This past weekend I flew out to Louisville, Kentucky to cover the Knob Creek Shoot for TTAG. I’ve flown before, and I’ve been on assignment for TTAG before, but I was doing something very different this time: flying with my CCW pistol in checked baggage. I read everything I could about the process of flying with firearms and even printed out information in case someone along the way proved difficult, but I’d never read any reports about the specific airports I used and so wasn’t sure what to expect. For those traveling through Ronald Reagan / Washington National Airport (DCA) or Louisville International Airport (SDF) I wanted to take a moment and talk you through my own experiences to give you an idea of what could happen.
First, a quick word about how I organized my luggage.
This is the hard sided lockable container that my pistol flew in. I was flying with U.S. Airways, and their website indicated that ammunition could be packed in the same container as the firearm, so I did just that (your carrier may have different rules, check their policies before flying). I thought it was a nifty idea to have firearm, magazines and ammunition in a highly visible watertight container… just in case. Just in case what? Those Dharma Initiative guys don’t mess around, that’s what.
Then I thought about all of the hands my baggage would pass through on the way to the airplane. There are tons of reports of baggage handlers at airports illegally opening passenger’s luggage and rummaging around to steal expensive equipment, and being in a different state (and hours later) when you realize your handgun has been stolen would suck. There are two schools of thought when it comes to protecting firearms and associated materials en route: either be so menacingly and obviously secure that no one would dare abscond with your luggage, or try to fly under the radar.
The first option is championed by Deviant Ollam, flight with firearms guru who typically travels with tons of expensive electronic equipment. His use of firearms when flying is seems to be secondary to the goal of getting said expensive equipment from point A to point B without being pilfered, using gigantic mortar shipping crates and placing a single firearm (or replica firearm) in each. His approach is more similar to that of the armored car — being blatantly and obviously secure as a deterrent to theft. The main drawback is that everyone immediately knows what you’ve got inside.
I chose the second option. 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.
Reagan National Airport (DCA) is situated on a sliver of land on the Virginia side of the Potomac river. Washington, D.C. is literally a stone’s throw away, and the airport actually provides some fantastic views of the monuments. That made me a little nervous. D.C. isn’t exactly the most gun friendly place in the world, and the reports I’ve heard of travelers with similarly secured firearms passing through JFK in New York being arrested (despite that whole Firearm Owners Protection Act safe passage thing) were definitely prominent in my mind as I walked into the terminal.
There are two levels of check-in counters at Reagan National (above image on the left). The upper level is the standard row after row of ticket counters normally seen at airports, and they come with the normal long lines. For those who already have tickets the lower level is the better option, with shorter lines and mainly automated check-in machines. I chose to use the lower level check-in counter mainly because it would be less crowded and fewer people would be watching as I try to check a firearm.
When I walked up to the counter in DCA I was extremely nervous. This was the first time I had checked a firearm, and if I didn’t do everything right it might end very badly for me. Despite the nerves I tried to act as confident and relaxed as possible as I calmly walked up to the U.S. Airways employee behind the counter and stated “I need a firearms declaration form.”
As I stood there I was anticipating the worst case scenario — the guy behind the counter had never helped a passenger with a firearm, didn’t know how to do it, was openly hostile… the works. What I got was a smile, a nod, and a he quickly produced the declaration form.
I quickly signed the form, opened my duffel bag, popped the locks on my pistol case and asked the guy behind the counter if he wanted me to clear the gun for him. “Nah, that’s what the form is for. TSA will make sure” was his reply. So the gun wasn’t touched, in went the form, I re-locked the case, zipped up the bag and tied on the luggage tag. A baggage handler had been standing nearby and came over to take the bag to the TSA screener who was less than 20 feet away with a bigass X-Ray machine in full view as I stood behind a rope line and watched the screening.
