Having gears and multi-tools always with you is a good idea, isn’t it? After all, every-day carry (EDC) does mean that you have it with you anytime, every day of the week. But what about the time when you are traveling by plane, where safety and security are paramount? It appears that all aviation companies follow the same or similar rules regarding traveling with multi-tools in flights.
In general, multi-tools are not allowed in planes as you are not allowed to travel with sharp objects with you, or in your cabin bag, or carry-on bag. Sharp objects include all types of multi-tools which have a knife or any other tool that has a sharp edge longer than four inches. However, you are allowed to carry any sharp object, including multi-tools of any size, in your check-in luggage. Thus, you are allowed to travel with multi-tools in a plane, but you cannot carry most of them with you inside the cabin.
In the USA, airport security check is handled by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). In India, the same is done by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). Both these bodies have been assigned to carry on this task sometime after the incident of September 11, 2001. I think many other countries have also beefed up airport security after the incident. The TSA explains at their website what you can and cannot carry with you.
Depending on which part of the world you are, or the current social and political situation of the country, the rules can be more or less stringent. But it does pose some problems to people like us who always carry some sort of multi-tool. I believe most people do not enjoy standing in long queues and going through the security checkpoint, but unfortunately, it is something that cannot be avoided. The best thing we can do is being prepared for this beforehand, especially if we are carrying a multi-tool.
Multi-tool in Carry-on Luggage
This is the situation that everyone is concerned about. You are so habituated with carrying a multi-tool in your pocket or attached to your keychain, that you forget to remove it before security check. And here you are, standing at the front of the security check queue, wondering what will happen to your beloved multi-tool. Will they allow you it to carry it, or will they confiscate it?
Airport security guidelines regarding what you can carry with you are quite elaborate. But even then there is always some ambiguity. On top of that, they keep changing the rules quite frequently. The guidelines do not name each and every tool available in the market that you can, or cannot carry. It is practically impossible to do so, with companies introducing new multi-tools every now and then, and so many cheap no-name multi-tools already existing in the market.
So the only thing these security guidelines can do is give you some general idea, and some specifications regarding the shape and size. Most airport security bans all types of knives, whereas some allow knives smaller than a certain length. For some, this can be less than 4 inches, for others, it can be as short as 2.5 inches. Scissors of a certain length are allowed in some airports. While others may not allow you to carry any type of sharp or pointed object inside the cabin.
I got my ‘Victorinox Swiss Army Knife Classic’ confiscated on my first air travel after getting the tool.
I had forgotten that it was attached to my keychain.
Moreover, at that time I didn’t even know that it was not allowed.
The security personnel asked me to take it out of the keychain and give it to him. He didn’t even blink while telling me that it is not allowed and threw it into the trash bin.
He must be very familiar with this particular model of SAK and has done the same hundreds of times.
I looked over into the trash bin to have a last look at my first multi-tool. It was a heart-wrenching moment for me as I had carried the tool with me for more than a year. However, in the trash bin, I could see at least three other SAK. Well, I was not the only one to lose a multi-tool that day.
The best you can do is go through the guidelines and ensure that your tool is compliant. If you are taking multiple flights in different countries or even in the same country, do your research for all the airports you will be visiting. Some airports put in additional security measures on top of TSA guidelines. These can get really confusing sometimes.
Multi-tool in Check-in Luggage
All multi-tools can go inside your check-in luggage without any issues. There are no limitations as such on the size of the tool. I have even seen people carrying axes in their check-in bags. So you can imagine what you can carry.
However, it is recommended that you pack any sharp object securely inside your check-in luggage. You can put bigger multi-tools in the sheath that it came with.
The sheath can then be kept inside the zippered pockets of your bag so that they do not move around inside your bag.
If you are carrying shoes in your bag, you can also put the multi-tool sheet inside one of the shoes. In case you do not have a sheath, you can wrap a towel or some other piece of cloth around your multi-tool so that it does not hurt you (or baggage handlers) accidentally.
Are TSA Compliant Multi-tools really Compliant?
Because of these restrictions imposed on carrying multi-tools along with us inside the cabin during air travel, big companies like Leatherman, Gerber, SOG, etc. have come up with their own range of TSA compliant multi-tools. These are usually small in size, with smaller knives and scissors, built specifically to be compliant with the stringent restrictions put in place by the security guidelines. Some of these multi-tools do not even have a knife.
So will you be able to carry one of these TSA compliant tools along with you through security check-in? Well, the answer is both Yes and No.
