Airline Travel With Firearms
How to prevent theft or minimize theft risk
© 2014 – Thomas C. Dugas
Typical Photo of Firearm & Accessories Cased for Travel on Airlines…
How to prevent firearms theft while traveling and if your firearm is stolen or missing, how to ensure the best possible outcome, including the swift and rapid return of your stolen or missing firearm.
Pictured above is a hard travel case that I have used for years when I travel by airplane. Since I have a carry permit in my home state, and I also hold other out of state permits, there are approximately 44 states in the USA where I can carry a concealed handgun. So, I frequently travel with my handgun.
This article is to share with you my experiences both as an airline passenger, and also as someone who worked in the airline industry for many years. When the subject is missing or stolen firearms at an airport, I saw both types of outcomes, good and bad: Those people who lost their firearms to theft or other actions, and those people who were able to successfully recover them.
My goal is to help you prepare to recover your firearm.
Here is what happens when you arrive at your destination and discover that your firearm is either missing or stolen:
1. You discover the theft (or missing) firearm when you are still standing in the baggage claim area long after all the bags have arrived and everyone has left. You are the only person waiting.
2. You walk over to the Airline office, and if you are lucky, someone will be there. If you are unlucky, there will be 50 or 60 people in front of you with the same complaint. You finally walk in and say “My bag is missing.”
3. The airline person asks for your flight number, or name, or if you remembered to keep it, your bag claim ticket. Questions follow: “What color was your bag?”, “Black”, “Was there anything uniquely identifiable about your black bag?”, “Yeah, it was black and it has this tiny little silver souvenir tag on the zipper that I put there from my last trip to Coney Island. The tag says “I heart Coney Island”” They type on their computer and start a process to determine where your bag is. This procedure is repeated thousands of times per day in the USA. At almost every airport.
4. After what seems like an eternity, the airline person will say “Your bag was checked in (insert the name of the airport you left from) and we show it arrived here. I don’t know where your bag is.”
5. You say “But it’s not here, I’ve checked. It never came down the bag chute.”
6. You get told “File a lost bag claim with the airline.”
7. At the end of this scenario, you will have a lost bag and the Airline will have you fill out a form.
8. Your changes of recovering your lost or stolen firearm are near zero.
9. It’s at this moment you think “I wish I had done something different, something that would have made it easier for me to communicate how important this firearm was and have at hand some tools that would have helped me recover it.”
So, here is how to do something different. Be prepared.
So…here is what happened the first time one of my handguns went missing. This is my experience:
1. I stood at the baggage claim and my bag did not arrive. It was a black bag, but it was wrapped with a wide (6”) PINK ribbon on two sides where it met in the middle to form a pink cross. Impossible to miss. I saw it come off the plane after I deplaned and I saw it get loaded into the bag cart. I walked from the arrival gate straight to baggage claim. My pink bag never arrived on the bag chute.
2. I walked over to the airline bag office and there was a long line of people in front of me with the same complaint. They each had a missing bag to report. None appeared to be from my flight. I estimated my wait at more than 45 minutes.
3. I took out my cellphone and dialed 9-1-1. When the 9-1-1 operator answered I said “I need the police.” When the police operator answered and asked “What is your emergency?” I responded “I am at XYZ airport, and I am traveling with a firearm that has just been stolen. The firearm was in a locked case with ammunition. My suspicion is that the firearm was stolen shortly after it was taken off the airplane when I arrived. Therefore, someone is running around the secured area of the airport with a firearm and ammunition. I have a photo of the missing firearm and the bag it was in. Please send an officer immediately.” I stayed in that line and kept making phone calls. *The sole employee at the counter kept making eye contact with me and finally picked up the phone and made a call. I knew she was calling for a supervisor. That is what I wanted. I didn’t want to wait.
4. A Police officer showed up at the baggage office in about five minutes. He was from the airport detail. I showed the responding officer the photo of the weapon and the bag it was in, as I had the photos on my smartphone with me. I gave him ONE hard copy of the photos. He asked for both sets I had and I refused. I instead offered to email him or anyone since I had the same photos on email ready to send. He said the one set would be sufficient. The cop walked off a bit and started talking into his radio out of my earshot.
5. Right after that I began calling the local new media to let them know that XYZ airline has had a firearms theft and I am going to provide them via email with the flight number, and the photos I have with me for their evening broadcast. I was googling every media outlet I could find. I made sure the bag counter person heard me make that phone call. By then an Airline Supervisor showed up and I relayed to them what had happened so far:
- My bag was missing. I showed him a copy of the photo I had. I told him I watched the bag come off the plane. I knew the bag was here. And I had called 9-1-1-, I had already spoken to the local police (look, Officer Friendly is standing right over there), and I was calling the local media to advise them of a hot story that I was about to drop into their lap “XYZ Airline has just lost a firearm at the airport, film at 6.”
