Flying with tools (not the other passengers)
January 11, 2010 11:47 AM   Subscribe

Question about flying with common hand tools in my carry-on bag, US domestic flight.

I'm flying this coming weekend to pick up a vintage 4x4 that I am purchasing from a friend. I would like to bring some tools with me to address any issues on my drive from the bay area back to LA. I'll be getting off the plane and driving right back to LA. Thought about taking the train, but the time-table and super slow trains here in California just weren't going to work out. I'll be flying from Burbank -> Phoenix -> San Jose on US Airways. Direct flights were super expensive to book this late in the game. There aren't any super cheap Harbor Freight stores on my route home, and I don't want to buy expensive wrench sets at a big box store either.

TSA prohibited items list states that i can carry on hand tools, screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers that are less than 7 inches in length. I realize that these guidelines are often left to the discretion of the screener, so that's why I'm asking here. I'd like to take a ratchet set in a small case, and a roll of box wrenches. This will easily fit in my normal carry-on bag. I don't want to check a bag because of my layover/transfer in Phoenix and the baggage charges. Anyone have any recent experience carrying tools carry-on? Thanks!
posted by Bohemia Mountain to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total)
Bearing in mind the inconvenience and risk of needing tools on the return trip and having had them taken from you by TSA, I truly cannot see how $15-$20 is enough justification to not check the items - no matter what anecdotal evidence you may gain from this.

It is unlikely that every TSA agent will consider a tool set appropriate for the cabin of a plane, and I can't imagine a scenario where one wouldn't be enormously helpful to anyone desiring to do harm to the plane, so it really shouldn't be allowed. So even if you do get an agent that is fine in some other person'a experience with a few tools, you may well lose yours on your journey.

It simply isn't (especially with a return drive in a vintage vehicle to complete) worth the risk, to my mind. If your flight is booked in advance and there are no major delays, the chances of losing your tools if they are checked are very small (and immeasurably smaller than finding a sympathetic TSA agent, to my mind)
posted by Brockles at 11:55 AM on January 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I can't speak directly to what you may experience, but checked luggage right now is really, really restricted, according to my southern-travelin' parents. Why not UPS the tools to your friend? They'll easily be there in time, and you can travel without worrying about your tools being left behind.
posted by liquado at 11:55 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Definitely check a bag or mail the tools. Everyone is really paranoid right now, and I wouldn't risk it.

Your other option is to get to the airport many hours early, attempt to go through security with your tools, and then if you get stopped, go back and check them. It'll be time and hassle, but I'd say you have a 30% chance of avoiding needing to check the bag.
posted by decathecting at 12:00 PM on January 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I vote for sending the tools by mail, or buying a cheap toolkit at the first discount retailer you pass after picking up the truck, whichever is cheaper. The cheap toolkits are crummy, but will get you through in a pinch; there's some value over time in having some tools you can treat as disposable.
posted by Forktine at 12:05 PM on January 11, 2010

I doubt you will have a problem with tools in a checked bag - my company does this very often, and to my knowledge continues to do it in this post-attempted-Christmas-bombing world.

Decathecting is right - if you want to attempt to carry them on, then give yourself plenty of time to go back and check them if the security agent refuses to allow them through. Again, my company sometimes travels with materials that we prefer to carry on-board rather than check, and most of the time the agents do not hassle us. However, we ALWAYS schedule time to deal with these items in the event that we are denied permission.

Above all, it helps to keep a steady and polite demeanor. Be prepared for questions and deliver your answers clearly and promptly. If the agent does not allow the items, politely ask if you can take them back to the gate to check them. If, for some reason, the agent says that they must be disposed of (I highly doubt this will happen), thank the agent for their time and count it as a lost bet.
posted by muddgirl at 12:14 PM on January 11, 2010

I have a keychain memento from my Engineering school that is in the shape of a pipe wrench. It's about 1.5 inches long. Several years ago one of the security agents looked at it and called someone over for a discussion - and they decided that since it wasn't a "working" pipe wrench, it was okay. However, if it had been "working", which maybe means there was an adjustable clamp, who knows, then it would have been prohibited, because tools weren't allowed. Maybe the guidelines at the time weren't specific about the size of the tools or maybe the screener was just an idiot. Who knows.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:19 PM on January 11, 2010

There is actually a Harbor Freight reasonably nearby your destination. It's in Newark right off the 880 freeway, about 16 miles north of SJC. It's not on your route home, true, but it's a half hour roundtrip detour as SJC is also right next to 880.
posted by jamaro at 12:37 PM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just buy a tool kit when you get there, save the receipt & return the tools when you get home. I did this once with no problems whatsoever.
posted by torquemaniac at 12:39 PM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Personally, I'd go with the USPS priority mail "anything you can fit in this box" rate, which is great for cheaply mailing very dense things at a speed that would get to your friend's place before the weekend. Their 8.5x5.5x1.5" box is $5 to mail, and still bigger than the TSA <7" regulation, or you could splurge on the 8.5x11.5" $10 box.

