The first time I flew with my inflatable PFD my head was swirling with the rumors of difficulties flying with CO2 cartridges. After a few conversations with TSA agents and coaching some friends through the same I know the drill and I don’t give it a second thought. With these three simple steps you can fly with your inflatable PFD all but worry free:
- Pack the inflatable PFD in your carry on
- Plan an extra 30 minutes so you can respectfully and courteously stick to your guns if the TSA agents need to inspect and discuss your CO2 cartridge
- (optional) Take screen shots of or print out the TSA policy on CO2 life vest cartridges in case of hold ups where you have no cell service
You may bring a life vest with up to two CO2 cartridges inside, plus two spare cartridges in your carry-on or checked bag.
Even if an item is generally permitted, it may be subject to additional screening or not allowed through the checkpoint if it triggers an alarm during the screening process, appears to have been tampered with, or poses other security concerns. The final decision rests with TSA on whether to allow any items on the plane.
Reading the TSA policy you see that there are no guarantees; no matter how prepared you are the TSA agents have final say on whether or not they allow your CO2 cartridge through security. Hence the emphasis on respectfully and courteously.
If you’re comfortable with the above you’re all done; no need to read further. But if you’re still nervous I’ll continue…
Pack the Inflatable PFD in your carry-on
I’ve never tried to check my PFD; I want to be a part of the conversation when my bag is inspected and potentially flagged. Checking a bag containing a PFD must be where all the horror stories come from – I’ve heard stories of PFDs being confiscated from checked luggage.
I also coached a friend via sms to carry on her PFD that the agent refused to let her check; even after she showed them their airline’s policy allowing checked PFDs. After she switched the PFD to her carry on she got her PFD there and back again with minimal fuss.
75% of the time I fly with my inflatable PFD it doesn’t get flagged at all. My gear goes through the X-ray machine and I am re-united with it; no questions asked. But if there are going to be questions asked you want to be there to answer them.
In the cases my PFD is flagged, two-thirds of the time the first screening agent to talk to me knows about Inflatable PFDs and the TSA policy regarding their carriage. They might ask you simply:
“do you have a CO2 cartridge in your bag?”
“Yes I do, it’s a part of my inflatable life jacket”
Sometimes affirming I’m carrying a PFD is sufficient. Sometimes the TSA agent will want to see the CO2 cartridge and PFD – they’ll either go through my carry-on and examine for themselves or ask me to take out the PFD and show it to them.
Once the agent sees the CO2 cartridge they might hesitate to allow you to keep your CO2 cartridge. Then you
Plan an extra 30 minutes and respectfully stick to your guns
I know that the TSA policy states that CO2 cartridges for Inflatable PFDs are allowed. I know that the inflatable PFD that must be provided for every passenger on a commercial flight, under every seat, uses the same CO2 cartridge that I’m carrying on. I’ve been through this drill dozens of times. But my strongest ever objection to an attempt to relieve me of my CO2 cartridge was:
Really? That’s weird. I read in an article online that they’re allowed. I even found a statement on the TSA.gov site stating I’d be OK carrying on my PFD. Let’s see if I can find it again…
Then I’ll take out my phone and start looking for the bit of the TSA website says I’m allowed to carry on my PFD intact.
This is where those 30 minutes come in handy. I’m not in a rush so I’m not nervous about missing my flight. I’m not in any kind of hurry so there is no temptation to be short with anyone. I just give the TSA agent time to do their job with no pressure. I’ve had three TSA agents discussing my PFD for quite a while until the supervisor arrived and straightened everything out. That probably took 20 minutes; most of the time they straighten it out in a few minutes.
Screen shot or print the TSA policy on CO2 life vest cartridges
Maybe the printout will help you. It might not help. Present anything you “find” as a partner in solving a puzzle saying “this is the best information I could find online” instead of insisting “this is the policy so you’re mistaken.” You’ll have much better luck. In fact, simply be that partner and appreciate that you’ve patiently been able to help someone improve at their job.
I’ve never used my screen shot. I’ve never actually shown an agent their own TSA policy page though I have pulled up the page and said “I think I found it” while we waited for one of their colleagues together. Respectfully and courteously has always gotten the job done within 30 minutes.
There are no guarantees. TSA agent could confiscate your CO2 cartridge. So I suppose you should know how to remove the CO2 cartridge from the PFD in case that happens. They could confiscate your entire PFD as well without giving you the opportunity to remove the cartridge; they write that wiggle room into their policy. Theoretically when you fly with your PFD you’re always the chance that you may not arrive with it.
Practically speaking, however, packing my inflatable PFD in my carry on and sticking to my guns respectfully and courteously has always worked out for me.
Thank you for your advice on PDF’s. One question…. Once the vest is armed I don’t believe there is a way to unarm the vest without consuming a cartridge. Correct? Also…Is it acceptable to fly with the vest armed?
The vest I own (Mustang Survival MD3184) you can disarm by removing the cartridge without consuming it.
I always fly with my vest armed – I have friends with the same vest who always remove their cartridge for flights.
TJ – Thanks so much for your insight. 🙂
If you disarm to fly with it, remember to rearm it.
I didn’t and when I went in the water it didn’t inflate. No panic as I manually inflated it. Upon inspection I remembered the TSA expert made me disarm it. They of course would have had no liability for my drowning should that have hapoenes
Thank you TJ! I followed your helpful tips and was able to travel with my PFD (West Marine model). I printed out the form and it came in handy as the first TSA agent would not permit me to travel with the vest, but then called her supervisor who was aware of the rules and permitted me to board with it. I had no issues on the return trip from a larger airport.
Hey TJ! I just bought 2 Spinlocks for my first offshore delivery. I hope they don’t take it them! Thanks for the tips! Great resource!