Fun_People Archive
18 Mar
Airlines and Musical Instruments

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Wed, 18 Mar 98 17:56:41 -0800
To: Fun_People
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Subject: Airlines and Musical Instruments

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Forwarded-by: Bruce Lites <>
From: Richard D. Smith <>

After reading the recent thread about instruments getting trashed on
commercial flights and how to avoid it, I contacted a good friend who's an
airline pilot with some 30 years' experience.  I hope you'll read his reply
(below). It's a bit lengthy but written in a witty, perceptive and
uncompromisingly honest manner worthy of Sonny O himself.

Make no mistake-"Captain Bob" is a friend to acoustic and country music and
musicians. (One of his fondest memories involves happening upon a Louvin
Brothers show at the VFW Hall in Dothan, Alabama, in 1960 and chatting with
Charlie and Ira during the break.) But his observations about the demands
of the public-that's you and me-for both cheap fares _and_ on-time service,
and the implications for baggage handling, must be considered to get a full
and accurate picture of what we're up against.

Richard D. Smith

    Every time an airliner crashes, I know the phone will ring.  It will be
my pal, Richard Smith, and he will have a dozen good questions -- the
sort that news reporters should ask, but rarely do.  Richard wants to pick
my brain, and my 30 years of experience as an airline pilot, for the "real
story" behind the headlines.
    Thus it was that sent Richard's fingers to do the walking and contact
me about the crash not of another airliner, but of various musical
instruments carried on airliners by his friends in the music business.
    I tried to explain that cargo is not my area of expertise.  I fly the
airplane, but I don't load it or sell tickets, and I can't give you expert
opinion on what to do if your instrument is damaged in transit.  But we
chatted for a while, and he convinced me that I had a few things to say,
expert or not.
    Let's begin with "carry on" baggage.  Recently I was finished early with
my preflight cockpit activities, so I took a stroll through the cabin,
partly to do some PR, partly to size up any crazies that might have gotten
on board.  This has become a tough racket. Passengers go nuts fairly
regularly, and often beat up on the flight attendants.  Anyway, who do I
see but Itzhak Perlman, the violinist.  If you care at all about classical
music, Perlman is unmistakable.  I said Hi, and just to make a  bit of
conversation, I asked, "Where is the fiddle?" He grinned and pointed above
to the overhead bin.
    Perlman was lucky.  Because he is handicapped, he got on before the rest
of the passengers, and thus got first dibs at the overhead bin space.  Also
known as carry on luggage space.  He is also lucky in that he plays the
violin, not a larger instrument like a banjo or guitar.  Anything much
bigger than a fiddle won't fit up there.  And they won't let you put it on
your lap.  Federal Aviation Regulations, ladies and gentlemen...blah blah
blah.  So it goes overhead or in the even smaller space underneath the seat
in front of you.
    What I call the overhead bin used to be called the hat rack.  When these
airplanes were designed, even bums wore hats.  Take a look at those 'forties
and 'fifties movies. Then more and more people began flying, and someone
got the idea that you could carry several days worth of clothes in a bag
and stick it up there.  After all, nobody stuffed hats there any more,
because hats have been out of fashion for a generation. Except for a few
weirdos who play country music, that is, but they don't count. <G>
    The hat racks got lids, because when hats were replaced by heavy
suitcases the suitcases started falling on people's heads.  That resulted
in lawsuits, and lawsuits cost money.  Anything that costs an airline money
is fixed or fired or done away with, right now.  Like decent meals, for
example.  So the storage space got lids, but did not grow, and it will not
grow.  Expanding that space would cost money, and...
    That brings us to the cargo compartments, which to you means "checking"
your instrument.  Three problems arise at once.  First, it takes time to
stand in line to check your bags.  It takes a lot longer now than it did
fifteen years ago. That's because there are fewer airline employees, and
that's because employees cost money.  Since you, like nearly every other
passenger flying today, go for the cheapest fare, even the biggest, best
established airlines have had to make huge cuts in personnel.  And that
means every aspect of personal service takes a hit.  The airlines, of
course, won't tell you that.  Second, the airline will almost certainly take
note of the fact that your instrument is delicate, and will absorb much less
punishment than your Samsonite. They will place an appropriate tag on it.
But as it slides down that conveyor belt and out of view, your fate is in
the hands of, well, perhaps not the gods exactly.
