[Revised: I learned a few things (specifically about loaded mags and the orange firearms declaration) via the comments section below.]
Nick wrote about this subject a couple years ago, but it recently came up again and this was my response. It’s long, and I make no apologies for that. I tried to cover all the bases:
I’ve flown with firearms quite a bit and I researched the hell out of it before I did, and then learned stuff along the way. My flights have been equally split between Delta and Allegiant, with one USAair thrown in for balance. Their procedures are similar enough that I don’t distinguish between them, but always check with your specific airline. Here’s what I know . . .
First, TSA approved locks. There is no such thing as a TSA approved lock for gun cases. If you’re thinking about those neat locks that have a special keyway so the TSA can open and inspect your luggage and then relock it when they’re done, ABSOLUTELY NOT. FAA regs say that you, only you, and nobody else can have access to the gun case. They are not allowed to open the case outside your presence. One key, in your pocket. One combination, in your head. Period. Full stop. When you check in (I’ll get to that in a minute), if they need to see inside your case and they ask for the key or the combination, politely refuse. They can bring you to the case, or the case to you, but they are not getting either the key or the combination. They’ve gotten better about this, but it sometimes still turns into an issue. Politely, but firmly stand your ground. (Note, this has never been an issue I’ve run into, but it does happen.)
Second, the case. Don’t buy cheap stuff. $15-20 plastic cases from Bass Pro ain’t gonna get the job done. The unwritten standard is that when the case is locked (not latched, but locked; think “someone trying to get in”) that you can’t fit your finger through the gap. I bought a cheap case back when I was learning about this, put my unloaded gun inside, locked it, then unlatched it and shook it over my bed. My gun fell right out of the still locked case. No bueno. I firmly believe Pelican (or something very, very similar) is the way to go. They are solid, and darn near bulletproof.
There are two schools of thought regarding security on traveling with (small) firearms: keep it on the down low (i.e. putting the gun case inside your luggage), or don’t but make it obviously secure (i.e. send it separately in a sturdy, well-locked case). The “down low” option has the advantage of being cheaper, but from my point of view, that’s the only upside. Back when Nick wrote about it, he chose to do it this way, and I’ll let him tell you why:
I placed the smaller locked pistol case in a larger duffel bag and secured it inside using one of the locks with a bendable cable that came with my Mossberg 100 ATR, then filled the rest of the bag with clothes. The outer duffel bag didn’t contain anything valuable so I wasn’t concerned about it being ransacked by baggage handlers and was content to leave it completely unlocked, and the smaller locked container being fastened to the larger bag securely enough that it couldn’t be removed unless power tools were used.
I was counting on the bag looking exactly like any other beat up piece of luggage and being ignored, which is exactly what happened. It’s a gamble, but for a direct flight on a regional jet it seemed like the superior solution and didn’t get me charged extra for oversize or overweight baggage.
For my part, I do not recommend putting whatever case you choose inside your luggage. If you send the gun case as a separate item, it has its own tracking and handling. If it is inside your luggage, it does not, and if it “disappears” from inside your luggage, who’s gonna know until you discover it? Especially if you have a multi-leg flight, it could have disappeared at any time prior to your discovery. A smaller individual case may be easier to “walk away with,” but at least you’ll have the tracking info to say, “We know it got this far, no further.” If you choose to put it in there anyway, you want to use a sturdy cable and lock the gun case to the frame inside of the luggage. Don’t have an exposed frame to lock to? Figure it out, or don’t do it. Do not under any circumstances simply place it loose in your luggage, even if your luggage is locked with one of those “super-special” (not really special) TSA locks.
A third option is to pack it in your luggage, and lock your entire bag with a real, non-TSA lock, but you need sturdy luggage for that. On most soft luggage, the zipper is a weak point, and you can bypass the lock and open the bag by sticking a pen or a knife through the zipper and then just pulling it apart. Not secure at all. I do not recommend this, unless you have real hard-sided luggage. The vast majority of people do not. Bite the bullet, pay the extra baggage fee, and send it separate.
A note on “oversize” luggage: The first time I was going to fly with my Pelican 1750, I was sweating oversize baggage fees really hard. At 53.5″ x 16″ x 7.5″, my rifle case is well outside the standard oversize limits for most airlines. For example, Delta’s oversize limit is 62″ total outside dimension (length PLUS width PLUS height). Some airlines (USAir) had rifle cases specifically listed as exceptions to their oversize policies, but Delta did not specifically say either way. Three separate phone calls confirmed that “no mention = no exception.”
Finally I literally took my rifle case to the Delta counter at Orlando International and explained my dilemma. I actually didn’t even finish my explanation (you’ve noticed I can be a little long-winded) before the guy interrupted me and said, “Oh, that? We’d just take that as it is.” I said (because it’s my money; it wouldn’t cost this guy anything to be wrong), “Are you sure? Because it is bigger than the oversize limits.” His response, “Do you want me to get out my tape measure? It’s a rifle case, we’ll take it just like it is.”
The policies have changed since then, and they’re a little more clear now: As of this writing, USAir says max 50 pounds and max length (not overall dimension) 62 inches; Delta says 50 pounds, but gives no dimensions. Also, as of this writing USAir has no limit on the number of firearms in a single case, within the size/weight limit above, while Delta limits you to four rifles/shotguns in any one case, or five handguns in any one case. As always, check before each flight for the rules for your specific airline, because they may have changed.
