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22. How should I travel by plane with a trombone? With new airline regulations on carry on and checked baggage and the fact that trombones get so easily damaged in transit, what can I do to give my instrument the best chance of coming through a trip without new dents and problems?

You're planning a trip to a gig or audition and you have to get on an airplane to get to your destination. The very thought is enough to keep you up at night - what to do? Check the horn or take it as a carry on? What to do if you try to carry it on and the airline won't let you do it? Choices, choices, decisions, decisions.

But there are some things you CAN do to enhance the chances that you can fly with your trombone and end your trip with your instrument intact.

Whatever problems trombonists had when they wanted to bring their trombone on a plane, they compounded exponentially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Before that time, it was sometimes a tussle to get a trombone onboard an aircraft cabin as carry on baggage, but now the situation is even more complex. The savvy player will take some reasonable steps in packing and engage in some smart thinking during check in and at the gate. The comments below are based on my own experience of flying thousands of miles with my trombone both as carry on and checked baggage.

Let's look at the process of travelling with a trombone step by step in a systematic way.

First, never use a gig bag when you travel by plane. No matter how small a trombone you have, the final word on whether or not an instrument is allowed on board is given by the flight crew. If after all reasonable steps have been taken by you and you are not allowed to take your horn on board, you will have three options: (1) check your trombone as luggage, (2) purchase a seat for your trombone, or (3) don't go on the trip. None of those options is particularly appealing if your horn is in a gig bag, so plan for the worst (having to check your bag) and you will save yourself a potential headache.

This said, it should be self-evident (but common sense is not all that common, so it bears saying...) that you should never plan to check your trombone as luggage in a gig bag. In fact, I don't recommend the use of a gig bag at ANY time - gig bags just do not provide adequate protection for an instrument. You don't need an airline baggage handler to throw your gig bag 30 feet to damage it - the slightest bump against your back can cause a slide to get out of alignment or the valve mechanism to get bent. Get yourself a good hard case and forget about the gig bag.

Current FAA regulations in the USA allow passengers to have one carry on item that will fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you and one "personal item" which has been broadly classified to include a purse, backpack, or other small bag. However, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM - the union of professional players for the United States and Canada) successfully lobbied the Transportation Safety Admistration (TSA) to instruct airlines that they should allow musicians to bring their instrument on board as a third carry on. This was a major victory for musicians, but it is not quite as good news as it sounds. While airlines have been informed that instruments may come on board aircraft as a carry on bag, the instrument is still subject to size requirements. All trombones (alto, tenor, bass and contrabass) are too big to be considered "legal" carry on size. Alto trombones usually have no trouble getting in an overhead compartment but their length is more than most airlines allow. Some tenor and most bass and all contrabass trombones simply will not fit in most overhead compartments and all of the TSA regulations in the world allowing you to bring your instrument on board will not help you if your instrument just won't fit in the compartment.

Players planning to travel on airplanes should take a copy of the TSA letter which was negotiated wtih the AFM regarding musical instruments being classified as carry on luggage. You can download the TSA letter for free from my website by clicking the link in this sentence (100k PDF file). While all airlines have been informed of this policy, it doesn't hurt to keep a copy of the TSA letter in your case in the event you come across a TSA or airline employee who gives you an immediate hassle about taking a third bag on board or trying to bring your instrument on board. Remember: the TSA letter only applies to the TSA. Individual airlines make their own policies about carry on baggage. The TSA letter will get you through security with a third carry on but it is no guarantee you will be allowed on board with a trombone. For more information about this, see this article from the TSA website.

But as I said earlier, you can't count on being able to take your trombone on board as a carry on bag. Even if you hope and plan to do so, it's possible you will need to check the bag as luggage anyway. Here are some things you can do to pack your horn well.

Having packed the horn well, here are some strategies for dealing with check, security and the flight attendants and flight crew on the plane.

Here are a few more tips. Bass trombonist Mike Woodard has recently told me of his experience flying with his bass trombone in a BAM case. He comments:
I've come to the point where I only fly on airlines that use Airbus planes because the overhead compartment is large enough to fit my horn. The length isn't so much of a problem as the bell is. I can fit the horn across the length of a pair of carry-on compartment doors since there is no divider between every two. If I fly on a Boeing aircraft my horn will not fit because the overhead compartments are not tall enough for the bell, again length isn't a problem. If I am forced to fly on a Boeing I still take my horn to the gate as usual but I ask the attendant for a "Gate Valet". This is where the horn is taken down at the gate and brought back up at the gate at my destination. It is still handled by the airline employees, but at least it doesn't go through baggage claim, eliminating some chances of damage. For the last two years or so I have been going by this guideline: Carry on if Airbus, "Gate Valet" if Boeing. I haven't had any problems with personnel or security. Finding out what type of plane you fly is relatively simple too (even if you can't recognize them on sight, like myself). If you order tickets online you can often see what plane they will be using, or when you check your other baggage just ask the person who gives you your ticket and they can tell you.

Finally, if in doubt, contact your airline before hand to get clarity as to their baggage and carry on baggage policy. Many airlines now have a specific protocol for dealing with musical instruments.

Implementing these suggestions may help your trombone come through your travels in good shape. But it is not a guarantee. Things happen. Systems fail and life is full of times when things don't go the way you hoped they would. If your horn is damaged, take it in stride. Most damage that occurs while flying can be repaired. It's only a trombone - it's not your life. The world is a messed up place and living with the "new reality" in our post-September 11 world means that we just have to deal with more inconvenience in order to have a greater assurance of safety. When I check my trombone as luggage (which I do almost every time I fly with my horn), I take the precautions above and say a prayer. So far I've been fortunate to have my horn come through in good shape. Here's hoping you have the same good experience I've had.

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