What It Was Like Traveling On An Airplane With 120 Pounds Of Car Parts And Tools

Earlier this month, I devised an absolutely idiotic plan to pick up from the middle of nowhere a rare, manual transmission 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee that I’d bought sight unseen for $700. It’s a vehicle that I refer to as the “Holy Grail of Jeep Grand Cherokees,” except its condition was far from holy. With a bad clutch and loose steering, the 260,000 mile Jeep needed work, and since it was 1,500 miles from my house, this meant I had to bring tools and parts onto an airplane. Here’s how that went.

Earlier this month, I wrote the story “Here’s My Idiotic Plan To Drive A Broken 260,000-Mile ‘Holy Grail Of Jeep Grand Cherokees’ Across The Country,” detailing how I was going to get a vehicle that I had purchased on a whim from the tiny remote town of Olathe, Colorado to my house 1,500 miles away in Troy, Michigan. The plan was riddled with flaws, and I knew it. For example, as I describe below, I aimed to bring on the plane every tool I needed to replace the Jeep’s clutch, fix its bad steering, change its fluids, and address every other issue that I wasn’t aware of:

...I’ve purchased two dirt cheap Spirit Airlines flights from Detroit to Denver. I’m flying out there with my friend Brandon, my ace-in-the-hole when it comes to ridiculously rigorous wrenching projects because I’m going to need as much help as I can get to pull this off. Joining us will be two check-in bags filled with as many car parts and tools as we can fit without exceeding the 40 lbs weight limit. The two flights, together with the checked bags and a return flight for Brandon should this all go terribly awry (and because Brandon absolutely has to be back in Detroit on Thursday to catch his flight home for the holidays) cost me only $200. Thank god for Spirit Airlines.

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Pretty dumb, right? That last sentence, in particular, seemed to confuse people (though I myself have had good luck with Spirit).

I’d planned to bring a socket set, a bag of miscellaneous tools, and a junkyard steering box in those two check-in bags. The steering box was something that I could have probably found in Colorado, but since my schedule was so tight, there’d be no time for that, so I had to snag the part from my local ’yard:

The job actually took less than an hour. I simply unbolted the power steering pump, undid the big bolts holding the steering box to the driver’s side unibody rail, and used a pickle-fork to bang the drag link off the box’s pitman arm.

Then on Saturday morning (a week before this past Saturday), Brandon and I got to packing in preparation for our evening flight. As shown in the video below, I had to pay for a third check-in bag after realizing that the steering box and socket set each weighed close to the 40 pound check-in bag limit. That left no room for the bag filled with a random assortment of tools.

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The additional check-in bag cost me around $50 instead of the $31 the other two had cost (since it was a day-of-flight addition). So in total, I dropped over $110 just to get some tools and parts to Colorado.

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As shown in the video above, we prepared the socket set for the flight by just wrapping it in plastic, and that was pretty much it.

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In case you’re wondering, here are all the tools that fit into the toolbox.

Image: Lowes/Kobalt
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The bottom tray is normally empty, but we filled that with a few extra wrenches and some small miscellaneous tools:

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We threw the random bag of tools, along with a power impact wrench wrapped in a trash bag, into my giant red hardshell case, whose volume now consisted predominantly of air since the tools didn’t take up much space.

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Here are all the tools that we stuffed into that red check-in bag:

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As for the steering box, we drained as much of the power steering fluid as possible, plugged one of its lines with a rubber vacuum line cap, then wrapped the whole thing in plastic to keep power steering fluid from leaking out and just general grime from layering the inside of my bag. I have no clue why we didn’t just throw it into a trash bag; Wrapping it in clear plastic made the big, rusty, juicy steering box look like a giant brisket:

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Brandon and I drove to the airport, schlepped the three heavy bags onto a shuttle and then into the terminal, and then came the moment of truth during which we’d see if my bathroom scale had been accurate.

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We walked to the check-in kiosk and placed the three bags on the scale, one at a time. The huge, mostly empty red hardshell case filled with a bag of tools and an electric impact wrench weighed in at exactly 40 pounds, the absurdly unwieldy black bag with a heavy brisket-esque steering box bouncing around inside weighed 39.5 pounds, and the plastic-wrapped socket set displayed “37 pounds” on the scale’s display. This was pretty much perfect.

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The one part that I wanted to bring with me just in case, but that would have put my check-in luggage over weight, was a wheel bearing (technically a “wheel hub”). I could have bought one of these from an auto parts store in Colorado, yes, but I’m a cheap bastard, so I just shoved the spare I had sitting in my garage into my carry-on bag and hoped I’d get through security without a problem.

The TSA pulled my bag aside and inspected it, of course.

The gentleman who looked through my bag was apparently quite a fan of cars; He complimented my Stanley torx set that I also brought with me on the plane (see above), and said “Yup, looks like a wheel bearing. Have a good day.” And that was that. Carrying that 10-pound wheel bearing, in addition to the clothes and other junk I couldn’t fit into a check-in bag due to weight restraints, meant my back was killing me as I walked through the airport.

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I’ll admit that this particular TSA employee’s affinity for cars wasn’t why I was permitted to bring the wheel hub on the plane. In fact, just a week or so prior, I had carried a clutch disc onto an airplane to New York City. (I turned the clutch disc into a clock—a going-away gift for our beloved former editor-in-chief, Patrick George). Though this, too, led to a bag inspection, TSA employees let me on my way, clutch disc in tow.

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After roughly three brutally boring hours on the airplane (we had forgotten to pack books, in our haste), Brandon and I landed in Denver, and headed to baggage claim.

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As shown in the video above, everything arrived mostly intact, though all three bags included a notice of baggage inspection:

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Also, my red bag had a big crack in it:

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I’d say everything worked out pretty well, and that wasn’t a given. In fact, as a reader named John—who introduced himself as a pilot for Delta Airlines—emailed me prior to the trip, my wheel bearing and especially my steering box were potential liabilities due to the former’s light oil layer, and the latter’s power steering fluid. Here’s the TSA rule John quoted me:

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I wasn’t worried about the wheel bearing. Based on the second paragraph above, it seems that as long as the part fits in an overhead bin or under a seat, and isn’t obviously hazardous, it’ll be fine. Plus, there’s really not much oil on a wheel hub. I was concerned about the steering box because of the sentence: “Car engine parts may be placed in checked bags only if the parts are packed in their original box and free of gasoline and oil.” No, the box isn’t technically an engine part, but it’s covered in oil and not packed in its original box, and this concerned me.

As for the tools, it seems that TSA is pretty okay with those in general. Anything sharp can’t come on the plane, nor can anything that’s over seven inches, but if you’re checking the tools in, it seems you can bring long and heavy hammers, sharp gasket scrapers and whatever you want, really:

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So this chapter of my supremely idiotic plan worked out well. Was it the smartest and cheapest way to get tools to Colorado to fix up my 260,000 Holy Grail Jeep Grand Cherokee? Maybe not. I did not even consider mailing any of my tools or parts to Grand Junction, where I’d later be making my repairs in a reader’s garage (expect to read more about this in part three of this five-part “Holy Grail Rescue” series). That may have been a better option in some ways.

Brandon and I found ourselves with 120+ pounds of tools and car parts, waiting at the “arrivals” curbside in Denver. A Jalopnik reader named Jason pulled up in his Chevy bolt, took us to his house, and introduced us to a vehicle that would change the tone of the whole trip and capture my heart. More on that soon.

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About the author

David Tracy

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).