Steve's Helpful Tips For Boarding a Plane With Your Instrument
The Guerrilla Guide to a
- Choose a seat that boards relatively early , so you're not
the last one getting on a full plane with full overhead bins.
This may mean printing out a boarding pass on your computer the
night before your flight, at least for Continental, Southwest,
and now many others.
- Carry nothing else on besides your instrument. If your horn
is a bit over the regulation size, you don't want to make things
more difficult by carrying on a bunch of other crap too. You and
your horn and a jacket is enough. Don't abuse the rules
more than you have to. Simply bend them a bit.
- Dress professionally and businesslike. You don't want
to look like some derelict slacker stoner dude who might cause a
problem. You want to look like you know what you're doing,
and have done this before. You're a professional, not a
- Use a case that has a shoulder strap, and put it over the
shoulder that is opposite the ticket taker at the gate. They
might not even notice until you get past, and by then they're
greeting the next passenger. If you hold the ticket in your
right hand to give to the agent on your right side, the case
goes over your left shoulder and you casually turn to the right
as you go by, to hide the case from full view.
- Don't expect special treatment just because your instrument
is large and expensive. There are a lot of people boarding the
plane who paid more for their ticket than you did.
- If you have the air miles or the cash to upgrade to business
class, do it.
- Carry a copy of the American Federation of Musicians'
correspondence with the TSA, here
(PDF) Also, see this
article at the TSA website.
If you run into trouble, and face being refused boarding
unless you check your priceless horn in its gig bag, BE
NICE, and MEMORIZE this:
- Tell a very concise sob story: "On the last flight there
was no problem", "The last time I had to check it, it sustained
$200 damage, and your company would not pay for it", "I fly
about 6 weeks a year, and this is the first time anyone has
mentioned it", etc... Be concise and calm. Make
something up ahead of time, but keep it short. George
Carlin memorized his routines; so should you.
- Then tell them what you want, also concisely: "I'd like
to carry this on and put it in the coat closet (or behind the
last bulkhead row, or in the overhead bin), where it will surely
fit fine. It always has. What kind of plane is this?
737? Oh yeah, it always fits fine. May I carry it on?"
- Then quickly, before you you get an answer, say this, WORD
FOR WORD, with lots of eye contact, a big smile, and a
"If you can't
do it, I'd certainly understand."
"But if you
could, I'd REALLY
"Don't get into
any trouble now."
Practice the preceding lines in front of a friend. Memorize
them. Make this your mantra. This is your key to
success. Trust me. I sweet-talked my way out of
Lufthansa's 125 Euro excess baggage fee for a contrabass
trombone case in Frankfurt using this technique. The reason
this works is that instead of begging, you're GIVING the power to the gate agent, and
they like that. After all, who doesn't want to be God?
Let them try it out for a while. It feels good. Gate
agents deal with people all day who bitch at them for every crazy
reason imaginable. You want to create the most positive moment
of personal interaction in their day. If you do, everyone wins
and goes away feeling good. And you get what you want.
The goal is to get them to think to themselves, "Get into
trouble? Me? Of course not. I can do what I want.
I'm the gate agent. I can let you on with your horn if I want.
In fact, I'll do it, because you're so nice, and because I can.
I'm the Decider. I make the decisions."
Now go practice that routine again. It's also excellent for getting
out of a speeding ticket. Remember: win-win is the only
Lastly, if nothing works, you can take another flight or gate
check your instrument. Or just take your horn out of the case,
and hand them the case to check, while saying, "Here, you can
take this case, and I'll just carry the horn on and wrap it in a
blanket." If you can get a supervisor to listen to you say
that and can get them to notice the absurdity, you may still be able
to work things out. But if you still can't, take out your
trombone slide, and hand the bell in the case to the agent. It
will probably be fine. You might also ask to speak to a member
of the flight crew, who is more often very relaxed about these
things, and they may say, "No problem; it can ride in the
cockpit." Remember, you're the customer, you're paying the
money, and you're doing your best to be cool about a difficult
situation. If you have a French horn with a screw bell, offer
to carry the flare on and gate check the body.
And here's the last
chance super sneaky tip: If they say you MUST gate check it,
just agree (even offer to gate check it yourself), smile, walk down
the ramp to where the strollers and gate check items get dropped
off, then just hold onto your horn and walk right by onto the plane.
And buy yourself a cocktail for being such a sneak. Life is
Tips for each instrument
I've carried a lot of trombones through a lot of
airports over the last 25 years, and I find it to be a big drag.
My easiest trip was around Asia with Paul Anka for 3 weeks, and I
used an old Walt Johnson fiberglass case so I could check it.
I had heard about very crowded and crazy flights around Asia, and
didn't want to take a risk with a gig bag. (As it turns out,
everything was much calmer than in the US.) I packed
the horn carefully inside the case with a Best Brass
Warm-up Mute inside the bell, checked it at
every ticket counter, and had a leisurely stroll through the airport
without dragging some sarcophagus around with me. My horn
didn't get lost. It didn't get damaged. It was fine.
And if my horn does get lost, so what? Either they'll find it, or I'll
buy another. Life goes on. If I can't play the gig
because the airline lost my horn, it's not my fault. Maybe I'd
borrow a horn. Going to an audition, where I MUST PLAY, is a
different animal, but for a tour where cartage is not provided, I do
the best I can. Life's too short to get all worried about this
stuff. I believe you can also look into supplemental
insurance, since the airlines deny any responsibility, but I've
- General tips - Put lots of soft padding around your
instrument. Put something inside the bell, like a
Styrofoam cone from an art store, a Best Brass
Warm-up Mute or an
inflatable beach ball. (Beware: Inflatable beach balls are hard
to find for about 9 months of the year - plan ahead.) The
bell flare is the most fragile part of your instrument, so you
want to support the instrument by the body of the horn and the
throat of the bell, not the bell rim. You want no movement
of the instrument inside the case. It should be tight when
the lid is closed.