But that's just how I would do it. This is a problem with all sorts of solutions.
posted by aimedwander at 12:52 PM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Check the bag, not worth the hassle to you or everyone else stuck in security behind you while you try and argue your case.
posted by arcticseal at 1:06 PM on January 11, 2010

My allen wrench, less than 3" in length, got confiscated last time I flew. However that was on a flight from Canada to U.S.; on the flight out (Den-Toronto) nobody cared. I think it's likely a matter of which agents you get, unfortunately. I'd go with one of the speedy-mailing options instead.
posted by nat at 1:07 PM on January 11, 2010

I've been on several flights since the Dec. 25 incident, including two domestic flights yesterday. Security in general seems a little more intense, and agents vary widely in how they "interpret" the rules. I've seen small blunt scissors confiscated, for example, while the rules say they're acceptable. My laptop lock was confiscated because the cable could be used as a garrote. I lucked out: rather than throwing it away, they gave it to flight attendants, who put it somewhere secret during the flight and gave it to me at the end.

I say avoid the likely hassle and check the bag or mail the stuff.
posted by PatoPata at 1:14 PM on January 11, 2010

If you value your tools AT ALL, don't try and carry them on. Period. I'm a stagehand who has toured, and I know a lot of people who do a lot of traveling with tools. Tools go on the truck if at all possible, and if not, absolutely get checked. (This has once resulted in me doing a load-in wearing pajamas with no tools because my luggage didn't make it to the airport at the same time I did. Oops.)

Mail your tools to your friends. Heck, I'm in SF, mail your tools to me and pick them up when you get here. (OK, I'm an hour out of your way, so maybe not me.) Don't try and carry them on.
posted by mollymayhem at 1:31 PM on January 11, 2010

I was not permitted to carry a socket set, pliers, or screwdrivers on a domestic flight from California to Oregon in 2006. Whether the rules have changed (for better or worse) since then is probably not worth finding out with your tools.
posted by SpecialK at 1:36 PM on January 11, 2010

There is no way I would fly with tools in my carry on at the moment, as they are almost certain to get confiscated. You are flying into San Jose, which is a major US city -- just hit a Home Depot, AutoZone, Kragens, or similar chain and buy a cheap tool set. If you don't use it, return it in L.A.

A quick use of The Google reveals numerous locations for all of these:

Here are the Sears/Orchard Supply Hardware locations in San Jose.

Here are all of the AutoZone locations in San Jose.

Here are all the Kragens locations in San Jose and vicinity.

Here are the Home Depots in the Bay Area.
posted by mosk at 1:46 PM on January 11, 2010

If you do decide to carry this stuff on make sure you aren't over weight limits. I run into problems flying with camera equipment which doesn't have anywhere near the density of hand tools. Air Canada for examples only allows a carry on to mass 10 kgs.
posted by Mitheral at 2:03 PM on January 11, 2010

I was actually able to get through, via phone, to the supervisor at the TSA check-point I will have to pass through at Bob Hope Airport (burbank) just a few moments ago. Surprisingly easy! Called the airport and with two rings and no menu I was talking to a real live person! She transferred me directly to the TSA supervisor at my gate. According to the TSA supervisor, who's name and info i wrote down to carry with me, I will be a-ok to carry the tools in my carry-on. She asked me if i were planning to carry drills, drill bits, saws, hammers etc and I answered honestly that i am not. She indicated that as long as the tools are no longer than the permitted 7in that there shouldn't be any issue whatsoever having them in my carry-on.

I'm marking jamaro best answer for the tip on Harbor Freight in Newark that I missed in my search. If all else fails, I will head there before leaving for home with my new rig. Thanks for not suggesting a checked bag or big box store jamaro!
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 2:42 PM on January 11, 2010

Well I sure as hell could take part of an aircraft apart and destroy some equipment or wiring within a couple of minutes with just a few simple tools. I fly enough and work with engineering enough to even be able to mostly guess what I'd need to, at the very least, cause enough damage to force an inconvenience (enough smoke in the cabin for a diversion maybe) with a few hours of research on systems that run within reach of the cabin areas. Even if there are no critical systems within reach behind (say) the wall panels in the bathrooms, I'm pretty sure that if someone discovered them hanging off then utter panic would ensue and a precautionary landing would be the only sensible option. Chaos can be a suitable result for the crazies, not just destruction.

What if a passenger managed to unbolt an entire row of seats and try to throw them around? I can probably tell you what size sockets and wrenches you will need as we use the exact same fasteners every day at my work. I reckon one row of seats loose in under 60 seconds would be easily possible with 4 tools under 7 inches.

Does that sound more likely to be an issue on a plane than some nail clippers? Or a bottle of water?

There are countless stupid and peurile items that are taken or banned at security. Most of them entirely illogically. Tools, however, are one of the things that actually makes sense to ban. You can take the plane apart with them.

Your claimed and suggested shame and embarrassment is amusing and baffling to me as a result. It makes no sense at all to me to ban anything after "guns and knives" without tools being shortly thereafter on the list.
posted by Brockles at 6:39 AM on January 12, 2010

Tools, however, are one of the things that actually makes sense to ban.

Except they're not banned.

You can take the plane apart with them.

