Vintage Guitar - February 2017 - Open - 70
HANDLE WITH CARE?
The Guitar as Airline Companion
By Steven Stone
hat's the scariest part of being
a professional (or serious
Wrong notes? Critics? Fans?
Flat-5th chords? Nope. It's
flying via commercial airlines.
Hardly a week goes by that
I don't see a photo posted on
social media of a prized instrument
trashed by an airline. What (besides
prayer) can you do to protect your
instrument from airline-inflicted
trauma? Let's see.
AIRLINES - BEST
There is a new website that rates
airlines based on the industry's own
polices for carrying-on musical
instruments. It can be found at fim-musicians.
org/airlines-list. Instead of personal anecdotes
or incidences of destruction, the site uses each
airline's own website information to determine
if it complies with current U.S. regulations;
green-rated airlines accept musical instruments
into the cabin without specific size restrictions,
as long as they fit into the overhead luggage
compartment or under the seat, while those
with a red rating apply the same size regulation
to instruments as regular luggage, and offer no
allowances for musical instruments. The third
rating, amber, indicates airlines that do not
comply with FAA regulations but apply size
restrictions that are more favorable for instruments than for regular luggage.
Currently, the site shows only 11 airlines
achieve a green rating. Three are domestic air
carriers - Delta, Southwest, and American.
International carriers include Air Canada, Air
Dolomiti, Air Mauritius, Avianca, Brussels
Airlines, El Al, Hawaiian Airlines, and Jet Blue.
Thirty-one of them have an amber rating,
including the largest U.S. carrier, United. The
number of red airlines was a whopping 75!
With only 11 of 117 listed as even vaguely
"instrument friendly," odds are not terribly
good you'll end up on a carrier that will value
your instrument higher than a suitcase full of
dirty socks. And if you must check/gate-check
an instrument and it is damaged, chances are
also very good the most you will receive in com-
pensation will barely pay for a decent hardshell
case, let alone the instrument.
Depending on the instrument and its value
to you, it may very well be advisable to look into
specialized insurance through companies like
Heritage. The majority of homeowners' policies
will not cover losses incurred during air travel,
but a dedicated policy/rider will.
What can you do to try to stack the odds in
your favor? First and foremost, board early.
The earlier you go on, the greater the chance
that your instrument will be inside the cabin
when the plane takes off. On Southwest, pay
the upcharge to be added to the first boarding
group. If you use a United Visa card to pay for
your tickets on that airline, you'll be bumped to
section two boarding, which almost guarantees
you'll find room in the overhead.
To increase profitability, airlines overbook
popular flights. On every flight I've been on
in the last year, they've requested voluntary
"bumps" and offered money to go on a later
flight. And on every flight, the plane has been
full. My current definition of an optimist is
someone who boards five minutes before takeoff and expects to find space in the overhead.
If you have connecting flights, make sure you
have time between.
Obviously, instrument size matters. My
original Mark Leaf case is simply too large to
fit most overheads. And even modern Calton
dreadnought cases may be too large for smaller
aircraft. One stratagem is to bring a gig bag and
an airplane-worthy hard case. If the hard case
is allowed onboard, clothing and stuff can be
transferred to the gig bag and checked,
while the hard case with the instrument
gets carried onboard. On an airplane
with a smaller carry-on area, the
guitar can go into the gig bag and
the clothes into the checked hard case
under the airplane.
Another way is to bring a smaller
guitar. Electric players have an advantage here, but even going from a
dreadnought to a 00 or 000 can make
travel easier. One reason I took up
mandolin was that it's much easier to
travel. There are also "travel" acoustics
from Martin and Taylor, and several
brands of travel electric guitars (and
even basses) small enough to fit into
I strongly recommend modifying
your instrument's case to reduce
the effects of a sudden drop, adding
closed-cell foam above and below the
headstock. In the August '16, issue
I described how to make inserts. In a pinch,
socks can be packed around a headstock to offer
additional whiplash protection.
I also recommend carrying a copy of this
"final rule" for travel with instruments from the
U.S. government (there's a printable document
online found by searching "transportation.gov
final rule musical instruments"), which attempts to clarify regulations. If airline personnel
try to take your instrument for gate-check, you
can sometimes change their decision via polite
Travel outside the U.S. with a vintage instrument can be considerably more complicated with
the latest provisions in the CITES agreements on
endangered species. If an instrument has ivory
parts or contains any Brazilian rosewood, it may
run afoul. The safest option is to leave it home.
If this all sounds grim, well it is. Flying with
a musical instrument has become a dangerous
game. Most of the time, instruments arrive
intact. But there are no guarantees. In the
modern world, the concept of "friendly skies"
as it applies to musicians and instruments has
gone the way of the passenger pigeon and the
10-cent cigar. Welcome aboard!
Steven Stone is a contributing editor to Stereophile's
Guide to Home Theater. He has also written for Stereophile,
The Absolute Sound, Creem, and Spin magazines. For
relaxation, he plays and collects guitars and mandolins.
His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.