- Trumpet - Single or double cases are usually no
problem to carry on. For a triple, try the Glenn Cronkhite
TRB-BB, which can
squeeze in a Bb, a medium flugel, and a piccolo, and it fits
under the set or overhead.
- French Horn - With a fixed bell, I believe the Glenn
style case is the only way to get one on the plane.
Make sure you have a window seat, and it just barely fits under
the seat in front of you, against the outer wall of the plane.
For screw-bell horns, the
Cronkhite is the
smallest, but the Marcus Bonna MB5
MB7, or MB8 should work
fine. If you must check a screw-bell horn in a Bonna case,
take out the bell flare and carry it on. I fear the case is too
small to take much baggage handler abuse without denting either
the flare or body when all the pieces are in there.
cases look to be too large to carry on, as are Bags of Spain.
But, you can probably check those without much worry.
- Alto Trombone - These are small enough, that anyone
who even notices will just smile at you and secretly mock you
for having such a tiny trombone.
- Small Trombone - Most any small bore trombone can be
carried on in a compact case if the gate agents are not
Hitlerific. Try the SKB360,
Cronkhite TSG or TTG,
Bam Softpack Jazz, MTS, or
Walt Johnson. The Yamaha 697Z is a winner too.
Forget new King or Bach cases. They look too bulky and are
better checked, as they are pretty tough anyway. I've
checked horns with success in a Protec case, a Conn bass
trombone case, or in an old King coffin case from the 1940's.
The new Cronkhite two-piece travel case is a best bet too.
- Large Trombone - Large bore trombones with
F-attachment are pushing the limits. A Cronkhite
BTG or Marcus Bonna
Lightweight are your best bets
for a standard case. The SKB462 is better checked, as are most other hard cases.
Maybe the Protec 306CT,
though it will wear out faster. No matter, it's pretty
cheap to replace. The Yamaha Xeno case is small enough,
and also tough enough to check if you need to. An
excellent new case is the Cronkhite two-piece
travel case, which holds
the bell and slide in two separate pieces that snap apart.
If questioned, simply take the halves apart, and say, "What,
these little bags? C'mon, it's nothin'."
- Bass Trombone - You're playing with fire, friend.
I've carried a few on, but it can be dicey. The Cronkhite
two-piece travel case is
your best bet. You may have a chance with his standard
BBG if you're feeling
lucky and the flight isn't full. Don't count on it though.
The old style Reunion Blues case with the slide pocket on the
outside looks a lot more compact, but it's not nearly as
protective for banging around on a tour. You might sneak
on with a Marcus Bonna bass case, as these are pretty compact,
and they can also be checked without worry if it doesn't work
out. A very few Yamaha cases can be carried on, including
the old compact 612 case, and the new Xeno models. Any other case
should be checked, including Protec, Bam, Conn, Bach, Getzen,
Kanstul, and Willson. Just brace the throat of the bell to
keep things from shifting.
Bach cases are difficult. Make sure your horn is well
padded inside the case. Some players check their trombone in a Cronkhite bag encased inside a large SKB or similar golf case,
with some extra some padding inside. It's nice to have the
hard outer shell golf case for the air travel, and a lightweight
soft case for the around-town travel when you arrive.
- Contrabass Trombone - Check it or mail it ahead.
I've also checked a bell section in a case and carried the slide
on with success. I've also had a slide damaged by contact
with one of the trigger paddles after the TSA opened the case
and put the horn back in wrong. Bastards. Make sure
it fits well in the case so there's no question how it goes.
- Euphonium - I was going to write, "No way, dude", but
a few players have carried their euphs on in a
Cronkhite bag. A
bell diameter smaller than 12" will help for sure.
- Tuba - You know you can't carry it on...unless
you buy an extra seat for it. I've done that on a flight
from San Jose to Los Angeles. It was $59 or thereabouts
for the extra ticket. The best way to care for your tuba
is to send it ahead via UPS, Greyhound, or Amtrak.
You're risking everything if you use Fedex or DHL.
Even UPS can be hard on tubas. Pack the tuba so it will
not move inside the case, and try to prevent the bell flare from
touching the inside edge of the case. I stuff a 1x2" piece
of bubble wrap down the bell, then follow it with a sturdy
cardboard tube from a carpet roll. I cut the tube so it
fits tightly inside the tuba to hold the bell end away from the
case edge. If you need to bring the tuba along on the flight and check it, buy a
Walt Johnson custom case a few months ahead of time.
They are made to order and take a long to get. An MTS or
SKB tuba case
will work, but officially they do not recommend using these for
air travel, so beware. Yamaha's cases are pretty tough,
but even they may wear out prematurely after a few flights. Miraphone cases can be a problem. Soloist extraordinaire
Oystein Baadsvick travels a lot with his Miraphone Star Light Eb,
and he says it's always getting damaged in the Miraphone case.
Some players buy a custom Anvil, A&S, or a similar flight case
and put their tuba in a Cronkhite gig bag inside that. No
matter what hard case you use, put something inside the bell so the horn doesn't shift inside
the case, resulting in a wrinkled bell flare. If you don't
have the carpet roll tuba described above, cut 10 3" wide
cardboard stips, stuff them down the bell, then cut them so they
fit tightly and hold the bell away from the case edge. Lots of
padding around the horn is essential. You want no movement
inside, to prevent the horn from coming into contact with the
inner wall of the case.
- Saxophones - If you need to bring a tenor and
soprano, or an alto and soprano, there is no smaller case than
the Cronkhite double sax gig bags.