Delta’s Dumb Reaction

By Jeff Knox

(April 5, 2017) Delta Airlines has implemented new “security protocols” in response to the incident last January in Fort Lauderdale, when an arriving passenger with a properly declared handgun in his checked luggage retrieved the gun in a bathroom, and began shooting people in the terminal.

Delta says that under the new protocols, luggage containing firearms will be identified with a special tag indicating that it should not be placed on the regular baggage carousel for passenger pickup, but rather be hand-delivered to the airline’s baggage office, where it will be zip-tied shut and only released to its owner after an ID check.

In theory, this doesn’t seem unreasonable, but practical application often fails to track with theory.  I spent several years working with the TSA at a major, international, hub airport. I tested their security, and closely observed their practices.  I am also a fairly frequent flier, who often transports firearms, so I have some particular experience and familiarity in this arena.

From a passenger perspective, I have often been bothered by the fact that my luggage, with my expensive, and well-loved firearms inside, is unceremoniously dumped onto an unsecured baggage carousel where anyone with a little chutzpah could simply pick it up and walk away with it.  There was a problem with that happening at Phoenix Sky Harbor a few years ago, and the airport added some security, and began doing random claim-check matching, but that soon faded due to costs. The other side of the security issue for luggage with guns, is that as long as no one – or at least almost no one – knows that there is a gun in a bag, it is unlikely to be singled out for pilfering.  For a time, back in the late ’70s, the government mandated that luggage carrying guns be labeled with a big, orange tag that said “FIREARM INSIDE.” That practice led to bags with firearms being targeted by thieves – at the baggage claim, and among baggage handlers. One wag among the firearms community printed up some compliant tags that carried the preface, “ATTENTION GUN THIEVES.” That policy was thankfully scrapped and for the past thirty years or so, anonymity has been the main security measure.  As long as people didn’t know a bag contained a gun, it was unlikely to be targeted by thieves. This all led to the Firearm Owners Protection Act including a prohibition on any labeling to indicate that a bag contained a firearm. There is some question as to whether this new Delta policy violates that law.

If the special handling tags are used exclusively for bags containing firearms, Delta is probably breaking the law by using them.  At a minimum, the bar-code on the tags must indicate that the bag contains a firearm, so even if the tags are used for various purposes, if they are an indication of higher-value contents, they are at the least a bad idea, and very possibly still a violation of law.

Another problem likely with Delta’s new system is that airlines are often under-staffed in their baggage claim areas, meaning that travelers could face significant delays in retrieving their luggage.  If the baggage claim office is unmanned at the time your flight arrives, is your bag going to be locked in the office, or as I’ve often seen, stacked outside the baggage office door unattended? If the baggage claim agent is busy dealing with other passengers who have lost or damaged luggage, are you going to have to wait an extended time for the agent to get to you?  Is that potentially going to interfere with making connections on other airlines, buses, or trains?

Finally, there is the question of verifying that the gun made it safely to the destination.  If the bag is zip-tied shut, and you’re not supposed to open it until you’re off airport property, you have no way of making sure the gun is still there.  When I arrive at my destination and retrieve my luggage, the first thing I do is open the bag to see that the hard case containing my pistol is still there, and the locks are still in place.  I also feel the case to make sure its heft indicates the contents are still there. That might seem a little paranoid, but I’ve been in busy baggage basements, and seen TSA officers and baggage handlers remove items from bags.  With TSA’s handling procedures in some airports, it would be a simple thing for a baggage handler to mark a bag containing a firearm so that accomplices down the line could easily identify the bag later.

The biggest problem with Delta’s new firearm protocol is that it creates all of this potential for abuse and delay, while not accomplishing anything positive at all.

To my knowledge, there is only one case in all of recorded history of an airline passenger legally transporting a firearm in his checked luggage, reaching his destination and immediately using that firearm for illegal purposes.  Had Delta’s new procedures been in place at that time, there is nothing at all that would have prevented the perpetrator from going in the restroom, or going outside to a secluded corner of the pick-up area, cutting the zip-ties, and retrieving the firearm to commit his crime.

This was a bizarre, and highly unusual incident, and it is ridiculous to use it to justify adding another layer of risk and inconvenience to passengers traveling with firearms.