Thoughts on Amateur Radio Travel in a TSA Controlled World

Over the next six months I’ll have several opportunities to travel via airlines.

A few of the places work and recreation will take me to are beyond my personal “Drive if it is less than a 16 hours drive”  guideline.

For several years I have generally driven if a destination could be made in 16 hours behind the wheel or less, simply to be able to have my own schedule, being able to have my own airline-unfriendly test gear with me, and avoid the delays/hassles of airline travel.

In practice I would bend this rule to basically drive whenever I could, even if it would be a somewhat longer drive.

I should explain that my construction profession usually requires showing up at the client’s facility in full PPE (Hardhat, Safety Boots, Safety Glasses, Hearing Protection, possibly Hi-Viz outer wear and fall-protection harness/gear in some cases), with roof access gear (ladders) on occasion, and usually sampling (roof test cut & patching) & testing gear.  So I am usually traveling heavy.

Also the idea, at my height, of putting up with much time with knees crushed into the back of the next row of airline seats seems enough justification alone to drive rather than fly.

For a few years I flew my own personal airplane for some of the longer trips, though the economics didn’t work out and I found the love of flying I had for hours piloting disappeared when I “Had” to fly to make a trip.  What was fun on a Saturday morning as a getaway from work had become part of work, and hence much less fun.

Internationally one is usually stuck flying, though I have made several inter-country sea trips, either personally on commercial cruises or for professional travel on ferries or working boats.

Over the years while flying commercially I have had undue attention on numerous occasions.  I’ve managed over the years to be interviewed by New Scotland Yard’s airport team, spend a few hours in special examination by the friendly (not) folk in Canada, have TSA agents insist on detaining me while they scanned their own class ring claiming my gear had hidden metal in it, be counseled by Her Majesty’s finest that I needed to pay a huge fee & have my passport taken away to transfer visas (didn’t do it, and it has continued to work just fine every trip, though I expect the moan each time), and dozens of other hassles by officialdom domestically & internationally.

What would set them off?  Anything from paying cash for an international ticket (don’t do it – I was naive and I had a funeral to make), traveling with stuff that twigs their systems – firearms, masses of computer disks back in the day, traveling with no luggage (wonderful Transport Canada was crabby about that), traveling with tools (Transport Canada again wigged out, as the common tools to nurse back  car left in Canada set them off – I should have bought the spares & tools once I arrived I guess), asking the wrong questions (NEVER ask the TSA folk were you selected for further screening by “profile or count” – whether you matched some sort of risk profile or simply were the x-number person through – as they go nuts when you ask about their procedures), … and crime of crimes, traveling with radio gear.

Internationally I had SWL and Amateur gear “earn” me extra scrutiny in & out of the UK, Spain, Canada, Mexico and a couple of the Islands.

Domestically I’ve earned an extra “looking over” or had hand luggage checked because of radio gear perhaps a half-dozen times.

I should clarify that my Military days included extensive security training, perhaps leaving me a bit more attune to when I have attracted extra security attention.  Perhaps some of the ramp-up security responses – simple things like two supervisors coming over with the questions starting might escape some travelers, though of course the “invite to the windowless hell of an interview room” would register with everyone!

So how to travel with the radio gear I would like to have AND not become a TSA training exercise in route?  With the TSA currently prone to illegal warrantless searches – their claim that you agree to be their victim by having bought a ticket is dubious at best, and as far I can tell I buy a ticket from the Airline, not the government…- why attract attention?

Working plan is to repurpose a spare Pelican case, outfit it with one of my back-up radio kits (transceiver, power supply, antenna, cables & accessories) and ship it ahead by UPS or FedEX.

With airlines charging for an extra bag, this looks to be cheaper and gets my gear out of the way when playing the TSA game.

As long at the kit is insured, and I have a ready way to ship back, this should work.

So the current debate is whether to up-scale the kit to include push-up masts and a “dream list” or keep it at a more Zen-like minimum kit?

Should I keep it a portable transceiver (say a SGC-2020 or an IC-7000 size class) or scale up and send a TenTec Jupiter or perhaps an IC-745 class rig?

My thoughts are the small-scale.  Target of under 50 lbs of kit and less than $1000 in insured value.

Tentative list is:

  • SCG-2020 Transceiver
  • SCG 237 Antenna Coupler (though they seem to weigh more than it should).
  • Gamma Power Supply
  • End-Fed Antenna lik the LnP offerings
  • Cables, connectors & Coax
  • Grounding wire with clamp/stake termination
  • Welz SWR/Power Meter
  • Rigrunner Power connector box, with spare fuses
  • NUE-PSK Diginal Modem & USB keyboard with interface cables

Should be able to put together the kit mostly from gear in my spares, and meet the weight & value maximum targets.

Have a few weeks to test the set-up and set-up the case.  Would like to do a hand-cut foam insert to best protect the gear in the case.