As we were waiting for TSA to greenlight my bag the baggage handler struck up a conversation with me about the gun (stainless steel full size 1911A1), he complimented it as being “pimp” and we talked about its history for a bit. A few short seconds later the TSA officer gave me a thumbs up. I thanked everyone for being so helpful and walked off to have a quick dinner before the flight.
The bag appeared in Louisville unscathed. I checked inside quickly as soon as it came off the baggage carousel to make sure the case was still there and the locks were still in tact and all was as it should be. Not a single item had been moved or taken, so I walked out to my waiting rental car and a fun filled weekend.
Louisville International Airport (SDF) is somewhere I had never flown out of before. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at 3:45 AM for my 6 AM flight (despite having been up all night at the machine gun shoot), but the last thing I anticipated was that there wouldn’t be anyone at the check-in counter. And there wasn’t.
So there I stood, sleep deprived and anxious, waiting at the check-in counter with no one to help me check my firearm-laden luggage. 4 AM rolls by. Then 4:15 AM. Then 4:30 AM. A line formed pretty quickly behind me as other travelers with early flights queued up, and as they became agitated they started calling U.S. Airways customer support. The answer they were getting is that if the agents didn’t show up to check in our luggage they were to bring it to the gate and check it there.
That was absolutely not an option for me and actually likely to get me arrested. Very likely, in fact. So I called and insisted (without detailing why) that the agents needed to get there ASAP. Like magic, 3 minutes later they emerged from the back room.
As soon as the agent greeted me I used the same line that I used at DCA: “Good morning, I need a firearms declaration card.” Just like before the agent was friendly, smiled, and quickly produced the card for me to sign, no questions asked and no attitude given. Again I opened the hard sided case and asked if he wanted me to clear the firearm for him, to which he said yes.
I reached down, locked the slide back and showed him an empty chamber (in full view of the rest of the travelers in line, no less), and when he was satisfied I released the slide catch and put the gun back in its case. When I had put it away he remarked that I “seem[ed] pretty professional with that.” I guess he’d seen his share of nervous or untrained travelers over the years.
Once the bag was repacked I started looking around for the secondary screening area. In almost every account I’ve ever read of someone traveling with a firearm the bag and traveler, after checking in and signing the declaration, were escorted to a secondary area where the bag was screened by TSA while they waited. It makes sense, since only the traveler has the key to the locked container and if something looks suspicious TSA would need that key to get into the case.
Apparently Louisville International has no such procedure, and my bag simply wanders through the same process as every other bag. All the agent said before placing my bag on the conveyor belt behind him was “keep an ear out in case you’re paged — I think you can imagine why.”
This posed a problem. I was convinced that I would be paged to come open the container (since it’s just my luck that Murphy has taken a liking to me) and it would be easier to make my way back to the ticket counter if I hadn’t gone through the security checkpoint. I loitered around the food court for a few minutes just short of the security checkpoint listening for a page, but I didn’t hear one. Yet.
The departure time was drawing close, so I went through security and walked to my gate, conveniently placed at the absolute furthest end of the airport from the ticket counter. It was minutes before the plane was to board, and if I had been paged and had to go all the way back, wait for security to screen my bag, then come all the way back through the checkpoint I would have at least made the plane late and at worst missed it completely. Thankfully the page never came, and I watched out the window as my bag came off the baggage cart and was placed on the airplane.
When I landed at Reagan National my bag was one of the last to appear on the carousel, but it did appear and it was once again unscathed and unmolested with my locks still in tact.
I was expecting traveling with a firearm to be more of a hassle, but in reality it wasn’t that difficult. As long as you have a cheerful attitude, know the rules and know what to ask for it seems as easy as pie. The staff at U.S. Airways were friendly, helpful and knowledgeable in helping me get my firearms to Louisville and back and I couldn’t be more appreciative of their efforts. Going forward I think I might try it D.O.’s way with the locked mortar crates, but a well secured box in a duffel bag seems to work just fine (especially when nothing in the bag, even the gun, is worth more than $400).