The idea of airline travel with a firearm and ammunition puts some people in a cold sweat. Those nightmare tales of people missing flights due to difficult airline and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, and the cases where competition shooters have been detained by police, are enough to make anyone prefer piling the car with all their guns and gear to make a road trip to their destination instead. As someone who travels with firearms 12 to 15 times a year, I can say that I am fortunate not to have too many tales of woe.
The key to successful airline travel with guns is all in the preparation. Researching what is acceptable for TSA and your airline is the first step. If you are traveling to a new destination, contact your fellow shooters or hunters to see if they have checked in at the airports you are flying from. Some airports, including Hartsfield International in Atlanta, have a specific TSA drop-off for those traveling with firearms. At other airports, be prepared to lose sight and control of your luggage. I have watched my luggage disappear with the instructions, “Wait over there for 15 minutes. If we don’t call you, then you are all set to go through security to your gate.”
Not exactly much of a confirmation, is it? I have even been at airports where they have taken my keys and combination behind a screen or into another room to go through my bags. In those cases I have been left wondering what was done, and whether I will be able to find somewhere to test and re-zero my firearm in case it was dropped or handled poorly.
Expect inconsistency, especially with the placement of your firearms declaration form, an orange tag that basically states that you are traveling with unloaded firearms. You must ask for this form. You will need to both sign and date it, but make sure that the agent initials it as well. Some agents have directed me to place my form anywhere inside my luggage. Others want it inside my gun case, on top of my firearm. Don’t sweat it. Just follow directions.
Here are some tips I have found to be helpful when traveling with firearms:
- Bring paperwork with you indicating that you are legal to possess a firearm, both where you are coming from and where you are going. If competing or attending a class, bring a copy of the match entry form or confirmation letter.
- Print out airline and TSA regulations to reference, just in case. Visit your airline’s website for their rules. TSA information can be found here.
- Invest in appropriate luggage that will protect your firearms. Long gun cases should be strong and lockable. For traveling with handguns, I use a lightweight, hard-sided, lockable suitcase that I put my hard-sided, lockable gun case in. It may seem like overkill, but this way I am always covered.
- Airlines have specific rules pertaining to ammunition and how it is packed. Either follow these rules or, if possible, consider shipping your ammo to your destination. This can also help you avoid paying additional baggage and weight fees.
- Pack your bags wisely, and plan for them to be searched. If you’re traveling with ammunition, it will need to be in proper packaging, but also place it in another box or bag that is easily accessible. Your ammo is likely to set off warnings and cause a search by TSA. Utilize compartments, and bags within your bag, to organize your gear so that in the event that TSA goes through it, they can put it back easily. Easy = faster!
- Give yourself PLENTY of time to check in and go through TSA. The minimum I suggest is 1½ hours, though I usually plan two hours to be safe.
- Be up front about declaring firearms to airline and TSA agents. The language I prefer to use is, “How are you? I am going to ______. I also need an unloaded firearms declaration form.”
- Smile! Be as helpful and friendly as possible throughout the entire process. Even if you come across an agent who seems to have a significant disdain for you and your firearm, be courteous. A negative attitude won’t help the situation.