Anyone who has flown with a firearm recently knows what a hassle it can be. In addition to governmental restrictions, airlines can create their own set of rules pertaining to guns and they run the gamut, from complete prohibition to offering an additional free checked baggage allowance. South African Airways (SAA) is a major carrier for the Africa hunting market, but its rules defy both logic and standard airline practices—meaning the unwitting traveling hunter is very likely to lose his or her ammunition.
Every air carrier that allows firearms as checked baggage requires ammunition be carried in a separate-from-the-gun, hard-sided, locked container… Every carrier, that is, but SAA. If connecting from the SAA hub in Johannesburg, be it a domestic or international connection, SAA will remove ammunition from the passenger’s hard-sided, locked, non-gun case and place in a plastic bag. Yes, a plastic bag.
Though the SAA plastic bag is of some heft and my own bag-o-bullets only tore on one of our connecting flights, the issue is not even the obvious lack of security for this dubious container. The issue is SAA’s refusal to conform to the well-reasoned and established standards of the rest of the airline world, which leave traveling hunters and shooters in an impossible situation.
Unless you fly out of a hub city like Atlanta, New York, Washington, D.C., or others, international travel almost always requires a connecting flight. Rather than collect and recheck bags at every connection along the way, the airlines have created this wonderful system of checking bags through to the passenger’s final destination, meaning once luggage is dropped off in Dallas, Denver or Detroit, said bags should appear on the carousel upon arrival in Johannesburg, Jacksonville, or Jalalabad. (Well, perhaps not Jalalabad.) Unless you are connecting to a different airline to reach another destination in Africa, the issue is moot. The problem is generally not traveling to Africa. The problem arises most often on the return trip.
To be clear, passengers flying only on SAA should have no issues, unless of course the hunter passenger’s plastic bullet bag breaks in transit. The real issue is when initiating a flight with SAA that connects to another airline, such as Air Namibia, Air Zimbabwe, LAM or Delta. The following are real-life scenarios that occurred on my hunting party’s last Africa trip.
Traveling from East London to Johannesburg on SAA, we were scheduled to connect on Air Namibia in Johannesburg, flying on to Windhoek, Namibia. We were required to collect our gun cases and separately-bagged ammunition at JNB (Johannesburg airport) and recheck them with Air Namibia. The firearms were no problem, but as Air Namibia would not accept a plastic bag full of live rounds as checked baggage, we had no choice but to repack our gear and convert a carry-on to a checked bag to transport our ammunition. This may not seem like much of a problem to some, but as we were traveling with a great deal of delicate camera gear, firearms and a one-year old baby, it was a difficult trick to pull off—and that was the easy leg.
Our return journey to the United States began in Windhoek Namibia on SAA. This is where the ridiculous nature of the airline’s policy was on full display. As expected now, the ticket counter agent insisted on putting our ammunition in plastic bags. Then things became inexplicable. Rather than allowing the opportunity to collect and transfer our ammunition into one of our locked, hard-sided cases as is required by our international carrier, Delta, in Johannesburg, SAA required the plastic bag containing our bullets be checked through to Atlanta. Really? Sending ammunition on a flight to the United Sates in a plastic bag with a zip tie? I can only imagine the laughter of the TSA and Delta baggage handlers as they threw my expensive boxes of .375 H&H into the “not suitable to fly” hopper, or whatever they do with inappropriately packaged items.
Why am I sharing this? My purpose is not to highlight the arrogance and/or ignorance of SAA’s corporate policies or try and dissuade you from choosing SAA as your air carrier. You can make that judgment for yourself. The reason I am sharing is to make you aware of this new issue SAA recently has created and the best way to avoid the problems we encountered.
Avoiding SAA is not the solution. They dominate the market in southern Africa and often they are the only carrier to many destinations. Flying SAA without other carrier connections should alleviate the problem, although I do not know how SAA deals with ammunition on their long hauls to New York and Washington. But what if you prefer flying Delta, or can only get to Maun on Air Botswana? The answer to this and the integrity of the plastic bag issue are both resolved by taking along a small, hard-sided, lockable ammunition box.
Though it does add unnecessary weight in the checked bag, if SAA insists on removing bullets from hard-sided, locked bags, at least said bullets can be transported in a manner that complies with the rules abided by the rest of the international airline community. It is a simple fix, but problems are hard to fix if one does not know they exist in advance. As of this writing, nowhere does SAA’s website make any references to the need for hunters to remove ammunition from checked bags. I suppose it is such a new policy they have not had a chance to update their website?
Traveling the world with firearms is always a challenge but knowledge of the rules, no matter how nonsensical they are, is the first step toward ensuring a problem-free experience. As they say, knowledge is power. If you have a friend contemplating a trip involving SAA, do him or her a favor and pass along this knowledge.
Post Script: I tried to call SAA corporate, but the voice-mail referred me to the “customer care” website. Having explained at-length the dilemma and the urgency of the matter for traveling hunters, the person replied with a case number and a promise to follow up with me. When I tried again to resolve this a week later, I received the same result but a different case number. I hope I am not taking literary license when I tell you I believe South African Airways’ response to this problem is “no comment.”
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About the Author: Steve Scott is a reformed attorney, long-time university instructor and producer and host of the Safari Hunter’s Journal and Outdoor Guide television series on air and online. For more information, visit SteveScott.TV.