Flying With Your Instrument

Beat on the Street

Volume CVI, No. 12December, 2006

What’s the best way to carry your instrument on an airplane? We received more than a hundred replies. Local 802 will be continuing this discussion on 802’s Web site in coming months.


Valery Ponomarev, 63, the Russian-born jazz trumpeter who played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, had his left arm broken by French police after a misunderstanding about whether or not he could carry his trumpet on board an Air India flight from Paris to New York. As Ponomarev tells it, he had already received permission to carry his trumpet on board, but the gate agent refused to let him. To add insult to injury, a sitar player was allowed to carry his sitar on board. Ponomarev’s insistence, compounded by a language barrier and perhaps by heightened paranoia, led to the brutal overreaction of French police. Ponomarev says the police didn’t let him see a doctor for hours and, even after breaking his arm, continued to harass and humiliate him. Ponomarev’s manager, Reggie Marshall, describes Ponomarev, who is perhaps 5’ 5″ and 140 pounds, as a gentle guy. Ponomarev’s story was picked up by the New York Times. He told Allegro that he has hired a French lawyer and will pursue legal action.

I travel between Tokyo and Shanghai every six weeks or so, usually economy. When the overhead bins and standing lockers are full, I suggest they put it in one of the side compartments under the windows in business class. In my experience, these are often little used. I am allowed to take my instrument out myself upon arrival at my destination.

–Katherine Cash

I have one of my musicians board the plane without an instrument and ask to speak to the head flight attendant. Once the flight attendant comes off and sees our instruments, they have the authority to O.K. it with the gate attendant.

–Regina Carter

It’s best to leave a large instrument off to one side with someone else in the band while checking in, so they don’t jump on it right then. At the gate, try to keep it out of view as much as possible, as many airlines will have people walking around the boarding area looking for large items to take away. During boarding, I use a variety of tricks. I’ve had to travel a lot with a baritone sax in a leather bag, and I generally wear a loose-fitting jacket that I can unzip and fluff out at the sides. I have the strap arranged so the horn hangs low and vertical, behind my body. Fortunately I’m a tall guy and can make it almost disappear this way. I figure out which side I will approach the ticket-taker from, so the horn can be hung on the opposite side. Then when I step up to the person, I’m holding the ticket up in front of me in both hands, so that their eyes go immediately to the ticket and away from the horn. Sometimes I’ll even mumble something as if I’m confused about whether I’m at the right gate, and this way they’ll look right at the ticket for sure. Think like a magician: make their eyes go where YOU want them to go! Same thing when boarding the plane. I step in to the narrow entryway with the horn behind my body, a friendly smile on my face, and the boarding pass held up high for them to see, as if I don’t know where I’m supposed to sit. Once they’ve directed me, I fumble around a little and hesitate just long enough to be sure that someone has stepped in behind me and there is room to move ahead. Then I quickly turn the corner and disappear down the aisle. They don’t see the horn until I’ve made the turn, and then I’m gone and they have someone else in their face with a boarding pass to deal with. It almost always works. Only once in many years of travel have I actually been denied boarding with a baritone sax, except for one other time when the entire band was denied, even Joe Wilder with a trumpet in a little case. One other thing: if they do hassle you at the gate and put one of those brightly-colored gate-check tags on your horn, this means someone is waiting down the gangway to spot it and take it away from you. Rip the tag off surreptitiously in the gangway, sling the horn to the opposite side from where the baggage person is waiting, and try to time it so they’re fussing with somebody else’s stuff as you whisk by. Then proceed as above. Isn’t travel fun?

–Scott Robinson

It has been my experience that there is no consistency in terms of carrying on your instrument. You may be able to carry your axe on the plane going to the gig, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll let you carry it on the plane coming home.

As for double bassists (like myself), I have been renting basses on the road with great success. I do it so much, in fact, that I built a Web site to help facilitate locating instruments. The web address is It is a free site that functions as a simple database (no pun intended) of contact information for either renting out your own bass or finding an instrument on the road. It’s only been up and running for about a year now, but it is slowly gaining ground.

–Phil Palombi

When boarding, don’t use your gigbag’s backpack straps — it’s more conspicuous that you are carrying an oversized item. It’s better to hold the instrument low to the ground and away from the gatecheck person so that they don’t notice it as easily.

–Owen Yost

I have used a garment bag, being sure to carry it carefully and not give away that there is an instrument inside. Once inside, just hang it in the coat rack area with the other garment bags.

–Jerry Bria

I use a shoulder strap. As I approach the gate I push my violin behind my back as I approach the gate personnel, then as soon as I pass I swing it forward in front of me so they have as little time as possible to see it and judge its size.

