“I can’t tell you what’s going to happen next, but I will explain it once it’s over,” the TSA supervisor said to me after the explosives detector alarmed on my shotgun case. Again.
Last week I took a jaunt down to my adopted home state of Colorado to spend some overdue time with family and friends. Of course, I found a way to sneak in a few Canada goose hunts courtesy of Brett Marcheso, Guide for Waterfowl Junkies.
The hunting meant flying with firearms so I dusted-off my Pelican iM3100 Storm Case, checked for any previously-used Firearms Declaration Tags (FDTs), ammunition (none found), and pieced-in my taken-down Benelli Super Black Eagle II and various accouterments. Thoughts of falling geese danced in my head.
In my experience in traveling with firearms, planning for the worst and hoping for the best is the strategy that leads to least stress. TSA agents are trained to smell stress and anxiety. I’m joking. Sort of. The point being that dealing with TSA can be unpredictable. Every interface with them seems to be unlike the one before.
At the Southwest check-in counter I set my bags down, handed her my ID and muttered the magic words that set everything in motion, “May I please have a Firearms Declaration Tag, ma’am?” She simultaneously said, “I bet you need a Declaration Tag, don’t you?” I guess I’m that obvious. At least we were on the same page from the get-go.
I set my regular checked bag on the scale while she went and found a FDT (Southwest doesn’t keep FDT’s at the counter at Sea-Tac Airport). I filled it out while she checked me in for the flight to Denver International Airport (DIA). Within three minutes I was walking my case down to the TSA security screening area that handles firearms, ammunition, pets, and other “special” cargo.
When it was my turn, I set my locked hard case on the examination table and stepped back next to the chair I usually sit in, waiting for instructions. The TSA agent said nothing, so I stood and waited for her to swab the case. She inserted the swab into the machine and…
ALARMS!!! FLASHING LIGHTS!!! And across the entire computer screen, a bright red box appeared with the warning, “EXPLOSIVES DETECTED!” I looked at the TSA agent and asked, “May I sit down?” She laughed, nodded in approval, and explained that she needed to call a supervisor because she wasn’t qualified to inspect the inside of the case. Okay, sure…she’s not qualified to carry a gun on the job either so I sure don’t want her handling mine.
The supervisor arrived and explained that he was going to inspect the inside of the case. Whether I needed to or not, I provided my verbal consent. He unlocked my TSA-approved locks with his universal key, lifted the lid, removed the foam in the lid, and then visually examined the non-firearm items. Unalarmed, he closed the lid, flipped the case upside-down, and opened it up again. The foam insert and all the items fell out into the lid as one unit. SOP. After visually examining the underside of the foam insert he swabbed the inside of the case. Again, the alarms sounded.
The TSA supervisor packed up the case, flipped it back over, and said, “Well, obviously the alarm went off again. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen next, but I will explain it once it’s over.” How reassuring. But at this point there was nothing to do but acknowledge his statement with an anxious smile. He then radioed for a single Port of Seattle Officer. That made me feel a little better – two of them and I might have begun mentally preparing for some sort of back room interview.
A bright-eyed, duty firearm-toting Port of Seattle Officer arrived within ten minutes. He bobbed his head slightly, seemingly excited for some action. The TSA supervisor informed him of the alarm. The Port Officer clearly hadn’t been called for this kind of situation before and was told that TSA needed him to inspect the firearm parts for explosives because no TSA agent is allowed to touch a firearm. Procedures are there for a reason and I respect that.
The Port Officer stepped up to the examination table, turned to me and asked, “May I inspect your firearm?” “Do I have a choice?,” I thought silently before giving him my verbal permission. He then asked, “What type of shotgun?” From there it was nonstop conversation about his experience with Benelli shotguns in the military and as a Port Officer while he checked every part of my SBEII. It was the most enjoyable search I’ve ever been a part of.
Once satisfied, the Officer verbally confirmed to the TSA supervisor that no explosives or other dangerous items were found, shook my hand, and headed back to wherever he came from.
As the TSA supervisor packed up my case and slid in the standard Inspection slip, I asked him, “So, if the foam in my case were glued-in, what would have happened when you wanted to swab the bottom inside of the case?” He looked me square in the eyes and replied casually, “I’d have ripped it all out.” I nodded my head, thanked the TSA folks and headed to the next security line where I was “randomly selected” for further screening. Totally understandable, but I wish they would have just told me to my face and put me into the special line instead of calling it “random.”
All-in-all, it was thirty minutes of extra process that left me just enough time to hit the head and grab a bite before boarding. And, honestly, given the alarms, it was surprisingly stress-free and easy. I’ll even give kudos to both Sea-Tac TSA and the Port of Seattle Officer for their good communication, eye contact, expedient action, and generally good attitudes.
My bags and I arrived in Denver without a problem; all items accounted for, nothing confiscated, no damage and locks still intact. That’s a successful flight with a firearm.
Colorado was good to me and we knocked out our limits of Canadas in less than thirty minutes. But with all of the TSA issues I’ve encountered at DIA over the years I wanted to avoid setting off any alarms on the return trip. Frankly, I ran out of time to clean the case by hand so on the way to the airport we made a quick stop.
At a DIY carwash. A quick hail Mary, for sure. But it was either that or share a shower with the case. This seemed the better option.
Check-in at the Southwest counter was, again, a breeze; unlike at Sea-Tac Denver has FDTs at the counter. But at DIA you aren’t allowed to walk your own case from check-in to the TSA firearm screening area – a baggage carrier has to do it. The carrier assigned to me insisted on waiting for someone else who was in line with a firearm. Fifteen minutes later we were finally on our way to the screening area. When we arrived, they took the other traveler’s gun case first because it was on top my mine. Another 15 minute delay.
When they finally got to my bag I observed a much different procedure than was performed at Sea-Tac. First they ran the locked case through an x-ray machine. One TSA agent then put it on the examination table, while the other explained to me that they could not open my TSA-approved locks because they broke their universal key off in someone else’s lock the day before. Apparently TSA doesn’t believe in back-up copies. Before he could say anything else I volunteered somewhat forcefully to open the locks myself. They obliged.
The two agents opened the case, inspected everything that wasn’t a firearm part, and then proceeded to push their fingers into the foam surrounding the items in my case. They flipped everything over and did it again. The external swab came back clear and I was home free.
That is until TSA delayed me an hour and a half in the regular screening line. I got the the gate with one minute to spare, hungry and with a full bladder. If it weren’t for cleaning the case at the car wash I probably would have missed my flight. Period. And that’s TSA for you.
While I fly with a firearm frequently, It’s been a while since I’ve had an experience like that one. I’ll be adjusting my strategy and procedures going forward to account for the things that caused me delays on this trip. Specifically, I’ll:
• Arrive two and a half hours prior to my flight – two hours is cutting it close.
• Continue to expect every TSA interaction to be inconsistent and follow different procedures.
• Ensure I fly with as clean a case as possible.
• Never glue anything (foam or otherwise) to the actual case – I don’t want TSA ripping it out.
Safe holiday travels, everyone!