Help my baby not get broke! Delicate musical instrument as airline baggage.
December 26, 2006 4:46 PM   Subscribe

The great musical-instrument-on-plane paradox. How do you prepare (what case[s] do you buy and what strategies do you develop) when you need to travel on many different kinds/scales of airlines, with a delicate wooden instrument that MAY or MAY NOT be allowed as carry-on baggage (depending on circumstance, how full the plane is, and how much or little the inspectors care that it looks large, solid and "middle eastern")?

I've found a huge range of conflicting advice about transporting what I'll call "gray-area" instruments by plane (i.e., instruments that can *sometimes* be carry-on, if you're lucky and friendly/convincing, because they exceed carry-on size in length but not in perceived 'bulk' -- examples would be electric guitars, saxophones, or small dulcimers).

My instrument is a santur, which is like a delicate hammered dulcimer, but mine has the added funtime bonus of "looking middle eastern" based on the shapes used in its decorations (although I look white-young-female and am a U.S. citizen, so I don't imagine that will be an issue as long as I'm next to it). It's very tightly strung so changes in temperature and pressure are not good for it (I'm also getting conflicting info re. baggage). In other words, I REALLY want to carry it on if at all possible. It's 36 inches long, 4" tall including its strings, 14" wide, and about 10 lbs.

Mailing it is not an option because I'll be taking it on many flights of many kinds/scales -- sometimes performing with it in different places in rapid succession. Buying it a seat is almost never an option since these are mostly self-funded & mostly very-low-budget travels.

The basic catch-22: because you can't count on being allowed to carry on, you have to be prepared to check -- but being prepared with a rectangular ATA/flight case makes it basically impossible that you'll be able to carry on (since the case is too big and heavy), and being prepared with anything less makes it very possible that you'll have instrument damage (since non-ATA cases are routinely damaged when checked as baggage... although MUCH less often if you gate check).

The most-recommended solution I've found so far would be ordering a fitted internal-fiberglass case from Colorado Cases. I would try to touch one of these before ordering one, since they're a BIG investment on my scale.

Opinions (especially about Colorado Cases??) or experiences? Thanks very much for any input!
posted by allterrainbrain to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
"(I'm also getting conflicting info re. baggage)"
should be
"(I'm also getting conflicting info re. whether baggage holds are consistently pressurized and/or heated)."
posted by allterrainbrain at 4:48 PM on December 26, 2006

All cargo holds are pressurized. They have to be, because if they weren't the monocoque which carries most of the weight of the aircraft would fail. The skin of the aircraft is an aluminum balloon which has to be inflated in order to be strong, and it has to be inflated pretty much equally on all parts of it, front and back, top and bottom and sides.

So the cargo hold is about the same as the pressure in the passenger compartment. However, that's quite a lot lower than sea-level pressure (as you've no doubt noticed during landings when you've had to yawn to release the pressure in your ears).

Heating is another matter. It's not uncommon for the cargo hold to be quite a lot colder than the temperature in the passenger compartment.

I would suggest that you ask if the cargo hold on a given flight is safe for pets. If they say "no" then it's probably not safe for your baby, either.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:00 PM on December 26, 2006

I am a trombonist. My instrument is similar to yours in that it technically can't fit in the cabin as carry-on, although it occasionally has passed as such. The compromise I make is getting the strongest, most durable case for its size (mine is made by Wolfpack, but I don't think that they make santur cases) and attempting a check on every time I fly. I don't fly that often, though, and my instrument is insured.

Most trombonists carry their horns in soft cases which are then put inside SKB golf bag flight cases, which are huge, extremely heavy, but also very, very safe. They check the flight cases and then, when they get to their hotel room or other destination, they can tote the horn around in the soft case.

So, long story short, I would opt for the "expensive, heavy, can't be carried on but it's damn-near-bulletproof" option, as opposed to the "take your chances" option.
posted by rossination at 5:06 PM on December 26, 2006

One thing the ramp guys know is that the large heavy thing in the Anvil Case is a thing to be respected, nay, feared. One of this cases starts bouncing around in a cargo hold, and the only thing that might survive will be whatever is inside of it.

So, perversely, putting your gear in an Anvil Case and checking it means that it gets treated very carefully, placed just so in the hold, strapped down, and so forth. Thus, half the protection of an Anvil case is the threat it makes to other bags.

At 36" long, you're going to lose the carryon war more often than not. If I had to carry a 36x4x14" item with me everywhere I flew, I wouldn't even try to carry it on.