–Gregor Kitzis

I usually go to the airline’s Web site to see what its carry-on policy is. I print out the page and bring it along with a measuring tape so that I can show them that my case is within the requirements.

–Stephan Kammerer

In the most kind tone you can muster up, ask the head flight attendant, “I make my living with this instrument and was wondering if there might be room in the flight attendants’ closet that I might store it for the flight?” It all depends on the day and the mood he or she is in.

–Nate Brown

When they ask what’s in the case, simply reply “harmonica,” and no matter if you are carrying a timpani and the Berlin Philharmonic with you, they will let you pass unobstructed.

–Dave Cieri

I carry a laminated copy of the TSA document stating that instruments are allowed as carry-ons. However, I’ve found that being nice usually greases the wheels much better than any document could. Talk to the security personnel and tell them all about whatever gig you’re on — it’s worked for me for years.

–Joe Parker

  1. If the boarding pass is in your right hand, the instrument goes over your LEFT shoulder, obscuring it from view.
  2. If hassled, I say, “It’s fragile, it fits in the overhead, and I haven’t checked it in 25 years.” If you still get flack, request a supervisor.
  3. I have instruments that I can trust waiting for me to use in certain cities, precluding the need to take my axe to those places.
  4. If you fly with small woodwinds, put them all in the same carry-on shoulder bag.
  5. Don’t fly Delta!

–Rob Scheps

Once, flight attendants were adamant that I check one of my French horns. So I took it out of the case, removed the slides and put them in the seat pocket and left the rest of the horn under the seat in front of me. Then I handed them the empty case. Flying with a horn in your lap isn’t especially comfortable, nor is carrying the naked instrument off the plane and through the airport to the baggage carousel, but it beats the heartbreak of being greeted by a damaged instrument on arrival.

–Katie Dennis

I found it’s best to pack all loose equipment, such as mouthpieces, mutes, oils, etc. in your checked luggage so that searches are quicker, without screeners having to go through all that stuff. If all they have to look at in your case is your instrument, it’s much faster.

–Daren Wilkes

Get there early and be close to the front of the line. If it’s an airline with assigned seats, then try to book towards the back of the plane. This area is usually first on after the first class and biz passengers. The attendants freak out less at the sight of an instrument coming if the bins are still empty.

–Dan Immel

The best way to carry the horn on the plane is to not carry it on the plane. Put it underneath. Tenor trombones work great with the SKB 4812 golf case — using either the Cronkhite “shorty” bag or the Dolly bag. There are also no weight restrictions on golf cases, so your heavy stuff can go in the golf bag and you won’t be charged extra. The SKB case is relatively cheap and it seems that airport personnel treat golf gear with greater respect than if they think it’s a musical instrument. Also, SKB replaces any broken latches or handles for free, and if the case is structurally damaged in any way, they send you a brand new case. Another tip: keep your mouthpiece with you. Should the case’s arrival be delayed, you can usually get another horn to use until it gets to you.

–Jim Pugh

As a trumpet player, only twice have I not been able to take my horns on as carry-ons, and those two times were flying in very small “puddle jumper” airplanes. I handed my trumpet case to the baggage guys and watched them carefully place it in with other baggage, and they handed them immediately to me after landing. I slipped each of them a few bucks, just to smooth things out a bit.

–Tim Wendt

My viola goes in a small case, over the shoulder under a coat while distracting the staff with the other hand and a big smile.

My cellist has had his put in the closet, and on two occasions as a final solution, asked the pilots to put it in the cockpit, which they have done!

Rules to follow: Black is the best color for cases. They look smaller. Use your shoulder strap. Don’t wait in front of the gate with your big case before boarding. Never get angry. Always smile, always be nicer than they are. And don’t ask for your cello’s meal if it has a ticket.

–Peter Bucknell

Inflatable timpani and just-add-water vibraphones usually work. I’m also developing holographic drum sets that can be re-projected after I arrive at my destination.

–Michael Blair

I carry my viola on my back, so the attendants are not head-on confronted. I try to board as early as possible. On the rare occasions when an attendant says “You need to check that,” I quietly say, “I’m sorry, I can’t, but I’m willing to wait for the next flight.” And of course, that never happens because they always back down.

–Karen Ritscher

I always buy a seat for my cello. It’s too risky otherwise. Not all airline personnel have been familiar with it but as soon as they see the ticket, they’re O.K. I thought I would have to remove the endpin but it’s never been noticed. The cello goes through the X-ray and I’ve never been asked to open the case. At the gate I request to be boarded in the first group with the other “special situation” people (people in wheelchairs, etc.) It gives me more time to deal with getting the cello belted in with the seat belt extender that’s available on boarding. On board crews have always been accommodating and helpful. Airline regulations require that the cello get the window seat and I feel bad for the person who can’t put their seat back as far as they might be able to otherwise but people have always been understanding. It’s always a social icebreaker on the plane and a catalyst for good and sometimes funny conversation! I also lower the strings before I board. I don’t know if that’s still necessary but I do it as a precaution. I actually enjoy traveling with my cello. It’s a useful, comforting and entertaining distraction.

