During classes the question of flying with firearms comes up a lot. People have a fear of flying with their firearms, but it's just a lack of knowledge about the process. As long as you know how to proceed it's not a big deal. (This column contains general information. Check the TSA website
and your airline's website – which sometimes has more specific rules -for details.)
To start with your firearm must be in a hard-side case. This case must be designed to hold firearms, and capable of being locked - or separate locks that secure the case – and not allow easy access inside the case. A soft type bag is not acceptable. I put semi-autos in the case with the slide locked to the rear, which shows empty. This case goes into your suitcase, which should also be a hard case with locks. This is how you transport your gear to the airport. Do not get on the grounds of the facility and then start unloading your concealed carry weapon and packing it up in your luggage.
You declare the firearm when you check in your bags. "In my suitcase," you say, "I have a firearm to declare." Do not step up there and announce, "I have a gun." The agent will give you a card to sign and date stating the firearm is unloaded. This goes inside your suitcase. That's when things will start to vary. I know all this is supposed to be standard, but each airport – and airline – seems to work a little differently.
Sometimes they have me open the firearm case to show them the gun is unloaded. Other airports will leave the firearm case locked, and you don't have to show them the guns are unloaded. Just ask them what you need to do.
Next, the suitcase goes to TSA to be inspected. Normally the ticket agent will have me wait while the baggage is inspected, then they'll let me know everything is clear and I'm on my way.
Flying with long guns is the same, except you're using a rifle case instead of the case in the suitcase. I have a soft bag my rifle case goes into to help protect everything and keep everyone from knowing what I'm toting. Get a quality case for your long guns. Baggage handling is rough. You need a case that holds up to being tossed around, crammed into the holding compartment of the plane and otherwise abused.
I normally fly with a small amount of ammunition. Ammo must be packaged in the manufacturer's original package, or securely packed in "fiber, wood, plastic or metal boxes and provide separation for cartridges." I just leave it in the factory packaging, and tape up the box to ensure it doesn't come open. You cannot fly with gunpowder or ammo with explosive or incendiary bullets. Usually there is an eleven-pound limit on ammo.
Once you arrive it's time to collect your bag. In the old days it came out with the rest of the luggage. Due to recent events bags containing firearms now go to the baggage agent and you have show a claim stub to take possession of your bag. Then you're out the door, heading to somewhere safe so you get loaded and geared up.
I don't fly with expensive firearms. Travel with something that won't break your heart if it gets lost or stolen. Take out extra insurance on your bag. If something does happen you're covered and can replace that gear. It doesn't take much in the way of firearms, ammo, magazines, holsters, and pouches, and related gear to add up quickly. Insurance is cheap compared to what you might lose.
Everyone hears horror stories about flying with checked firearms. I've only had problems once. The agent had a problem with me, or the fact that I was a firearms owner. Plus, he didn't know what he was doing and the proper procedures. I politely asked for a supervisor and everything was good.
Flying with your firearms is a painless process. Check with TSA and your airline beforehand to ensure you've got everything set up properly. Then, enjoy your trip.
Tiger McKee is director of Shootrite Firearms Academy, located in northern Alabama. He is the author of "The Book of Two Guns" - http://shootrite.org/book/book.html writes for several firearms/tactical publications, and is featured on GunTalk's DVD, "Fighting With The 1911 - http://shootrite.org/dvd/dvd.html McKee's new book, AR-15 Skills and Drills, is available off Shootrite's website: http://shootrite.org/AR15SkillsBook/AR15SkillsBook.html