The airline supervisor got on his cellphone and started making calls and he disappeared back into the baggage make-up area where my bag was supposed to have emerged from. Another supervisor appeared shortly and asked that I not make any further calls and that they were trying to “resolve my missing bag issue.” I thanked him for his offer of help and told him “I will make a phone call every fifteen minutes. That’s four an hour. This will give you time to find my bag and ensure that everyone stays motivated.” I was not about to stop making phone calls, but I was willing to stretch them out. We had a mutual understanding.
* If there was no bag claim office, or the person working the bag claim office was absent, I still would have called 9-1-1- on the spot. As soon as I am done with the 9-1-1 operator, I find an airline employee, preferably a supervisor and inform then that I have just dialed 9-1-1 to report a missing firearm and ammunition and that my next contact is going to be the TSA. I make sure I say “My firearm and bag was on your airplane, on your airline. And I have a picture showing that. And I show them the photo.”
This is almost the exact sequence I followed when my handgun went missing. Shortly after I made the 9-1-1 call, I was surrounded by Police, TSA, and several visibly upset airline supervisors. Most people seemed angry that I had dialed 9-1-1 to report a “missing bag.” I ignored their comments. In short, after about two hours, I was reunited with my firearm. No explanation was given. My bag was found. And my requests to know where it had been were ignored or deflected. The Police, and the TSA requested numerous statements from me, all of which began “I purchased a ticket on XYZ airline and I turned over a locked case with the firearm to the gate agent at ABC airport, (here is their photo by the way) in accordance with TSA & FAA regulations and the firearm went missing. Here are the photos I took of the airline employee when I turned over my bag to them. Here are the photos of the firearm and bag. As soon as I discovered that my firearm was missing and might have been stolen I notified law enforcement by dialing 9-1-1. Now, let’s ask the airline what happened.” I had to say that statement about six times before people stopped asking me for a statement.
The way I responded was almost exactly the same way I saw all those people who refuse to be victims respond. They took charge and started raising hell immediately when they discovered their firearm was missing.
I got my firearm back because I was
a) Aggressive in reporting the theft as soon as it happened and
b) Being prepared by having photos and all the information I needed to share to get it recovered.
Where did I learn this method? For years I was one of those airline employees responding to this type of call. And as the old saying goes “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” the person that makes the most noise gets the fastest response. Over the years I noticed people fell into two groups, the sheep and the sheep dogs. The sheep were meek and silent and didn’t want to make a fuss. So they didn’t say much, and stood in line silently with the other 50 people with missing bags while the airport employee walked out with their firearm. They rarely got their missing firearm returned. They let the system overwhelm them.
The sheep dogs raised hell. Loud and fast. And they were prepared. They almost always had photos of their missing items and knew all the relevant information (type, color, serial number, etc…)
They kept saying words like “Stolen gun”, “Stolen high powered rifle.” The faster and louder they raised hell, the faster people got involved in finding their missing firearm. The social media savvy types even started tweeting or calling media to let them know. Because, the more people know about your problem, the more likely the folks at the airport will treat your event as a singular event, and not like the other 326 missing bags from that day.
That was the key for me. Knowing that the more people that are aware of your problem the faster your problem gets attention.
Bags are lost every single day at the airport. For you, the person who lost something, it’s a big deal. For everyone at the airport, it’s just Tuesday. And tomorrow is another day. That’s the attitude that you’re up against. Indifference.
The sheep dog group shared a lot of similar actions that made recovery of their firearms paramount. So, they prepared. Here is a list of things I learned from those passengers:
1. Take photos of your firearm, all the accessories, and the case that you pack the firearm into. Don’t just take one photo, take several. And use something next to the case of the firearm to show scale. A photo of a bag is very hard to determine scale. I used my Driver’s License, in the USA, 95% of Driver’s Licenses are the same size, so it’s an easy to use scale. You can also use money, currency, like a dollar bill to show scale. I always take a photo of me standing next to the bag in front of the airline counter, making sure I capture the airline name in the photo. Because that is the photo I want to see on the 5 O’clock news. And that is the photo I share with the airline folks. It motivates them to my cause. Taking good photos is cheap insurance and it only take a few moments in this day of every phone has a camera.
2. Print the photos and keep one copy with the firearm inside the case and another with you on your person. I also email myself links to the photos I host on my own website in case I need to email someone a photo of the missing case.