More to follow….



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6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Amateur Radio Travel in a TSA Controlled World

  1. Chris KE5ZRT says:

    I am a TSA Supervisor (8 years now) and also a ham operator (KE5ZRT). I am sorry that you have not been happy with your screening experiences. Generally, traveling with your radio gear should not attract too much attention. However, when placing the transceiver, and power supply in your checked baggage, most likely a search will be required every time.


    btw–This is not an official statement on behalf of the Agency.

    • k9zw says:

      Hi Chris KE5ZRT

      Thank you for taking time to comment.

      Yes I have had unpleasant experiences not only with TSA since it was formed, with a wider range of various groups tasked in various countries to do checks.

      The TSA lot does have many great individuals in it, though I will be very blunt in saying that in the instances I ran into trouble the demonstrated skill-set wouldn’t have cut it in an unprotected, say street detention, situation.

      Professionally to someone our Government has trained I wouldn’t want to even go into detail how feeble some of the searches were, lest I expose axis of exploitation for misuse.

      IMHO where we have gone is from a TSA tasked to provide a reasonable screening effort (notice I don’t even use the word security) through varied techniques to cull out the majority of threats.

      Where we have ended up is in an invasive program abridging our inalienable rights – we have let our system become the handmaiden to the terrorist.

      When the people fear the representatives of their own government, and are under more threat from them – then we’ve devolved from Security to Brown Shirts acting for the enemy.

      I have seen incorrect things done elsewhere in security, including by agents who were also hams. Wish it were so that a few good folk could steer this situation right, as it looks like their are plenty of demands from the people & the administration to see that the TSA will end up being thrown under the bus rather than reformed.



  2. David, K2DBK says:

    Steve, I’ll stay out of the political fray here and concentrate on the pure logistics: I travel a few times a year for pleasure (hmm…let’s call it “for purposes unrelated to business”; flying isn’t pleasurable) and have taken my Icom 706MkIIG with me a few times. I’ve also taken a Buddistick antenna and skipped the power supply since I usually operate from a (parked) car somewhere. However, I have sent things in the past (like hamsticks) and may look to doing in more in the future. I’d be curious to know what you wound up with as far as shipping costs? Do you have the gear shipped to a hotel prior to your arrival? (In my case, most of the trips have been to visit family, so I have a good shipping destination.)

    • Sean says:

      KB8JNE here. I didn’t read anything here on how to successfully get through security with radio gear. I am traveling on a one time trip to Florida soon for work and taking an FT-817 with me. I’ll be carrying it on as I hear things about baggage getting rummaged through, etc. Sure could have used some good tips on how to draw the least suspicion here.


      • k9zw says:

        Hi Sean KB8JNE

        I am “told” that fellow hams are having success just bringing there gear. Small stuff & large. Lacking firsthand otherwise I can only say an HT in my gear had never been an issue over the years.

        My next four commercial flights are all rush-trips where I will not bring more than an HT, if any gear at all. so it will be later this year before I can see how things work myself with a HF setup and the TSA.



  3. Sean says:

    I am a member of the FT-817 Yahoo group and we have been discussing it there at length. The majority of the people flying seem to have had more problems with Laptops and of all things, 80m coils. Seems anything with a wire on it is suspect, like the coil one overseas guest was returning home with from the US. Most folks just plop their FT-817s with batteries in the tray and the folks just swab them and move on. A few suggested leaving it on a local FM station in case you need to prove it’s a receiver. I still think I’ll place the mic in the stowed baggage to further prove I have no plans on transmitting. There again, a clever Ham could key CW with a paperclip.

    As a technology based person and Amateur of a few years, one can imagine a lot of reasons to not allow a functional transceiver on a plane but who am I to argue with the Federal Government and their civilian power hungry monkeys. But I digress…

    Seems to me I would allow a transmitter but only if the batteries were removed. Even that is no guarantee as you can carry spares, etc. Flight security is quite a joke to me. I could hold a hostage with a sharp pencil to the neck and I doubt they would argue. Should we ban pencils too now? The only safe way to fly, and we may have an interesting future ahead of us here, is to fly hermetically sealed, naked after a full cavity search in a baggie from the ceiling of the aircraft. Then we could almost be assure that nobody was packing something threatening.

    So anyway, I feel confident I can get to Florida with my FT-817 a few NiCads and short antenna.

    What is constantly in question everywhere I have read about this is the perception that the TSA has no authority dealing with local regulations. They are only there to enforce Federal issues and what is more interesting to anyone who values the freedoms this country is supposed to provide is that apparently they are allowed to have a secret agenda in that they are making their actual TSA rules a secret to the public. Getting that 1984 vibe here. Yes, I may be an alarmist but this is a real breach of the idea that we should not be governed by an enforcement agency like the privately run TSA where the rules of their job are actually a secret.


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