Planes, Trains & Basses… Is it Safe to Travel with Your Guitar on an Airplane?

One of the questions that comes up from time to time is about travelling on an airplane with your beloved bass.  It is safe to take a your bass guitar on an airplane and what’s the best way to make sure it arrives undamaged?  It’s a really a good question but, unfortunately, the answer is not so cut and dry.

Let’s start with the harsh reality.  Sometimes, despite your best thinking, there will be people that really don’t care about your property.  The most extreme example was presented in a video by Dave Carroll entitled “United Breaks Guitars”…

… The video exemplifies just how bad it can get when you check your guitar. You may expect a bit of rough handling, maybe the Tolex on your case gets gouged or that Rush sticker gets a bit torn, but that’s it right?

The reality can be anywhere from one extreme to the other.

Master Chapman Stick player, Tom Griesgraber, was telling me about one of his experiences.  He has a hardshell flight case, but chooses to carry his Stick in a gigbag.  He’s always carried it on the plane and stowed it in the overhead.  He does a fair amount of travelling and has never had a problem.  Except one time.  At check-in, the airline decided that the instrument had to be checked.  With only a gigbag, the Stick travel as baggage from San Diego, California to Paris, France.  Mortified, he phone the other musician he was meeting for the gig.  He had no idea what condition the instrument be in on arrival.  On arrival in Paris he picked up the instrument.  It was 100% fine.  No issues at all.

On a recent trip to Los Angles, my son purchased a bass, with only a gigbag.  He was quite concerned about the flight back to Vancouver, but was told he could store it in the closet.  He arrived home with his shinny new bass guitar without incident.

On a trip to Maui, I purchased an acoustic guitar with a hardshell case and checked it as baggage for my return to Vancouver.  On arrival all of our other bags came down the carousel, but no guitar.  After awhile an announcement came on about “picking  up special baggage” at a particular station.  The guitar was waiting there.  It seems that the baggage handlers didn’t want to send it down the conveyor.

After 911, security pretty much everywhere became extremely tight and I suppose that this had a negative effect on many musicians.  A few years after, a letter was sent to the American Federation of Musicians by the TSA outlining that it was policy to allow a musician to carry on instrument through security checkpoints.  It did, however, point out that the airlines, at their discretion, may not allow the instrument in the aircraft cabin.  Here’s a link to the letter.

About a year ago there was finally legislation in  US that defines what is allowed or not allowed.  In essence a musician is allowed to carry their instrument on board providing they can be safely stored in the cabin.  However, if instruments are very large you may be required to purchase a seat for the instrument.  I would suggest you read the article on BMI’s website and the FAA bill on the the subject.

One suggestion is that since gigbags are less bulky than most hardshell bass guitar cases, you stand a better chance of having that allowed on board the airplane.  But if for some reason you are forced to check the bass guitar, it stands a better chance if it is in a flight case.

One other thing to consider is locking your bass guitar case when checked as baggage.  Be aware that airport security may want to look inside your case.  If you have it locked, they are allowed to break the locks to obtain access.  There are a lot of cases now with TSA ATA locks.  This allows you to lock the case, but allows airport security to unlock it.  See this Gator case video as an example.

All this said, people are people, and airports and airlines are under a lot of pressure to keep the skies safe.  Most people will be reasonable and care about you and the safety of you and your belongings.  But occasionally you find someone that is overzealous.  Arguing with them is probably not going to get you what you want.  Try to stay calm.  On average, it appears that more often that not there will be no problem.  Mostly likely all will work out in the end.


Always Stay Tuned - Terri

PS  See more on Rick McLaughlin’s Blog.


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