Will air travel damage my instrument - Mar 2001
(PLEASE SEE THE ADDENDUM BELOW)
Air-travel with an instrument creates some unavoidable risks (too high or low a temperature, too sudden a temperature change, crazy baggage handlers--human & mechanical), but several precautions make it safer. Air travel is safer if you use a hardshell case with padding & good neck support. A lock is a good idea to ward off the curious, as is a band of duct tape around the outside of the case. But neither the lock or the tape will do anything to thwart a thief.
Small instruments meet carry-on luggage requirements, but larger instruments may not (even if their cases fit into the overhead compartments). Chances of getting the instrument on board are greater if you boldly board with the first group called, "those with small children or those needing extra time to board." Just march on the plane like they called your name personally.
During take-off & landing the instrument will experience G-forces that aren't a real problem, so long as you do two things: reduce the tension of the strings (do not completely remove tension) & pack the instrument snuggly in the case, especially around the headstock. These steps make all of the parts of the instrument respond to the G-force in unison instead of tearing apart.
On small planes, full flights or flights where the gate attendant just got dressed down by his supervisor, you will probably have to gate-check larger instruments (call in advance to find out the size restrictions & whether your flight is full). Never advance-check instruments unless you want them handled with regular baggage. Gate-checking will at least insure that the instrument is ON TOP of other cargo instead of under it (where it could be if you check it in advance). In the cargo hold, your instrument will experience the same G-forces as those already discussed.
In the hold, the instrument will also undergo temperature extremes: hot while waiting for take- off on hot tarmac, cold in thin, high-altitude air. Wood, glue, metal, & lacquers expand/contract differently in temperature changes, exaggerated in thermal shock. So, temperature changes must be gradual rather than sudden. In VERY hot weather, don't even try it...glue softens with heat & your instrument will disassemble itself. If temperatures are mild, you still have contend with cold air at high elevation. If your instrument's case is cold when you get it back at baggage claim, wait until it is the same temperature as the room you are in. Otherwise, the finish, & possibly the wood, can crack. Plan this time into your schedule. Sorry if all of this info makes you paranoid, but there are real risks. The precautions reduce risks to manageable proportions...but the reality of the problem is probably part of the drive for Martin's Backpacker sales.
What Can I Do?
ADDED NOV 2013
TRAVEL WITH YOUR INSTRUMENT - TAKE A COPY OF FAA MODERNIZATION AND REFORM ACT OF 2012 SECTION 41724
Airlines are now required by Federal Law to let your Axe on the Plane
I am plagiarizing from the web site, "Ari's Take" at We are grateful to Ari for the information and to our friend Amy Sutryn for sharing the info with us because you can now INSIST that an airline let you take your instrument on a plane with you. Here is the scoop:
TAKEN DIRECTLY FROM ARI'S SITE:
It's 145 pages of various airline passenger rights, but hidden on page 74 and stretching all the way to the middle of page 75 is the Musical Instruments clause. It states:
"An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage, if
(A) the instrument can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft cabin or under a passenger seat, in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator; and
(B) there is space for such stowage at the time the passenger boards the aircraft."
There it is. Black and white. LAW. Signed by the President.
Per point B, make sure you are able to board the plane EARLY. On Southwest, boarding order is determined by when you check in. You can check in online 24 hours in advance - set your alarm. Check the other airlines to see how you can get an early boarding group. Sometimes if the gate attendant is nice, she/he will let you board early if you ask politely (Southwest usually lets me on during family boarding).
I urge you to print this section out (and maybe the cover page) and carry it whenever you travel. Technically the airlines must comply "Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this section." So February 14th, 2014, BUT you don't need to mention that part when arguing with the gate attendant. It is the law and they should comply with it.
If you have an instrument that doesn't fit in the overhead compartment (like a cello), you can buy a ticket for it. That's in the next part of the law. They cannot charge you an additional fee if it's less than 165 pounds and is in a case.
Thank the musicians union, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), for lobbying congress FOR YEARS and finally getting this pushed through. Bet you didn't know what the musicians union did. Well there you have it.