Note: You want it to look like an Anvil Case. Half the trick is scaring the cargo operators. I know a guy who has checked a Martin D-28 several hundred times over the last couple of decades. No damage, period. He does admit hauling the damn Anvil Case around is a pain -- but much less of a pain than losing that D-28.

Note: they make Anvils with handles and wheels, so you can haul them like rollaboards, which makes dealing with the case.

Note 2: 50 pounds is currently the magic weight. Anything more is going to cost you money to check. So, you want the case + instrument to weigh 45lbs, maybe 47lbs. Since you mentioned 10lbs for the instrument, that means you've got about 37lbs of case budget before you have to start paying.
posted by eriko at 6:15 PM on December 26, 2006

The less "stuff" in the cabin of an airplane, the better, by far, in any emergency situation. The less weird "stuff" going through security checkpoints from people hoping for special case exemptions, the faster the flow of people willing to keep the rules. rossination's advice is sound, and practical. I've checked a vintage Martin D-35 and a D-28 several dozen times, with no problems. I use TKL molded ABS cases, with some deformable interior shock foam inserts I make myself. These cases are cheap enough that I can discard them when there is any damage, and tough enough to withstand anything short of a forklift driving over them. Insure the instrument for value, of course, and detune it, to reduce string tension for travel.

Check any musical instruments larger than a plastic kazoo, and luggage, please. Because if you're on a flight with me, and I see you dancing down the aisle with something in a big protective case, I'm going to make a point of telling you that I don't think you're the special snowflake you obviously think you are. And more and more people in these days of heightened security procedures are doing the same.
posted by paulsc at 6:22 PM on December 26, 2006

Anvil cases are really great, though pricey. Of course it is money well spent, but if you cannot afford it for the moment, here is a temporary solution.

I have a jarana, which is some sort of folk guitar from Mexico, only smaller. Halfway between a mandolin and a guitar. I built my jarana so, as you can imagine, I am particularly fond of it.

What I've done every time I've flown with it is assure the person in the check in counter that this instrument is some sort of ultra valuable piece and that whatever the airline paid me if they break it wouldn't cover its value. They always end up telling me I can take it as carry on luggage, but they ask me to give it to the flight attendants as soon as I board the plane.

The flight attendants put it in the area where they keep their stuff and give it to me when we land.

Hope it works for you.
posted by micayetoca at 6:31 PM on December 26, 2006

Speaking as a fellow passenger I have to agree with everything paulsc said. It's just bad form to try to bring anything remotely questionable on board or through security, potentially costing time, frustration, and safety of everyone around you. Get a huge tough case and check it always. The hold is the same pressure as the cabin, so there's no difference there, and with enough padding in the crate you should also achieve thermal insulation as well as shock insulation. The hold may not be quite as temperate as the cabin but it's not that extreme. This depends on the outside temperature, but most airlines will allow pets to be checked as long as the temperature at the arrival and departure airports is between 45 and 85F, and little Fido is much more sensitive to temperature extremes than an instrument in a crate deeply wrapped in many layers of insulation.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:46 PM on December 26, 2006

I think the santur (10 lbs) inside the Colorado Case (between 7 and 8 lbs) would be substantially lighter, less massive overall, and easier to handle (being soft-sided and light) than the rolling suitcases many people carry on. The issue would be its 38" external length, and I think flight attendants are allowed to make judgment calls about whether or not to let in baggage that's long and thin.

It's also specifically allowed by the TSA to carry musical instruments as extra baggage through checkpoint screening. You're allowed one musical instrument in addition to the normal allowance of one carry-on suitcase and one personal item. The usual approach I hear now from other musicians is to never exploit that rule and only check through one purse-scale item beyond your instrument.

On the web you can find an endless stream of destroyed-instrument stories, some of which do involve ATA-certified flight cases. If you can imagine arriving at your destination with a pile of wood and strings rather than an instrument, that could help explain why, for example, the TSA specifically accommodates musicians. I can understand your instincts but I hope you can also understand where musicians are coming from.
posted by allterrainbrain at 8:26 PM on December 26, 2006

sorry rhomboid and paulsc, but if you had a several hundred-year old instrument worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, you would also be VERY hesitant to leave it in the hands of the baggage carriers. i have a VERY sturdy flight case for my cello, and have had to check it on numerous occasions- to auditions, to concerts, travelling home for the holidays. and the number of mishaps is almost as many: cello lost for three days, airline has no idea where they left it. cello left overnight in a rainstorm in atlanta (i had a concert the following day)... even the best cases aren't watertight for those circumstances.

