Airline travel with musical instruments

airplaneDuring the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to do some traveling with my instruments, on a number of airlines and through quite a few airports. Here are a few thoughts on getting instruments safely and smoothly to your destination.

Going through airport security

  • In most cases, your plan should be to carry your instrument(s) onto the plane with you. That means taking the instrument through airport security, and sending it on the conveyor belt through the x-ray scanner. In my experience, security personnel are generally very good about recognizing musical instruments as such, and sending them on through without raising an eyebrow.
  • Security personnel may, however, wish to open instrument cases for closer inspection. In my experience, inspectors are uniformly courteous and respectful about this, and usually notify me before they begin. Earlier this week I had a security officer let me know that he needed to open my oboe case, which I had sent  through the x-ray within a larger carry-on bag. I asked politely if he would let me open the case for him, and he was more than happy to allow this. I recommend taking this approach, since security personnel may not know which side is “up.” If you open the case yourself, you won’t have to worry about instrument parts rolling out onto the airport floor.
  • I also like to lock any carry-on instruments cases that can be locked, and, of course, make sure I keep the keys handy. This ensures that security personnel can’t open the case without me while I’m still trying to get my shoes back on. Besides, airports and planes can be crowded, and I like to be sure that my cases won’t pop open if jostled or bumped.
  • There is an agreement between the TSA, which runs airport security in US airports, and the AFM, the musicians’ union, which allows for instruments to pass through security screening checkpoints. A letter regarding this has been widely circulated on the web. Be advised that, despite some wording in the letter that seems to suggest otherwise, the agreement does not require the airline to let you carry your instrument onto the plane itself.  A number of sources recommend bringing a copy of the letter with you through security; it may not hurt, but I have to doubt that waving a letter around, telling the TSA officers how to do their job, will do much good if there’s a problem.
  • You should also keep in mind that accessories may not be allowed through security: reed knives, sharp little screwdrivers, water in humidifiers or reed-soaking containers, and so on. Water can be emptied out, and knives, etc., can be packed in your checked bag without a problem.
  • One last tip, which hopefully goes without saying: if you are polite and friendly, security staff are far more likely to get you through to your terminal quickly and easily.

Once you are through security, smaller instruments shouldn’t be a problem. All but the bulkiest of flute, oboe, and clarinet cases fit well within standard carry-on dimensions. Bassoons and saxophones as large as tenor can often be carried on, as well, but be aware that it’s a gray area and that even your best efforts are not guaranteed to get your horn into the airplane’s cabin. I can tell you, however, that I’ve never been denied bringing even a bassoon or a tenor aboard. Here is my approach:

At the gate

  • Don’t unnecessarily call attention to the instrument by approaching the airline staff to ask questions about bringing it on board.
  • Especially with smaller planes, an airline staffer may wish to tag your instrument case for gate checking. Accept the tag graciously. Don’t make a stink.
  • As the gate attendant takes your boarding pass, look him or her in the eye and smile, and say something friendly and polite if appropriate. Don’t look down at your instrument. If your case hasn’t been pre-tagged for gate checking, this may be the gate personnel’s last chance to decide that your instrument is too large to carry on. Hold the instrument in the hand farthest away, with your body casually blocking their view of it. It’s not a secret that you’re holding a case, you just don’t want it to look any larger than it is. If the case has a handle on one end that allows the case to be held in a vertical orientation (taller rather than wider), use that one.