You probably can't. I'll check next time I fly, but I bet the seats are bolted down onto a track for easy installation/removal. It depends on the plane, but you usually can't just remove a seat in the middle. If they aren't captive in a track, then you won't be able to access both the bolt and the nut to remove the seat, as one of them will be below the deck. And if, for some reason, THAT'S not true, then they'll use a non-standard bolt head that will resist traditional box wrenches.

The most a person with non-powered tools could do would be to start randomly hitting things with them, and I could do that with any sufficiently heavy object, like the power brick on my laptop.
posted by muddgirl at 7:11 AM on January 12, 2010

The present method of unlocking the passenger seats, practiced by airline companies throughout the world, is by prying up on the seat locking plug (which is part of the aft seat locking mechanism) using a conventional flat-blade screwdriver and a hammer.

So when "The most a person with non-powered tools could do would be to start randomly hitting things with them, and I could do that with any sufficiently heavy object, like the power brick on my laptop.", they'd only have to have a sub 7" screwdriver and your power adaptor to remove the seats, it seems. That tallies with the mechanism I have seen on many aircraft.

but I bet the seats are bolted down onto a track for easy installation/removal.

Yes, they are. It's not that hard to remove them with tools though. Having worked on the First Class fully reclining seat mechanism for Virgin Aircraft 10 years ago, I can assure you there is nothing at all special in the way seats are bolted down to the floor. It uses the same fasteners and technology that I use in the motor racing industry daily, and I use standard tools such as those available from any Sears or Home Depot with those fasteners. The same goes for the panel removal in the bathrooms - standard (albeit not common outside aviation and non-automotive) fasteners just sat there with perfectly fine access.

I bet the seats are bolted down onto a track for easy installation/removal.

Yep. I have bolded the important part. Aircraft are not space ships. They use highly spec'd fasteners but no magic in engineering terms. Just look at a seat next time you fly - they're super simple. They are designed to be so. The track is bolted to the aircraft, the seats are bolted to the track - this same style of track is, incidentally, used in hundreds of race team trucks for securing equipment and ratchet straps for cars to be secured for transport. This stuff is extremely common in the right circles and very easy to use.

you won't be able to access both the bolt and the nut to remove the seat, as one of them will be below the deck

The idea that you'd need easy access and clearance to the entire of the passenger compartment floor to get to bolts under every single seat is ludicrous. You're guessing and clearly haven't even looked properly. The packaging involved in this and the extra time and coordination required to remove seats would make this a massively complicated process. You'd need a radio to tell the guy below which bolt to put the wrench on next - planes don't get designed with that sort of ham-fisted serviceability.
posted by Brockles at 7:54 AM on January 12, 2010

Brockles - you're right, I've never worked on seats for passenger planes, only planes that have already been refitted for military applications.

But at what point, exactly, do you expect that every single passenger and flight steward will be inattentive enough for a passenger to (a) remove her tools from her carry-on baggages, (b) standing up from her seat, (c) getting down on her knees in the aisle to remove the seat locking plug on her seat, (d) standing back up to lift the seat out of the track.

I don't need a screwdriver to damage to any panels in the crew section or bathroom. Any shiv of plastic with sufficient stiffness will do just fine. There is no way to engineer a passenger plane to foil a person determined to cause mischief, and there is no way to limit someone carrying on mischief-causing tools without requiring that we fly naked.
posted by muddgirl at 8:03 AM on January 12, 2010

There is no way to engineer a passenger plane to foil a person determined to cause mischief

I completely agree. A set of tools would make that mischief significantly easier than a shiv of plastic though, wouldn't it? Far more than a set of nail clippers or a nail file or a bottle of water would. It's the total lack of acknowledgement of the direct usefulness of hand tool that amazes me with their free access within the cabin.

But at what point, exactly, do you expect that every single passenger and flight steward will be inattentive enough for a passenger to (a) remove her tools from her carry-on baggages, (b) standing up from her seat, (c) getting down on her knees in the aisle to remove the seat locking plug on her seat, (d) standing back up to lift the seat out of the track.

Any flight where they dim the lights and people sleep - as I said, I don't see more than 60 seconds work to get the seat loosened. With the bag already under your feet, you'd have more time than that even if someone saw you immediately and wondered what you were doing. It's the chaos it would cause, rather than any tangible damage. If someone even got part of the way to removing a seat and was found to have been in the bathroom for a long period earlier or the panel was partially removed and that is a direct path to credible bomb threat. You don't even need to smuggle explosives on, just threaten it. Also, any flight where you can get in the bathroom for more than 5 minutes with a couple of things in your pocket.

I think that most of the passenger restrictions for carry on are utter bullshit and a serious pain in the arse - particularly as I travel at least once or twice a month on planes. I find it even more laughable when something that would allow you to cause significant panic/destruction/implied destruction is freely allowed on board.
posted by Brockles at 8:22 AM on January 12, 2010

tl;dr but DO NOT say the word "tool" to describe anything TSA finds in your carry-on, as it will be confiscated. Calling it something else (like, maybe, an adapter) may work. (TSA's goons have stolen two very nice tools from me -- and one, a multiple-head nut-driver, didn't have any sharp parts.)
posted by Rash at 9:13 AM on January 12, 2010

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