Flying with instruments in the era of the sacred overhead bin
Travelling on airplanes with musical instruments can be a challenging situation if you're not prepared. Airline company policies are designed for the average traveller, not musicians with instruments. Fusion Bags decided to talk to a life-long road musician/bandleader who has become an expert in travelling with instruments on airplanes, saxophonist Deanna Bogart.
She's a true road warrior having logged thousands of miles over the past 35 years. She shares some tips that may be helpful whether you're a pro or part-timer, regardless of what instrument you play. She travels so much, both days we talked with her she was at an airport flying to gig.
Q: What are your major challenges when travelling by air with your instrument?
I've been travelling domestically and internationally for over thirty years. Overall, airlines are less musician-friendly these days than they used to be and commuters are trying to cram more and more stuff into the overhead bins to avoid the extra baggage check-in fees.
The days of the airplane closet are gone (except on some international flights) where many a horn, guitar etc., would fly happily amongst the first class garment bags. The sizes of the bins vary greatly from airplane to airplane so there's no consistency in the sizes of the overhead storage space. On top of that, airlines are trying to fill the seats with smaller planes and offer less space.
Q: What are some things you can recommend to musicians travelling with their instruments?
First off, the less bulky and more streamlined your case is the better. And what the case is made of - or reinforced with - needs to be protective but forgiving so as to allow other people's items to have some wiggle room for their luggage to slide against it or on top of it. If you bring a large flight case your less likely to find an open bin unless you are one of the first people on the plane. Even then, when gate agents see a large case they usually insist on hand-checking.
Ask yourself, are there some things I can take out of the pockets and put in my carry-on bag to make my case more streamlined? A bulky pocket on the outside sometimes tips the balance of you getting your instrument on the plane. You wouldn't think so, but even the illusion of a large bulky object can make a gate agent rigid - to say the least.
And this may be obvious, but if you are headed to a gig, keep the things you need for the gig on your person. I always travel with my mouthpiece, reeds, stand, strap etc., in my carry on so if my luggage is lost I can still do the gig. So if you are a guitar player, take the extras out of the outside case pockets and carry them if you can.
Q: I suppose it makes sense to board early if you can right?
Absolutely. Try to get on the plane early so you know there is bin space available. Be at the airport on time and use all the techniques you can to board when the bins are not full. I have asked on occasion if I can board early and sometimes that works. When it does I offer something in return, like a cup of coffee.
Q: When you are getting ready to enter the plane with your instrument on your back do they sometimes stop you there?
Yes and I say, "I know it looks iffy, but I've never met a bin it wouldn't fit in," (my check-in slogan) "so if you let me try and for some reason it doesn't fit or it's compromising other peoples' space, I will bring it back and have it hand-checked."
I can't stress this enough: being polite, friendly, helpful and understanding can go a long way.
Q: So now you made it on the airplane. What happens then?
Every now and then I have the same conversation I just had with the gate agent and everyone is amenable. I'm taking responsibility for my horn and not demanding anything of them.
If I look in the bins and things are a bit tight, I may try asking "whose bag is this" and "would you mind if I put it on top of my horn?" If you are pleasant about this, most people will work with you. Always keep in mind you are dealing with storage areas used by everyone. It's not like you are going to get the special musician's bin.
I am always very conscious of the space. It's important to other people too. And if people get on after me and say "hey what is this thing in the bin?", then I get up and explain it to them and try to help them get their luggage up there too. And they are usually good with that.
Q: What if people follow these techniques but the flight attendant demands that they check their instrument?
Always be prepared for the hand check because it happens. That's why I mention any extra protection in the case is important. Hand checking doesn't mean your instrument won't be compromised, but it does hedge your bets a bit compared to checking it in as luggage where it's handled by all kinds of hands and moving belts etc., where their main concern is getting luggage on or off the plane as fast as possible.
When you hand check, it goes right from you to someone who puts it in the baggage compartment, then the luggage handler gives it back to you when you get off the plane so there is less risk of damage. Have labels on your case saying how fragile it is too.
So if you have to check, hand check at the gate. I always ask if can personally hand my horn to the baggage handlers so I can emphasize to them how important it is to me. I have even asked if I can put my sax in the cargo hold myself and some have let me do that.
I can't stress how important it is to be polite and friendly and follow all the procedures. I've had a TSA agent hold my sax like a baby while I was searched.Q: Guitars and basses are larger instruments than your saxophone so these folks have a tougher challenge than you don't they?
These are larger instruments but all of these techniques work for any instrument that can fit in an overhead bin. If we get on early I can usually get a guitar, bass, my horn, and the drummer's stick bag and cymbals in the overhead bins. My guys have learned how to streamline over the years and it works.
Q: There are policies on the books for many countries that are supposed to allow professional musicians to take their instruments in the cabin with them right?
If there are, I don't see them being considered! I was on a plane where a young cellist had to buy a seat for her instrument and they still gave her a hard time! Remember it's got to fit in the bin, or below your seat, or it's going to get checked, period. This is a reality so you need to think that way.
Q: Are the airlines supposed to treat hand checked luggage with more care?
No. It's just the process of making more room in the cabin for the things people need while on the plane. Once I put a funny sticker on my case being hand checked which made the handlers laugh and treat it a bit more carefully.
Q: A guitarist should never bring a bulky hard shell case on the plane right?
Correct. You need a streamlined case or gig bag. Q: Do you ever come across a flight attendant that is willing to help you find a place for your horn or ask travellers to put some things under the seat in front of them? Occasionally I do find helpful flight attendants but most of the time it's the other travellers that help the most and are the most understanding. Make friends with the people around you on the plane and they often will help.
Q: You are also saying don't be shy either, correct?
Speak up but be nice. Treat people like you would want to be treated. I would do this for someone else.
Q: Do you find some countries are more "musician friendly" than others?
Sometimes but there is no consistency. When you are flying internationally you have the closets which are helpful. International airline travel seems to be friendlier all the way around. The bins are bigger too especially on the planes that have the "2 seats, 5 seats, 2 seats" row arrangement. The smaller planes in Europe recently were tiny and the bins were odd shaped. My horn found a bin it couldn't fit in. And so I was hand checked - but very kindly.
So get to the airport early, streamline your case or make it look like as compact as possible, ask to move things around in the bin if you have to, but be prepared to hand check and plead your case to the luggage handlers. As you know people love music and generally get it and feel good about helping. Stress how important your instrument is to you in a polite way and you are likely to get your instrument there safely.
People skills are sometimes the only thing that saves the day - that and some good will bartering. As I've mentioned, I've brought coffee to a gate agent and helped other travellers with their luggage. Airline travel can be frustrating and difficult so why not try making some new friends which sometimes helps everyone.
Deanna Bogart won the Blues Music Award for Best Horn Instrumentalist three years in a row. Her new CD "Just a wish away..." on Blind Pig Records has been mentioned and/or reviewed in Rolling Stone and USA Today. She was featured on SiriusXM in July of this year. She recently relocated to the West Coast from the East Coast. Click here to go to her website http://deannabogart.com