My partner flies a lot and tells me that she often sees people boarding planes with guitars in cloth cases. My response is usually, “Yeah, and some people win the lottery, buy a Caribbean island and drink pina coladas while watching a beautiful sunset each night.” Me? I live on a modest folk singer’s salary, in a small house where you can see the sunset, but only if you looked through the far right of the back window at exactly 6:57 pm in June. And I wrestle with airline personnel almost every time I fly. Maybe I should become a WWE professional with a name like Queen Bad Ass Musician Who Tries to Sneak Guitars on Planes … nah, that would never fit on a costume.
I’m not really a bad ass. However, I have tried to get guitars on a couple hundred planes. The responses are varied – from a kind pilot who carefully put my instrument in the first class closet, to a baggage handler who must have tossed my guitar down the entire length of the baggage ramp, because when I opened the case there were picks and other accessories all over the inside. (There’s no other way that all of that stuff would fall out of the separate compartment inside.) Maybe he was once kicked out of a music store for violating their no “Stairway to Heaven” policy. They say that ex-smokers are much more vicious than non-smokers. Same goes for ex-musicians.
I started touring in the late 80’s. On those early trips I thought it was smart to bring my guitar in a hard shell case and not one of the commonly used cardboard ones. I was able to carry it on a couple of flights, but after three rounds with a flight attendant who clearly needed more coffee, I realized I needed a much more substantial case so that I could check it in with the regular baggage. I bought The Case. Made with quarter inch plywood and lined with thick foam, my guitar could fall out of the plane at 30,000 feet and get nothing more than a scratch (and only because it hit a duck on the way down). A friend dubbed the case Big Bertha. Men twice my size would stare open mouthed as I hefted it across several feet to get to the check-in counter. I smiled and didn’t sweat or grunt ‘cause those airline agents can smell weight. I’d say in my best going-to-church voice, “Over weight? Gosh, I don’t think so.”
At a San Francisco airport I was confronted with a young airline employee whose only job experience must have been a summer job at Dairy Queen. Jabbing a finger in my direction, he intoned in his best Big Boy voice, “You have to pay $80 for that.” I sweetly replied that I’d already flown from North Carolina to there without the extra charge. He sighed and slowly explained to me that he’d measured it and indeed it was Too Big. He didn’t know who he was messing with. I’ve seen Bambi. I batted my eyelashes, a few small tears appearing at the corners, and asked if he could please bend the rules just this one time. “All right,” he admonished, “But don’t do it again.” That’s good because my next plan was to fall on my knees and it was a cold concrete floor.
Where the hell is my Academy Award?
After a few flights with Big Bertha I settled into a routine. I always checked in with a sky cap. No paltry one dollar tips from me. It was always a twenty and big smile. They never charged me extra. For airports without sky caps, though, I was in deep doo-doo.
I’ve tried various arrangements over the years. I arrived really early. I borrowed guitars. I rented them. I bought extra insurance. Really, though, nothing beats my own guitar and with Big Bertha, the only damage I ever had was a couple of times when the electronics shook lose. A little duct tape fixed that. The case, on the other hand, looked like the entire cast of So You Think You Can Dance tap danced on it in spiked golf shoes. They had even managed to pry loose the metal covers “protecting” the corners. We’re talking grommets, the same things that hold space stations together.
Then 9/11 happened and all bets were off. TSA agents started asking if I had guns inside that case. They wanted to take my strings, my guitar cord and asked what I did with the guitar stand. (I resisted the temptation to say “whack surly airline attendants.”) One TSA dude took my wire cutters. They were Craftsmen too, their sleek tips doubling as pliers. Those babies would survive the apocalypse but not TSA. Two weeks later the US lifted the ban on flying with wire cutters.
They aren’t consistent. Just last week I was able to gate check my guitar on the first flight, but for the second flight my polite request was greeted with a look like I had just asked the airline clerk to strip naked and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Her hands on her hips, she soberly informed me that it would have to be checked in as regular baggage. In my younger days I might have tried to reason with her, but I’m middle-aged now and I’m tired. At my destination a baggage handler hand carried it out to me. There’s a guy who’s going to heaven.
My brother once brought his guitar on board a flight. The instrument even had its own ticket that said “Mr. Guitar.” A flight attendant still wanted him to check it in. My brother is over six foot, rides a Harley and paid good money to bring it on board. She backed down. Maybe I should get a huge tat on my biceps that proclaims “Born to Ride” around a flaming skull.
If you’re getting ready to board a flight, please don’t glare at the mild mannered folk singer next to you like she’s some broad who over packed. She’s just someone who had to figure out how to pack a guitar, CDs, guitar stand and other accessories, and still have room for her socks. I am getting better, though. When I started touring I’d have three heavy suitcases, my purse and the guitar. With experience (and because I’m cheap) I’ve got that down to a small backpack, a compact suitcase and my instrument. Pretty soon I’m going to show up for gigs with just a CD and a pair of underwear. I can always sing a cappella.
When I meet other musicians who are dragging along a huge flight case the conversation usually starts with, “So, do you check it in?” We bitch about damages and exchange information about insurance. (I get mine through my union Local 1000. It rocks.) Horror stories are told in hushed tones – did you hear about so and so whose guitar arrived in splinters? Or – my favorite – the musician who ended up with a guitar case that bore tire tracks?
Everyone knows about the guy who made the video about how United destroys guitars. Great song, but it’s not just United who can drive a fork lift through an instrument and claim it was damaged because it’s a fragile item. (I’m not saying that’s what happened to this guy or to anyone, for that matter. My lawyer made me say that. Who am I kidding? I don’t have a lawyer. I’m a folk singer.)
I sold Big Bertha recently. It was getting harder to lug it around and I wasn’t flying as much. I now have a plastic molded case that really isn’t a flight case, but it’s lighter and is a step above a regular case. It doesn’t fit in the overhead of smaller planes. However, they sometimes let me gate check it. If I do have to hand it over I say a little prayer and envision it in white light.
I wonder how much a tattoo would cost?
Before I get a plethora of tips I’ll warn you that there probably isn’t anything I haven’t tried and no, I don’t want to hear about your brother-in-law who always puts his vintage Martin in a gig bag and takes it with him on every flight. Have him buy you a lottery ticket ‘cause he’s one lucky guy.
I also don’t mean to disparage airline and TSA personnel. I realize that most of them are only trying to do their jobs (just like I’m trying to do mine). I’ve only thought about injuring one with a guitar stand; my therapist says that fantasies are good for me.
Tell me your flying with an instrument story.