Last week I flew down to Florida for a couple days and had the opportunity to test out a theory I've held for a long time about travel with fire tools. Years ago when I was flying home from Burning Man, a pair of my fire staves was confiscated from me as I boarded my flight at the Reno airport to come home. I'd checked in late and as such, my bag was being manually taken to the plane rather than going through the usual steps and by the time it arrived at the aircraft, they'd taken the staves off of it. I nearly missed my plane arguing with the woman at the checkout counter about whether I could or could not fly with the staves, but in the days after I called the TSA supervisor in Reno to see if I could retrieve them.
I'm actually kind of glad I had that experience because it taught be a lot about the transportation of fire tools that I might not otherwise have learned and I developed a theory afterwards that my fire tools where not just fine to fly with in checked bags, but also in my carry-on. In the process of finding out whether those staves had been confiscated in accordance with TSA procedure or not (spoiler: the answer is not), I had to go through enough TSA documentation to realize that my staves were confiscated not because I wasn't allowed to fly with them, but because they'd caught the eye of an airline employee in a manner that led them to conclude they were dangerous.*
With those lessons in mind, I tried flying to Florida with my fire poi in my carry-on and got through airport security without any issues whatsoever. Here's how I did it:
The first thing to realize is that there is absolutely no regulation that prevents taking fire tools on a flight at all. You can comb through TSA's literature on the topic and you'll find that those things fire-related that you're forbidden to carry are things that have a fuel reservoir in them. My staves had been confiscated under suspicion that they were what the TSA classifies as "torches", something more akin to the tiki torches we sometimes use in yards as illumination. Our fire tools are dipped for one-off burns and do not retain much if any of the fuel used for said burns. As such, they do not fit the TSA's classification of torches and are not forbidden to fly with. With that said, here's the assumptions I made in packing for my trip.
With that in mind, I elected to break down my fire tools into their component pieces to fly with. I separated out my wicks and both locked them inside individual plastic bags as well as covered them with a lovely pair of poi cozies made for me by the talented Jen Swanson to make them appear as inconspicuous as possible to the naked eye. I then bagged them in a second zip-lock bag to ensure that any residual vapors were as isolated as possible (as well as marked the bag with the old faithful label: Juggling Equipment) and tucked them into the bag I used for my clothing.
I'm sure tons of people fly with wallet chains, so I then separated out my chains and put them in their own zip-lock bag to once again isolate any residual vapors. I then placed them in the small pocket of my backpack with all my spare change, reasoning that the swivels would likely be lost in the mess of stray metal pieces and not raise any suspicions.
Finally, my handles are currently simple colecord loops with LanternSmith PomGrips. Straight up, there's no problem here. I just made sure to stick them in a different pocket than my chains. To the TSA person, this arrangement should then present as somebody with some chains and change together in a pocket, random soft stuff in another pocket, and a bag full of clothes that had two slightly more dense masses in among them--perhaps rolled up socks?
Going through security, nobody batted an eye or asked to inspect anything in my bags further. I gave them nothing that seemed out of the ordinary and it worked out in my favor. Perhaps if they'd inspected my bags it would have come out differently, but presenting a respectful and helpful front I didn't get a hassle from anybody. If you feel like trying this out, please let me know how your experience goes. Before you go telling me I've lead you wrong and my advice got your shit confiscated, please double-check that you followed all the steps outlined above, including bagging your equipment and storing all the pieces separately. It should be noted that a secondary consideration for separating out the components of my poi was that should any individual component be confiscated I would not lose the whole set as a result.
I will fully admit that this approach is really only good for poi, but I'd love to hear from any artists who've found ways to apply these lessons to flying with other tools in carry-on. For now, I hope it helps some of you who are nervous about flying with your tools and unsure how to proceed along that avenue.
* Updated 7/14/2013: I was asked whether I ever got my staves back and the answer is yes. I called the TSA supervisor in Reno (it took a lot of getting bounced around to reach him) and he personally went to the airport, got the staves back from United, and shipped them back to me. Moral of that story: be tenacious! This dude was a freaking rock star :)