Flying on Commerical Airlines With Guns

Taking Firearms With You on a Commercial Airline Flight

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People have been taking their guns along when flying on commercial airlines just about as long as there have been airplanes in which to fly, and despite recent security worries, it is still possible to do so. You'll need to follow guidelines set by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and the airline on which you'll be flying, so a little research ahead of time can be very helpful.

If you're traveling to another country, make sure you know its laws and be certain to comply with them.

They may differ greatly from travel rules in the U.S. 

Cases and Locks for Your Firearms

Any firearm must be in an airline-approved hard case (most any durable, lockable case will do), and it must be locked. The lock(s) must prevent the case from being opened, and that includes prying it open. "TSA locks"--the special locks which TSA personnel can open, often used on suitcases--are taboo when it comes to firearms. Whoever checks the gun case (and claims it after the flight) must be the only person with a key to the lock(s).

All firearms must be unloaded, and must be declared when you check your baggage--and you must check it as cargo-hold baggage, because gun cases, of course, aren't allowed as carry-on items.

Personally, I use a Pelican 1750 case containing two bolt action rifles and related items (BoreSnakes, sling, empty spare magazine, screwdriver, wiping rag, etc), locked with a pair of keyed-alike Master padlocks.

Ammunition

Ammunition also may be transported in checked baggage, and while TSA regulations allow it to be transported in the same locked hard case as your gun, some airlines do not. American Airlines, for example, has its own restrictions on ammunition, and while they did not specify that ammo must be in a separate bag, I put it in my suitcase.

Black powder and percussion caps are prohibited entirely due to the danger of detonation and fire. 

Checking Your Guns

When you check your bags, there will be procedures to follow. Here was the recent procedure on a series of flights with American Airlines passing through different cities:

  • When I checked the case and declared the guns, the airline employee produced a card for me to sign, declaring the guns unloaded. I then unlocked and opened the case to allow her to look inside and verify that there were two rifles inside. The card I'd signed was placed inside; then I closed, latched and locked the case. I was not asked to demonstrate that the guns were unloaded, but was prepared to do so if asked. Keep the key or combination to the lock(s) handy, because you may need it even after you've gone through the above routine.
  • In Tampa, I was asked about ammunition. American Airlines says "ammunition must be packed in its original packaging." TSA puts it more reasonably by allowing "packaging that is specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition" (FYI, TSA specifically outlaws ammo stored in magazines). I had brought two boxes of ammunition, packed in their original factory boxes. The gal asked whether the ammo exceeded 11 pounds (it did not) and whether it was in its original packaging (it was).
  • In Denver, no questions were asked about ammunition, and I volunteered no information about it.

Clearing TSA Security

After checking your firearms, the next step will be clearing security. Again, my own recent experience while flying: 

  • In Tampa, I walked a short distance with an airline employee to the TSA area. There, I was told to wait outside until one of the TSA employees waved that everything was okay. After delivering the case, the American Airlines fellow headed back to the bag check area, while I stood as my gun case was put through an X-ray machine. This was routine, and soon I proceeded to the gate. 
  • in Denver, after checking my gun case, it was put on a cart by a young airline employee, when then escorted me to the TSA area, where once again I was instructed to remain outside an open doorway. This time, the airline employee stood with me while a TSA employee put my case through an X-ray machine.

    After a few minutes, the employee brought the case over, put it on a table near the doorway, and asked me to unlock it. This I did, holding on to the padlocks per her instructions. Then I followed her instruction to step back a pace or two while she eyeballed inside the case. After a short perusal, she laid another piece of paper inside the case and asked me to close and lock it.

    The case was then released from TSA's custody into the care of the airline employee, and he wheeled it away on his cart to be loaded on the aircraft. 
     

    Reclaiming Your Gun Case

    The way you reclaim your gun case can vary at different airports.  Again, my experience:

    • When I arrived in Denver, I stood by the conveyor and got my suitcase, but the gun case did not show up. An announcement over the PA said they had bulky items for claim in the office, including gun cases. After presenting my ID, the gun case as released to me and I was on my way. 
    • In Tampa, my gun case came out on the conveyor, just like the suitcases. One of the latches was hanging open, but it was undamaged and the case was not open. This confirmed for me the need to pack my firearms in a sturdy, well-made gun case. 

    Conclusion

    As of this writing, my experiences on two commercial flights while transporting guns has been smooth, requiring no more than about five or ten additional minutes added to my travel time. But the procedure can vary from airline to airline and from airport to airport.  Take the time to learn about TSA and airline requirements, and be prepared to spend a few extra minutes when you fly with a gun. And it might not be a bad idea to carry a printout of TSA firearms & ammunition regulations, just in case you run across someone who doesn't know the rules they're supposed to be following.