–Danièle Doctorow

While recently on the road with John Mayer, plane travel was getting tough. I decided to invest in a case made by “Raw Brass” so I can more confidently check my trumpet and flugelhorn.

–Chuck MacKinnon

I’ve traveled several times this year with my bass trombone, which has a 10.5-inch bell. Although we’re theoretically restricted to 51 inches in total length, I slip through at slightly longer.

The overhead bin is the problem, for me, anyway. There is no question that Continental is my favorite. They seem to understand a little better than a few others. Always get a seat very near the back of the plane — put up with the wait at the end of the flight. Try to fly on a Boeing plane of good size. They seem to have a larger overhead bin opening. My experience on Delta, with McDonnell/Douglas planes has not been good. Their bins are smaller: good for flat cases — no larger that normal tenor saxes, if that. The Delta flight crews have been great to me, so far — taking my horn to their own compartment, up front. Don’t count on it, though.

Remember: big instrument, big plane. Small instrument, most any plane.

–Bruce English

Having just returned this month to the states from six weeks in the U.K., I was understandably concerned about my handmade, somewhat delicate, gold flute. In addition to its regular Jean Cavallaro padded outer case, I wrapped it in layers of bubble wrap in side my carry-on. Between the time of heightened security and my departure date, there was no time to secure a letter from the state department to indicate that I am who I say I am. I told the security guards in advance that there was a flute in my carry-on bag. There were no problems, thankfully. In years past I have experienced guards who have wanted to open the case and even one case, decades ago, where a guard wanted to take apart the flute. His superior officer nixed that idea quickly when I produced my union card and a concert program. Hope this helps.

–Anne Sheedy

As a cellist I have had incredible difficulties with getting the cello to the airplane. I find that the secret is to check in online, don’t check any bags, and go straight to the gate. That way, the gate agents can’t fight with you. Usually if you can’t get the cello through security at one checkpoint, there will be a TSA person at another checkpoint that won’t care.

–Brian Hatton

I have an old hard shell case — the kind with a slightly arched top — from which I removed the handle. I put it into a big, heavy-duty padded leather Levy’s gig bag.

I stuff newspaper inside the hard shell case, behind the headstock. (I understand that whiplash is a main cause for the neck snapping at the headstock and the newspaper helps to prevent this.)

The arched top to the hard shell case is important because it’s much sturdier, structurally, than a plain old flat-faced hard shell case. Though it’s a little bulky and heavy, this setup has worked well for me and seems capable of taking quite a beating. I always got my baroque guitar on carry-on and into the overhead, no problem. It’s kind of small. It helps to check what kind of plane you’ll be traveling on, as overhead size varies considerably on different planes. The Boeing 737, for example, has really small overheads, so assume that you’ll have to check your instrument and pack it accordingly.

–Frank Galante

I have a very small shaped trumpet case made by Winter. It’s about the same size as the instrument and provides good protection. I put my trumpet in this case into a medium size gym bag or 22 inch rolling suitcase, along with any other essentials I need, and carry it on. Sometimes I put this small trumpet case in my regular large suitcase and check it through. Trumpets are relatively inexpensive and I would never check a more valuable instrument such as a violin. I have tried showing the copy of the letter I downloaded from the AFM Web site but the airlines have always ignored it. Ground personnel seem to enjoy saying “no.”

–Larry Malin

I’m an electric bass player carrying a softshell bass case. Delta outright refused to let me get on my flight with my bass. They insisted on gate checking it and would take no responsibility for any damage should it occur and said that they were not required to honor the AFM letter that I diligently carried with me! Delta then insisted that I purchase a separate ticket for my bass if I didn’t want to check it.

This was my first Delta experience and it just so happened that on that day there wasn’t a second seat available. Luckily I was traveling with our tour manager who scrambled to get me on a different carrier. America West insisted on the same thing. During the last two years I toured with the first national tour of “Little Shop of Horrors.” We traveled every Monday. They used Delta and America West quite frequently. My touring company began purchasing a separate ticket for my bass anytime we needed to fly with either of those two airlines. In addition, both airlines insisted that I could only sit in the bulkhead section and my bass had to be seat-belted in the window seat and I had to sit in the middle seat next to it. Even when a separate ticket was purchased they gave me “attitude” to boot.

But United and Southwest have been excellent and happy to help.

My tip would be to avoid both Delta and America West. They’re not worth the price or the aggravation.

–Lynn Keller