3. The bag that holds the locked case (handgun or other small firearm) needs to be any color other than black. Because 95% of bags are black nylon. Your bag needs to stand out. Neon Green. Fire alarm red. Purple with bright orange dots. Why? Because when you turn over your bag that has the firearm in it, what I did was when I got to my gate I watched for my big pink cross bag to get loaded on the airplane. And when I got to my destination, I didn’t leave the gate area but instead I watched through the terminal window as my big pink cross bag was removed from the airplane and put on a baggage cart. That told me my bag got loaded on the plane, and that my bag made it to the same airport as I did. When you have a bright green bag, it’s easy to see from 100 feet away. If your bag is black, good luck with that because everyone else’s bag is black too. The last tip I got from a cop. Wrap your firearm in saran wrap (cling film) with just a few layers. Why? Because most thieves will remove that film and drop it at the point of theft. And it may have fingerprints. Another great tip from a frequent flier was that he padlocked a chain of cheap little Christmas sleigh bells to his pistol when he packed it. Why? Because it made noise every time it moved. And if someone tried to steal it by cracking open the case, and they shoved the pistol in their pocket or pants, it would make noise when they walk. Cheap low cost insurance.
4. It is more likely that your bag will be stolen at a large airport than a small one. It’s a matter of opportunity and volume. If you are leaving from a small airport and heading to a large airport, try to watch for your bag being loaded at the point of departure and unloaded at the “big” airport. If you see your bag unloaded at the big airport and it goes missing, this is a very important clue for the local law enforcement.
5. At small airports, the staff is much smaller and everyone knows everyone else. Theft opportunities are much smaller. I’ve never had a bag stolen at a small airport; it was always the large hubs where I had problems.
6. At small airports, the local law enforcement may be part-time, or “on-demand.” What “on demand” means is that a cop shows up before your flight arrives or departs and is gone soon after. This is why it’s important to get law enforcement involved quickly at a small airport. The sole cop may be on his or her way to another assignment if you dally too long. It’s best to raise the alarm fast.
7. At large airports, the local law-enforcement (police, not the TSA) may be a dedicated force. That also means they get fifty “missing bag” reports per day. Your dilemma is nothing new to them. In my experience, if you can, try to contact a law enforcement agency off airport to report the theft. In large metropolitan areas, the 9-1-1 response call center is usually centrally located. That’s why I dialed 9-1-1. I could have picked up a nearby phone in the airport, or asked someone who works there to call the cops. But this keeps the event localized, when I know from experience, it’s better for the response to originate from the 9-1-1 call center vs. some local dispatch. You are more likely to have an officer respond to your emergency if you dial 9-1-1 from your phone vs. asking some airport employee to get the police involved.
8. Use the media to your advantage. While I was waiting in line at the airport lost bag counter, I was googling every TV station and radio outlet I could find and calling their “hotline” and telling them I had a lost firearm at the airport and yeah I had pictures. I got help fairly fast from the airline once they heard who I was calling.
A few additional notes:
1. Not all airport employees will be ignorant to your plight. It’s helpful to understand that in their business, lost bags are an hourly event. Your lost bag is a big deal to you. To them, it’s just one of the thousands that get lost.
2. When you start to get attention, and receive help, stop sounding the alarm. Learn how to negotiate. Switch hats. Know when and where to be helpful. If you keep antagonizing the folks who are trying to help you, your chances of success at getting your firearm back are much lower. When folks start helping, return the favor.
3. Keep your printed photos handy but never give away your last set of photos. You must retain a copy at all times until you get your firearm back. That’s also why I upload the same photos to a website. And I email myself the URL so I can share it with anyone who needs a copy of the photo. If you give your hard copy photos away, you will regret it. You will be describing it with your hands and looking like a fool.
4. When you get your firearm back, be profuse with your thanks. Praise everyone within earshot. Write emails of thanks. Write letters. Under no circumstances should you threaten the people standing in front of you with retaliation of any sort: (i.e. “I’m going to write a letter to your Mayor!” It’s a waste of time and it needlessly angers these folks. You may need their help before leaving the airport, so don’t yank their chains.
5. Keep your focus on your goal. Getting your firearm back. Don’t get sidetracked by other business. The Golden Hour is the hour you arrive at your destination and find your weapon missing. The clock is ticking. Everything else can wait.
Here is a handy checklist you can print out or store on your smartphone:
When I travel with a firearm I need to:
o Take photos of the firearm and the case it’s in
o Place a copy of the photos with the firearm and make sure my contact information is on a card inside the case or on the outside of the case. I put my name and cellphone number in sharpie in very large letters on the outside of my firearms case.
o I need to email these photos to myself
o I need to have at least two hard copies of the photos with me when I travel
o I need to take a photo of the bag being dropped off, and if I can, take a photo standing in front of the airline counter
o I need to have a bag I can spot from 100 feet away. Bright odd colors are best.
o I need to watch for my bag being loaded on the airplane
o I need to watch for my bag being unloaded from the airplane
o If my bag does not show up, I need to start a timer on my watch or my phone and start raising hell as fast as possible. My goal is to have someone or everyone looking for my bag in the first 15 minutes I discover it missing
o If my bag is found I need to thank everyone involved
o If my bag is not found I will not blame the people that did or did not help me.