Third, ammunition. TSA regs allow ammunition in the same case with the firearm. Their rules can be interpreted to allow loaded magazines, but many airline rules do not, and whoever’s rules are more strict supersede, so as always, Check with your airline before flight. Original packaging is fine, aftermarket packaging is fine, the key phrase is “provides separation between the cartridges.” That’s the phrase that airlines use to preclude loaded magazines. I know this is true for Delta, USAir, and Allegiant. Southwest does allow loaded magazines, but they have specific requirements for how they’re packed. Check their site.
Some folks have successfully flown with bulk .22LR in plastic containers (like Gladware) sealed with tape, even though the cartridges aren’t separated, but that seems like a crapshoot to me. I’ve flown with .22LR, but it’s always been stuff like Velocitors or Stingers where the cartridges are separate. The standard limit is 11 pounds of ammunition. Some airlines have more or less, check with yours, but that’s the “standard.”
Fourth, check in. Common sense would tell you to keep your case locked as much as possible, such as when moving from the car to the terminal, and from one line to another. Sometimes I’m lazy about this. I’m usually flying with a Pelican 1750, which is a 4.5′ long rifle case with four padlock hasps. Sometimes I don’t lock it at all until I turn it over to the airline, and sometimes I’ll lock one padlock just for “walking around.” It just depends on my mood.
When you walk up to the counter to check in, present your ID, and when you have the agent’s attention, tell them “I’m checking a firearm today.” Again, common sense, don’t say, “I’ve got a gun.” They will give you a bright orange luggage tag type thing that certifies that your firearm is unloaded.
The first time I ever flew with a gun the counter agent actually looked at the handgun in the case, and lifted the butt of the grip out of the case to verify the magwell was empty, but did not completely remove the gun or rack the slide. She also verified the magazines were empty. This happened the first time I flew, but it did not happen on the return trip nor on any of the 14-16 flights I’ve taken since then. It may have been simply because I told the counter agent this was my first time. That doesn’t mean they don’t glance into the case. On one trip I was traveling heavy, with two rifles and three handguns, plus ammo and CR123 flashlight batteries, all packed inside my 1750. The quantity and variety caught the guy’s eye, and he expressed his surprise, in a good way, so we talked for a minute. But that’s it. Other than that first trip, I have never offered to let them check (or asked them if they wanted to).
You sign and date the luggage tag, they might tear off the top carbon if there is one, and the bright orange tag goes into the gun case. It has a string on it, but it does not go on the outside of the case. I’ve never had anyone from the airline try to do this wrong, but there’s always a first time. You can have GLOCK-brand GLOCK stickers all over the outside of your case if that’s your thing, but in the U.S. the airlines are not allowed to stick anything on the outside of the case to indicate it contains a firearm. International rules are different. [Revised: Apparently if you’re traveling with your gun case inside your other luggage, the firearms declaration goes inside the luggage, but outside and near the gun case itself. My rifle case doesn’t fit in my luggage, so I was unaware of this detail.]
At this point you are done inside the case, so lock it up with however many locks you feel appropriate and necessary. On my 1750, I use all four. What happens next depends on the airline and the airport layout, and sometimes on who is working that day. At some airports they will take your now-locked case through a door behind the counter for the TSA to inspect. If so, that is the last you will probably see of your case, but tell them you’re going to wait for the OK, and do not leave the counter until you get it. It usually takes a minute or two and the counter agent will come back out and say you’re good to go. In other airports they will direct you and your locked case to another line/area where the TSA has an inspection station set up, often adjacent to an X-ray machine.
Again, give them the case and do not leave until they give you the all clear. Do not be afraid to ask, if you’re not sure. Whether they take it in the back or inspect it right in front of you, all they’re likely to be doing is swabbing it with one of those explosive detector discs and sending it through X-ray. I have never had them ask me to open the case back up after I’ve left the ticket counter. They usually have given me the all clear after they’ve swabbed it, but before they X-ray it.
Fifth, at your destination. On one, and only one, occasion I have had an airline employee (a baggage handler) bring my gun case directly to me in the baggage carousel area. It was one of the first couple times I flew, and it was on the outbound flight at a tiny little regional airport. It was also not a rifle case, but the original case my XDm came in, so it said XDm on the outside, and he “didn’t want to just send it out on the belt.” On one other occasion, on my return trip (with my rifle case), I went to the baggage carousel at Orlando Airport and waited. And waited. And waited. And then they turned the baggage carousel off. I went to the Delta counter and expressed my concern. The agent directed me to the Delta baggage office (conveniently it was only about 20 feet from where I was standing). Once there I had to tell them what I was looking for, describe it, wait 5 minutes, and then show my ID and boarding pass for the man to give me my rifle case. On my most recent flight (August 2016), I was traveling with only my SIG P238 carry gun, in its own original hard case. It was tagged at check-in with an orange “Special Handling” tag. Knowing this, on arrival I immediately went directly to the baggage office, where it was already there waiting on me. On every single flight other than those three, my gun case (whether briefcase-sized XDm or 4.5′ long rifle) simply came out on the carousel with the rest of the baggage. As such, it would behoove you to be standing where you can see the luggage as soon as it comes through the flappy door.