now when i can i buy a seat for the cello (which is still a huge pain in the ass... cello can only go in certain seats, on certain aircrafts, every inspector/agent has a different rule, etc etc), or leave it at home and borrow/rent one in the new place, or when circumstances/finances necessitate, i very apprehensively check it, plead with the baggage agents to treat it as they would their own child, and hold my breath until it's back in my hands.

it seems like you're in a pretty similar situation- can't afford duplicate tickets, have to perform successive concerts. best i can recommend is to get the best flight case available, and then find a nice gate agent who will agree to carry your instrument down to the baggage crew (no conveyor belts), and keep it in the hold with the pets, which is generally temperature controlled. good luck- travelling with a large instrument is a drag!
posted by purplefiber at 8:38 PM on December 26, 2006

Thanks, purplefiber! I bet paulsc's vintage Martins are probably in the price range you mention -- but you bring up the bigger point that insurance & material value are only a small part of the picture for a working musician. I sure can't rent or buy a santur in most parts of the world.
posted by allterrainbrain at 9:14 PM on December 26, 2006

(since non-ATA cases are routinely damaged when checked as baggage... although MUCH less often if you gate check)

What, they actually pay attention to gate check tags? [/Bitter wheelchair user]
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:20 PM on December 26, 2006

Assuming you can travel with the santur carry-on, you should check the accessories, lest an overzealous screener imagine more nefarious purposes for them.
posted by Sangre Azul at 10:56 PM on December 26, 2006

"... I can understand your instincts but I hope you can also understand where musicians are coming from."
posted by allterrainbrain at 11:26 PM EST on December 26

My second wife is a professional double reed player. When we were married, she didn't travel by air much, except for her annual trips to her horn maintenance technician in NYC. Her oboe, English horn, oboe d'amore, and bassoon were, to her, items of inestimable culutural value, but for insurance purposes, they were, in total, professional instruments with an insurance value of around $43K. (And this was back in the '70's, before all the current security hoopla).

Yet, you'd have thought they were the Lindbergh baby, when it came time to fly, to listen to her. She claimed that jet fuel fumes combined with high humidity caused sealing problems on the bassoon's padded keys, so she wouldn't fly on any day when she thought it would be raining along the flight route. She swore that pressure changes persisting on flights of over an hour's duration caused the oboe's joints to swell detrimentally, so she'd book several connecting flights of under an hour's duration, and board and reboard flights to keep the oboe happy. Etc., etc.

So, trust me, I know how musicians "think" about flying with their instruments.

And that's the problem.

You may or may not be flying commercially with your instrument, depending on the whims and policies of various people in the airline customer service organization and TSA, on any given day.

But you will be flying with other people, and their needs, as persons, come way ahead of those of your inanimate object. The National Association for Music Education's Travel Tips for Musicians is a pretty good summary of the heirarchy of needs of airline and security personnel when it comes to transporting musical instruments, and instruments, especially those which aren't worth the cost of a seat, are rightly at the bottom. So, the only sensible thing to do, given that you won't buy the instrument a seat, is to case it for safe routine baggage handling, as eriko advised, and recognize that with the dimensions of the thing, you're not going to get it on a plane as carry on, frequently.

The Colorado Case Company products you ask about seem like decent products, but they make no claim of being ATA spec compliant, as do Anvil Cases. And as flat fabricated cases, they are unlikely to have the structural integrity of molded ABS cases, which guitar players can take advantage of, thanks to mass market volume. Calton Cases of Canada makes a decent custom fiberglas lay up construction, which seems pretty strong, but they only warrant their cases for a year, which gives you some idea of how daunting the life of a case is in terms of every day transport. That's why I suggested molded throw away cases that you can easily replace at the first sign of deterioration. Something like a Gator GX-42 is a workable general purpose case that you could custom pad internally as needed, and replace at reasonable cost when external damage is first evident. Because, truth be told, cases work to protect their contents, by absorbing damage themselves.

So, case your "baby" in a molded ATA case, insure it, detune it for transport, check it, and fly. Inspect the case and its contents carefully and immediately on each pickup from baggage claim, and file damage reports immediately. Replace the molded case immediately at the first sign of structural damage, especially dented corners, or damaged hardware.
posted by paulsc at 12:57 AM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thank you to everybody for the continuing responses! paulsc, it's fine that we have different approaches to this question. That's what this forum is for. You've made a clear choice of tone in both your posts and I think it's not having the rhetorical effect you were hoping for (I think sarcasm and dismissiveness tend to make readers put less stock in a writer's opinions rather than more). I appreciate the details you've posted.
posted by allterrainbrain at 3:06 AM on December 27, 2006

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