Sometimes I think back on the way it used to be… I traveled regularly with multiple horns and never had a problem getting on a plane. Usually a tenor and a soprano, sometimes even a backpack with a clarinet and flute too. When I moved to the east coast for college, I even remember getting two giant crates of CD’s on as a carry-on as well.
These days, I would never attempt to do any such thing, as it’s become common to have problems just traveling with my tenor. Since about 2000, the airlines have cracked down on musicians with a number of policies that infringe upon our need to travel with instruments, and have made life very difficult for any traveling musician.
Just a few days ago, I was forced to gate-check my tenor on a plane that had more than enough room for it in the overhead bins (musicians: avoid Qantas Australia at any cost!). I pleaded and pleaded and they refused to budge. I always said that I just wouldn’t fly in the event that this happened, but I was traveling in a group and we had a workshop and performance to run to right off the plane, so I was left without a choice.
When I need to bring multiple horns these days, I either have another member of the band carry my second horn, or have a flight case for my soprano that I can check in when I need to take that somewhere.
That all said, traveling is a necessity for many of us and there are a number of things you can do to decrease the chances of having any problems. Here are some tips:
1. Buy the best, most compact case you can possibly buy.
This one is kind of obvious, but having a good case molded to the shape of your horn can definitely increase your chances of getting on the plane. I don’t recommend soft gig bags, however, since these will have no chance of survival in the event that you are forced to check your horn in, and can also be problematic if somebody tries to squeeze their luggage in against your horn.
2. Book seats towards the rear of the plane.
Most planes board starting from the rear, so this will increase the chance that there will still be ample space in the overhead compartments once you get on the plane.
3. Keep your horn concealed from airline personnel and flight attendants before the flight.
Often, the problems begin before boarding even starts. They see a piece of non-standard luggage and will start giving you problems. You can avoid this by never taking your horn with you up to the counter (leave it with your flight companions if you have to approach them about anything) and sitting far away from it. They are much likely to take issue with you before boarding begins, while they still have time to attend to matters like this.
4. Avoid peak travel times
Besides saving you money on your fares, the airport environment is much less stressed at these times. If you’re thinking of taking your horn to mom’s house for Thanksgiving, I would think twice!
5. Conceal your horn as you approach the boarding gate and give the attendant your ticket.
I usually make sure that my horn is either hanging on the opposite shoulder or that I’m carrying it below eye level. Often, they don’t even see it.
6. Don’t board together with other musicians.
In the event that you do encounter a problem and are taken aside here are some tips:
1. Stay cool.
This can be difficult to do, but unleashing your frustration in a situation like this will only make things worse. I generally will calmly explain that this is what I do for a living, that I’ve been on hundreds of planes and never had a problem getting the instrument to fit, and that it’s a valuable, one-of-a-kind instrument that is not easily replaced. I typically mention that I’m a member of the musician’s union and that they have had extensive negotiations with the TSA about this issue as well. Despite the problems they are causing you, it’s essential that you approach them as your friends, no matter how firm you are. They’re much more willing to bend the rules for somebody who is likable.
2. Ask to speak to the supervisor.
Do this before things get heated. Often, they will want to avoid problems more than their subordinates and be more willing to come up with a solution. Sometimes they are even willing to let you put the horn in the coat closet too.
3. Take the horn out of the case.
If it’s a short flight, you might be willing to check the case in without the horn and carry the horn on “a la carte.” You can sit with it on your lap or try to place it safely in an overhead compartment during the flight. It’s a bit uncomfortable and humiliating (get ready to hear lots of jokes from fellow passengers), but this option could save you in a jam.
4. If you are absolutely forced to check the horn in…
Do your best to make it known to everybody how valuable and fragile it is, and ask that it be hand-delivered to the airplane and to you at the gate when you arrive. Talk to the flight attendants on the plane about contacting the ground crew to make sure the horn doesn’t end up on the luggage carousel, which will almost certainly cause massive damage.
Hopefully we’ll see a day when there are some universal regulations that allow us to travel without problems. For now, the only way to guarantee no problems is to either find a heavy-duty flight case that you can check in, or to avoid traveling with a horn when you can. Often, I will borrow a horn if I know somebody where I’m headed, or if I’m traveling for non-musical reasons but just want to have something to practice on I will simply take a clarinet, flute, or just my soprano.
As always, if any of you have any tips to add to this, I would love to hear them!
Study with Sam
Sam Sadigursky is currently offering online lessons through Skype and private lessons in NYC. He has given improvisation clinics across the U.S., is a regular guest professor at Hunter College, and currently performs internationally with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Folklore Urbano, and others. To find out more, visit SamSadigursky.com.
Photo by Sean MacEntee