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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. If your trombone will not fit in an overhead compartment (more on this below) or there is no room for it in an overhead, 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.

On March 6, 2015, musicians received very good news: the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved musicians taking their instruments on board commercial aircraft as carry on baggage. Until this date, each airline could develop its own policy about musical instruments in overhead compartments. Now, the FAA, in conjunction with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and all airlines has adopted a uniform policy. In essence, any musical instrument that will fit in an overhead compartment in any commercial aircraft WILL be allowed on board and may be placed in the overhead. The instrument may not be moved by flight attendants in order to put other bags in that space. If the instrument will not fit in an overhead, a musician may purchase a seat for the instrument and the instrument may be strapped into the seat or the musician can elect to have the instrument checked as baggage.

This is a good starting place to get an understanding about this new situation, found on the BMI website: Article about the final ruling for air travel with a musical instrument.

The article contains links to two further resources which you can also find here:

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website article about traveling with a musical instrument.

PDF: Reprint from the Federal Register (January 5, 2015) of the ruling by the Department of Transportation on "Carriage of Musical Instruments.

I strongly urge all musicians to both read these documents and also print out a copy of the DOT regulation and take it with you when you fly in case there is ever any question about whether you are allowed to bring your instrument on board.

But as I said earlier, you can't count on being able to take your trombone on board as a carry on bag. If you get on board and your case is too large for the carry on bin, you will have to either buy a seat for it (if one is availble) or check your bag as luggage. Certainly on regional aircraft that have notoriously small overhead bins, it is likely that your trombone will need to be gate-checked and put in the cargo hold. Because of this, it is always a good idea to pack your trombone well in a hard case. Even if you know your gig bag will fit in an aircraft's overhead bin, you may find yourself powerless when someone else tries to shove a rollerboard suitcase into the bin in front of it. The trombone in a gig bag is always the loser in those confrontentations. So, here are some things you can do to pack your horn well so if you DO have to check it as baggage, it will get to your destination safely.

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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