Helpful Tips For Boarding a Plane With Your Musical Instrument August 16 2016

Traveling by air with an instrument larger than a trumpet can feel daunting for the wayward musician.  Here are a few tips to simplify your travel:

If you can, check it.  Buy a big sturdy case, learn how to pack your instrument well inside it, and check it at the ticket counter.  You'll want to pack the instrument tightly inside to prevent movement, and allow the bell rim to float and avoid impacts.  Bubble wrap and an in-bell practice mute can do it.  The advantage is that you don't have to haul your instrument around the airport. 

If you must carry on your trombone, double horn or larger instrument as checked baggage, these points may be of help.

  • Choose a seat that boards early, so you're not the last one getting on a full plane with full overhead bins. This may mean printing out your own boarding pass the night before your flight or choosing a premium seat.
  • Carry little or 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 stuff too. You and the horn and a jacket is enough.  Avoid abusing the rules, just gently bend them a bit.
  • Dress professionally and businesslike.  You want to look like you know what you're doing, and that you have done this before.  You're a professional, not a weasel.
  • Use a case that has a shoulder strap, and place it over the shoulder opposite the ticket agent at the gate. The agent might not 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 and smile as you go by, in order 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 from the TSA, this from Airlines for America, and this from the Federal Register


If you run into trouble, and you face being refused boarding unless you check your priceless horn in its gig bag, be nice, and memorize this routine:

  1. Tell a very concise sob story: "On the last flight there was no problem", or "The last time I had to check it, it sustained $200 damage, and your company would not pay for it", or "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.
  2. Tell them what you want: "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?"
  3. Turn it around:  Quickly, before you you get an answer, say this word for word with lots of eye contact, a big smile, and a flirtatious tone:
"If you can't do it, I'd certainly understand."
<short pause>
"But if you could, I'd REALLY appreciate it."
<short pause>
"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.   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 complain to 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 the gate agent to think:, "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." 

    Go practice that routine again.  It's also excellent for getting out of a speeding ticket.  Remember:  win-win is the only way.

    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 tunnel 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 good.

    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 a 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, then 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 worried about this stuff.  I believe you can also look into supplemental insurance, since the airlines always deny any responsibility, but I've never bothered.

    • General tips - Put lots of soft padding around your instrument.  Put something inside the bell, like a Styrofoam cone from an art store or a Best Brass Warm-up Mute. 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 triple, which can squeeze in a Bb trumpet, a medium flugel, and a piccolo, and it fits under the set or overhead.
    • Double Horn - With a fixed bell, I believe the Glenn Cronkhite old style case is the only way to get one on the plane.  Make sure you have a window seat, and it will just barely fit 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, consider taking out the bell flare and carrying 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.  Pro-Tec screw-bell 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 Z case is a winner too. New King or Bach cases are OK, but they are better checked, as they are pretty tough anyway.  I've checked horns with success in a Protec case, a Conn bass trombone case, and 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 larger hard cases.  Maybe the Protec 306CT or iPAC too, though it will wear faster.  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 are playing with fire.  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 fairly compact.  A very few Yamaha cases might be carried on, including 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.  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 for the extra ticket.  The best way to care for your tuba is to send it ahead via UPS Freight, Greyhound, or Amtrak.  You're risking damage 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 1 foot by 2 foot 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 time 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 tube 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 inside the bell and 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.