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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.
Some players have taken to putting their hard trombone case inside a hard shell golf bag case, such as those made by SKB Golf Bag Cases. I have one of these cases myself and it can be fitted rather easily (with foam or spray on foam) so your trombone in its case can fit inside. The disadvantage to this kind of case is that is is quite large and bulky; at your destination, you may find trouble getting a cab that will accept the golf bag case and you will also then have to keep up with two cases. These hard shell golf bag cases have wheels and latches so are a good "second insurance" against damage to your trombone if you check it as luggage, but it is important to keep in mind that damage can still occur to your trombone if you don't take steps (as outlined below) to protect the horn itself. The hard shell golf bag case will prevent scratches and damage to your trombone case but won't add significantly to the protection of the actual trombone. In fact, I have seen some airline baggage handlers treat golf cases even more roughly, as if to test their durability. However, I have found using a hard shell golf bag case to be most useful when I needed to bring along books and CDs to sell at an event - putting them in the golf bag case freed up room in my suitcase and helped me with the weight limit the airline imposes on baggage.
I first thought to put a mute in the bell to prevent this forward motion of the bell, and I used an old Vacchiano/Alessi tenor trombone mute to put inside my bass trombone bell. It worked well for a couple of trips until the case was thrown hard enough that the 2 piece mute actually came apart in the case, causing various other dents while the mute rolled around inside the bell.
The next idea on the evolution of the thought was to put a collapsible trombone stand inside the bell. This would seem to have worked but for the fact that the long metal part of the stand that went up into the throat of the bell was not completely stationary, and while the actual bell flare was fine in transit, further up the flare a number of small dents appeared.
It was then that I came up with the idea to use a styrofoam cone. It will cost you about $1.00 at a local hobby or sewing shop - these kinds of cones get turned into small Christmas trees and other kinds of craft items. I cut the cone so when I put it snugly in the bell, it stuck out just enough that it touched the inside of the case. The cone was wrapped in a sock (I've improved on that by now having it in a piece of cloth which I've stitched snug around the cone - if you don't, eventually the cone will begin to fall apart and little bits of styrofoam will begin appearing in your case - a nuisance to clean up). The styrofoam cone succeeds where the mute and trombone stand failed for several reasons - first, it is soft and will not, itself, dent the horn under any circumstance. Also, when the case is thrown, the cone can compress slightly to absorb some of the impact of the jolt. Here are some photos of my daughter Linda's bass trombone in the case, being prepared for travel, with a styrofoam cone covered with cloth inserted in the bell. In these photos, you can see that the cone keeps the rim of the bell from touching the case.
With the cone in the bell, I have checked my standard issue Yamaha trombone case over 100 times as baggage and never once have had any damage to the bell. The cone itself has cracked in two (although because it's covered with cloth, it still maintains its cone shape), and my case itself has the usual wear and tear you'd expect from airport baggage handlers. But the trombone always comes through fine.
Here's my best endorsement for this little $1.00 piece of prevention: a few years ago, while on tour with the Boston Symphony, I did a master class in a city and needed my trombone after a concert on a free day on the tour. Therefore my horn couldn't travel by truck with the orchestra's instruments in the well made instrument trunks which we use on tour. So I had to check my horn as baggage for the flight, and I did so with a stryofoam cone in the bell and the horn in my standard Yamaha bass trombone case. While sitting in the airport terminal, my colleagues and I could see our plane's cargo being loaded into the cargo bay. My trombone went up the motorized ramp and I could see a pair of hands inside the cargo hold reach for it. And then it fell. Bam. About 15 feet from the cargo bay to the tarmac. It fell exactly on the bell section of the case, just stood there on the tarmac - like a statue - and then fell over.
All of this was in full view of a number of my colleagues, some of whom quickly got out their cameras to take a photo of the case on the tarmac ("Man, you'll be glad you have that photo when you sue the airline!" was the common refrain). This blurry photo (below) was taken by one of my colleagues. You can see my trombone case, all alone on the tarmac next to the plane's wheel.
And I had to go through the flight (about 4 hours as I recall) and wait until I got to to the hotel where our bags would be delivered to see what the damage was.
Naturally I expected the worse, after all, the horn had fallen a good distance, and landed right on the bell end of the case. But when I opened it up, the horn was just fine. No dents, no crease, no sprung slide. Nothing wrong at all. The cone saved my horn.
I figured then, and I believe now, that if my horn survived THAT, it could survive anything. And, by the way, bravo to Yamaha.
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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