    Eventually, a human grabs the bags, bicycles, skis, musical instruments
and the rest of the incredible flotsam and jetsam that goes into the cargo
compartment.  If they have time, they will observe the "fragile" tags and
place those items last, so that they fit on top of the Samsonites and spare
airplane tires that the airline is moving from one airport to another.  If
they are rushed-lots of luck.  And these "baggage smashers," as they are
known to us within the business, are very often rushed.  That's because the
airlines have laid off so many that any little glitch in the schedule, like
an airplane arriving late at the gate, means there are not really enough
"smashers" to do the job right.  But "on time departures" are the big item
these days.  I'll leave it to you to figure out what happens next.
    Third, industry statistics show that for the last several years about
one bag in 200 gets lost.  It will arrive at its destination eventually.
Very few bags are really, really lost. But if you need that guitar or banjo
today, there is a small but definite chance that it won't get there today,
when you do.  One way to assess these odds is to say that you will have to
take 200 flights before you lose one bag.  Of course, we all know which
flight for which career-making or breaking gig that will be.
    It sounds like I am knocking the airline industry.  I am.  The airlines
promise everything in the line of service, but deliver little other than a
quite safe trip from here to there.  On the other hand, the ticket prices
have been driven down and down.  The public is getting a terrific bargain,
on balance.  So, you get ripped off, but you are ripping them off, too.
You-the traveling public-won't pay the fares required to support the level
of services you demand.  Nobody wants to talk about this out loud, of
    In case you wondered, the pilots have a little space in the cockpit for
their bags. No overhead bin hassles, no "smashers" for us, thank you.
    I do have a possible "angle" for those of you toting large musical
instruments. At the main check-in counter, don't give them your instrument.
If they see it and ask about it, say, "I'd rather check it in at the gate."
They'll possibly let you do that because that means less work for them. if
so, show up at the gate carrying your guitar or banjo in its case.  Go right
up to the agent and tell them you don't think it will fit in the overhead
rack.  They will agree, and then put a special tag on it, and set it aside
near the ramp leading to the airplane.
    In this way your guitar will join the wheelchairs and kiddie strollers
that end up as last minute baggage collected at the gate.  This procedure
makes it much more likely that your instrument will be placed in the cargo
compartment last.  Per the previous remarks, that means on top, not beneath,
a ton of other cargo.  It is also a pretty good way to insure that the
instrument will be on the same airplane you are on.  Sounds stupid, but it
is a major consideration.  (That's what happens to those "lost" bags, in
case you wondered.)
    Richard wondered if the baggage handlers might deliberately damage
instruments, or steal them.  I said no.  Not because these are paragons of
virtue, but because they just don't have the time.
    International flights are another matter.  There, bags are almost
routinely rifled because of the multitude of dopes who put jewels and cash
in there, thinking somehow that it is safer than carrying it in your pocket.
It ain't.
    Having unloaded the way I have here, I think you will forgive me for
being less than eager to tell you either my name or the name of the airline
that sends me a nice check twice a month.  Even though I did not have much
good news, you have gotten the "real story" that Richard is always hounding
me for.

Captain Bob

(For what it's worth, I've found the following:

-If you have more than a briefcase besides your instrument, check it with
baggage. You don't need to wrestle any more than you have to into the plane,
and you don't need to be a space hog, especially given your strategy below.

-Most current airliners other than commuter planes do indeed have overhead
bins big enough for even jumbo guitars. However, you should get to the gate
as early as you can, to board among the very first passengers.

-Big tip. Use *any bin you can*, other than first class (unless you're
flying there). As they load planes from back to the front, if you get on
early, you can stash in an empty bin in the front of the cabin, even if your
seat is way back.

--If the plane has compartments too small for your case, ask sweetly to
stash it in the closet.  If that doesn't work, you can take a gate check
(above) and at least get it hand carried on and off.

-If you're doing this for a living, get a Calton case and a good road
guitar. Leave that prewar 45 style Martin in the bank vault where it
belongs. Once the typical sound mixer is done with your signal, you might
as well be playing an Ovation anyhow. That's why so many road players do
just that. -jv)

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