Many of us who travel frequently understand the risks of taking our instruments to an airport, but we also have experience in this matter and we usually, can come to an agreement with the airport employee that we are dealing with. I often have friends and students who are traveling for the first time that ask me what my experience is, and how I get by carrying my tenor or even baritone saxophone on an airplane.
Here’s an example of a recent email –
I am a grade 10 music student and I play the alto saxophone, and my school band is travelling to England in April for a music competition. I was recently in a music store and had taken a look at some of the soft sided alto saxophone cases. My mom and I figured that they would be a lot lighter and more comfortable to carry around, but we were not sure if they would fit on the air plane as carry-on and we know how careful some of the people are when they load on luggage.
Based on the dimension given on the various websites, the cases are not considered carry-on. I was wondering if these cases would provide enough protection for my saxophone if it was checked baggage.
So if it was your instrument and it had to go underneath the plane with the checked baggage, would you feel comfortable with it in one of the soft sided cases, or would you stick with the standard wood / plastic case?
My answer –
Here’s my experience in regards to flying.
I am a multi-instrumentalist (woodwinds) but primarily a tenor saxophonist. I carry my instruments in leather gig bags. The advantage – they are light and I can trek around pretty easily with more than one instrument. The disadvantage – they are soft and if I’m not careful, the instruments can get damaged very easily.
I fly quite frequently and I always carry my instruments on the plane (some exceptions – if I have my flutes and/or my clarinets, I have, but not always, stuck them in my luggage, or have shipped them). I even carry my bari sax on when I fly. My cases are larger than carry-on size, but I have never flown with them in cargo.
Now to your questions.
If it were my instrument, I would not go underneath into checked baggage. There is no option for me. My saxophones would be near impossible to replace (1931 Selmer Cigar Cutter tenor saxophone, 1930 Selmer Cigar Cutter alto saxophone, 1932 Cigar Cutter baritone saxophone). Any damage is signifcant damage, especially if I’m heading straight to a gig. So, my instruments never get flown in checked baggage.
I would not feel comfortable shipping a horn underneath the plane in a soft case. I know people who ship their horns in Protec, BAM, Walt Johnson (the older ones) and Hiscox cases. These cases are either soft on the outside and have a hard shell on the inside, or they are totally hard-shelled cases.
I would feel safer with one of the cases that I mentioned above, rather than a standard box case. The padding on the inside of those cases are (typically) more forgiving – meaning softer. I also find that they hold the saxophone more securely.
Now for my advice.
Try and carry your sax on the plane. Here’s a list of things that you can do or think about.
Get a nice case. You never know what they are going to let you do at the gate. You need to be prepared.
Call the airport. Explain your situation. “I am a musician, traveling with a large group. I have an expensive saxophone that I would like to carry on the plane…” Take the name of the person that you speak with.
If you get a nice case with a shoulder strap. Carry the horn on your shoulder – it looks smaller.
Show up early, speak with the flight attendant.
Even with all of the advice that I can give you, you still have to be prepared for anything. I have had success so far, but I am always ready for the answer that I don’t want.
If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact me.
I know that the AFM (American Federation of Musicians’) is currently trying to get a standardized set of guidelines to keep this issue from being a case-by-case basis. As far as I know, nothing has come of it yet. If anyone has any other experiences to share, or any advice, feel free to comment.