The reason is, no matter what is written in the guidelines, it is ultimately up to the security personnel to decide what is allowed and what is not. So these TSA compliant tools are compliant until some random security personnel thinks otherwise.
You can very well successfully pass through security check without any hassle with one of these tools, many people have successfully done that. But in case any security personnel takes particular interest in your muti-tool and is in doubt whether to allow it or not, he will decide no to. These people have the right to do this, and they use every opportunity to exercise this right.
A lot of these security guys are not very familiar with these TSA compliant multi-tools, and they won’t bother to check how your tool is compliant with all the guidelines. You may feel bad about it, but you cannot do anything.
I was once caught with one such little multi-tool that was compliant as far as I know, the Swisstech Utilikey. It is shaped like a key that had no knife or any pointed edge.
Luckily, I was allowed to go back and tuck it into my check-in bag.
However, such generosity may not be possible all the time, it depends a lot on the mood of the security guys.
These TSA compliant multi-tools do increase your chances of getting into the plane with a multi-tool inside your pocket, but there is no guarantee. The final decision is taken by the security officer in charge, who may or may not decide in your favor. Even if a tool is compliant, it may be subjected to additional inspection if it triggers an alarm during the screening process, and may ultimately be denied to be carried along.
How to Plan Traveling With a Multi-tool?
It is always better to plan beforehand if you are traveling with a multi-tool. If you are carrying a bigger multi-tool, pack it securely inside your check-in baggage. There is no way you can carry them inside the cabin with you.
If you always carry a small multi-tool inside your pocket or in your keychain, make sure to take it out and keep it inside your check-in bag. This is the only way you can be sure you won’t lose it at the security check. The thing is, most of us who EDC pocket multi-tools sometimes forget to do this one simple step during air travel. Keep a reminder for yourself on your phone to do this on the day of the travel, or add this in your travel checklist if you have one.
You can couple this point with the one carrying power banks during air travel. Multi-tools are not allowed in a carry-on bag, whereas power banks are not allowed in a check-in bag! Yes, it is just the opposite. That may make it easier for you to remember.
In case you want to carry your multi-tool with you no matter what, go for one of those TSA compliant ones. However, remember that there is no guarantee that you will be successful. There are stories of even nail-clippers getting confiscated during security check. At the very least, be mentally prepared to lose your multi-tool, or have a backup plan.
What to do if Caught with a Non-compliant Multi-tool?
In the worst case, you find yourself being questioned, or in the process of getting your multi-tool confiscated, there are a few things you can do.
First and foremost, do not argue with the security personnel. Even if your multi-tool is compliant as per the guidelines, the security personnel should also be convinced that it is not risky. Arguing with them will only further worsen the situation.
It may lead to further questioning. They may even call up the airport police to handle such travelers. Even if you ultimately succeed in convincing them, you may miss your flight in the process. Remember that their main aim is making the flight secure for all travelers, not in making sure that you catch the flight on time.
Next, ask them politely whether you can go back and check-in the multi-tool. If they allow you to do so, you can go to the luggage check-in area and ask them to get your luggage back so that you can put your multi-tool inside it. This is possible only if the luggage has not been sent alway already for boarding into the plane. In this case, the best thing will be to put the multi-tool inside your carry-on bag and check-in that too.
Note that it may incur some additional fees to check-in extra luggage. Also, remember that in large airports, check-in counters and security check areas are usually far away, and both will have long queues. So this may not be feasible in every airport.
If you decide to check-in your carry-on bag too, do remember to take out your laptop or any other important things you want to keep with you. It is advisable to always keep a small bag inside your carry-on bag for such emergencies.
The other option left is to come back and not board the flight at all, or allow them to take away your multi-tool. If it is a small keychain multi-tool, you can always buy it again, or something similar, after reaching your destination. You will even find shops inside some airports selling Swiss Army Knife or other similar multi-tools.
Some people advise carrying a self-addressed envelope which can be used to mail the multi-tool to yourself. There are mail-drop boxes near the security checkpoints in some airports. I haven’t seen anybody doing this with their multi-tools, but this can be an option.
Traveling by air with multi-tools is complicated. However, if you are ok with parting with your multi-tool for a few hours, then with some advance planning, you will do just fine. I usually pack differently depending on whether traveling by road, by rail, or by air.
For air travel, I pack every tool I am carrying, including big multi-tools as well as keychain multi-tools inside the check-in bag. If I plan to travel only with a carry-on bag, I do not take any multi-tool at all. A small compromise for lighter traveling.