Boarding the plane

  • As you head down the jetway or onto the tarmac, discreetly remove and pocket the gate-check tag, or, since it’s usually attached to the case’s handle, just make sure the tag is inside your hand. If the flight attendants know the gate personnel have pre-tagged carry-ons for gate check, they are likely to go along with the gate personnel’s decisions. Don’t let them know that yours has already been deemed too large. On a recent trip, I politely allowed my alto case to be tagged in the terminal, and carried it easily on board with the tag hidden inside my hand. But due to a minor mix-up, the flight attendant at the plane’s entrance needed to see my boarding pass, and I let go of my case to retrieve the pass. The flight attendant immediately noticed the neon-pink tag, and insisted that the case—which had been no problem until that moment—would have to go beneath the plane. Read on to the next tip to find out how I averted the crisis.
  • If a flight attendant on the plane balks at letting the instrument on, don’t get bogged down in arguing or explaining. The flight attendant wants the problem solved as quickly and agreeably as possible, especially since there may be a hundred or more people still in line behind you. I like to give my best smile and make a very direct and polite request: “This is a musical instrument. May I keep it here in the cabin?” This is not a time to deliver a lecture about the instrument’s value or fragility, or otherwise to suggest that you deserve special treatment. I find that when I ask simply and politely, the flight crew are usually willing to allow the instrument on board “for now” or “if there is enough room.” From that point, I have always been totally in the clear.

If you have to gate-check your instrument

Sometimes this may be unavoidable. I’ve luckily never had it happen, but I do like to be prepared.

  • Even if you’re not a traveler, a good solid case and a good insurance policy (deal with a company that specializes in musical instruments!) are your instrument’s best friends. I lock my cases while traveling, if possible, to avoid them coming open accidentally. My bassoon case is solid but it doesn’t lock and I’m not sure how much I can trust the latches, so I bring a couple of bungee cords along in case I have to strap it closed for gate checking.

If you have to check-check your instrument

Sometimes you know in advance that an instrument isn’t going to make it onto the plane in your hand.

  • If at all possible, I like to pack the instrument in its case, inside a larger suitcase with my clothes around it for extra padding. Sometimes I have to do this because I’m bringing multiple instruments and can’t carry all of them on. I usually choose to put my metal instruments into the suitcase because they won’t crack like wooden ones might in the non-climate-controlled cargo bay.
  • I also highly recommend taping a friendly note onto the case, in the event that your suitcase is inspected, and your case opened by security personnel:

    Turn the other side up before opening, please!

  • …or politely and succinctly give any other vital written instructions that will help them handle your instrument properly.

Have a nice trip!


9 responses to “Airline travel with musical instruments”

  1. […] and airline travel here on my blog, the 2 articles that Bret Pimentel wrote on his Woodwind Blog on July 8 and 11, and of course the now over-the top, famous Dave Carroll from Halifax with his horror story […]

  2. Bruce Norris Avatar
    Bruce Norris

    Excellent, practical advice!

  3. Payton Avatar

    I am going to Ohio with my alto sax And TSA says on there website that you are allowed to bring your instrument alongside one carryon and a personal item. But on allegiant airlines website which I am flying on it says you are only allowed one carryon bag and one personal item but an instrument counts as your carryon. I need my carryon for clothing. Any advice?

    1. I definitely suggest putting your clothes in a checked bag, and carrying the saxophone on with you. Keeping your instrument safe is worth the checked baggage fee. Have a safe trip!

  4. As a bari player, carrying the horn on board is something I haven’t even tried. I’ve had good luck so far with the SKB Bari case. It protects the horn adequately, doesn’t weigh a ton, has wheels, and has TSA locks. These can be opened by security personnel even if you’re not there. That’s a good thing, as it means they don’t have to break the lock to get your case open.

  5. […] Article: Airline Travel with Music Instruments  […]

  6. […] final caution regarding humidifiers, Woodwind artist Bret Pimentel makes mention on his Airline travel with musical instruments Blog that “You should also keep in mind that accessories may not be allowed through security: […]

    1. Not that I can see. The “new” rule seems to codify what was already standard practice: you are allowed to carry an instrument onto the plane as long as it meets the airline’s carry-on requirements. The new rule doesn’t seem to offer any provision that will increase the number of instruments that get approved as carry-ons. (It does require airlines to let you buy a seat for an instrument within a certain size range, which I’m not sure was previously the case. It also “encourages” airlines to make some additional allowances where possible for oversized carry-ons, but doesn’t require it.)

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