door, did not check my ID, handed the bag to me and waived Buh-bye Now.

A discrete distance away I confirmed the lock box was indeed present and still locked. Gee that wasn’t so hard was it?

Photo credit:

The TSA Basics for Flying with Firearms

2. Firearms must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container and transported only as checked baggage. Gun case must be strong enough to withstand baggage handling and should be able to tolerate pressure and/or crushing weight.

3. New rules may require locks in every eyelet on the container to ensure the edges can’t be pried open and items removed. Use solid locks with just enough shank to close on the container and do not leave large amounts of extra space or potential leverage. Only the passenger should retain the key or combination to the lock. TSA may ask for the key to review the locked container contents while you watch, and will hand the key back to you.

4. Magazines, bolts and firing pins are prohibited in carry-on baggage but may be transported in checked baggage. Magazines must be empty in the checked baggage and ideally not inserted in the weapon being transported.

5. Ammunition is prohibited in carry-on baggage but may be transported in checked baggage.

6. Ammunition being transported may generally not exceed 11 pounds (individual airlines vary), and must be in its original packaging or stored securely in a container made for that purpose.

One thought on “Flying With Pistols and Ammunition in Checked Baggage”
  1. Southwest didn’t care if the magazines were loaded. I’ve been flying with loaded magazines for 10 years with no problem. Obviously not in the weapon, but in the locked box with it.

    Is this requirement to not have mags loaded and not in the case with the weapon a new change others have seen?

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