I know that we've covered this topic in passing over the past few months, but with today's news of a foiled airplane bomb plot in the U.K., airport security's going to be on condition red for at least the next few days, if not weeks.
I often advise clients to carry guitars and valuable instruments with them on aircraft when they're flying to gigs. While I generally find that airlines do work hard to keep your luggage safe (I've known a few baggage handlers over the years), mistakes happen. Ranging from the "I didn't mean to drop the 1,200 pound cargo container on your Les Paul" mistake to the "I didn't realize that hole in the fence around the runway was that huge" mistake.
The problem is that musicians, feeling good about a gig and righteously overprotective of their gear, can bump heads with airport security staff, TSA supervisors, and airline crew members that feel equally righteous about enforcing legitimate rules. Here's what I have found to work in those situations:
1. Invest in a great, hardshell case. If you're on the road a lot, this investment will pay for itself again and again. While you still want to avoid checking your instrument, you can rest easy that it won't get banged up in the process if you have no other choice.
2. Guitar? What guitar? Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Pat Kirtley and other experts recommend that you avoid calling attention to your instrument at any of the check-in points. If you ask whether it's okay to bring your guitar on board, a desk clerk is likely to tell you "no." And if you ignore their advice, you're likely to wind up like one of the cautionary tales on Airline. You might even be denied boarding.
3. Check everything else as luggage. Remember that most airlines now restrict you to one carry-on item and one personal item. A "personal item" is a handbag, a clutch, or a day planner -- and maybe a small laptop computer. Don't expect mercy if you're trying to carry on a guitar and a giant rucksack full of smelly road clothes.
4. Ship some items ahead of time. One road manager I worked with had the most awesome strategy of shipping critical items, including clothes and toiletries, to hotels, promoters, or street team members in advance of the show via UPS. The less luggage you bring on the plane, the more inclined a crew member will be to help you.
5. Book a window seat, in the back of the plane. You'll get first crack at stowing your instrument safely in an overhead compartment. If it doesn't fit, you'll have enough time to get help from a flight attendant who can stow your instrument in a closet.
6. Used the right way, gate check is your friend. "Gate check" simply means you've got something too big for the overhead compartment or the space under the seat in front of you. Since you've already carried it through security, a crew member can tag your item at the end of the jetway and walk it down the stairs to be put in the cargo hold after everything else has been loaded. When you arrive, someone will pull your item and leave it for you at the jetway. While not as good as carrying the instrument on the plane, you're no longer at the whim of conveyor belts and carousels. Get a receipt for your gate-checked items, always.
7. Talk like a courteous travel pro. As you bring an instrument through the airport, it's likely that TSA or airline staffers will ask you what's in the case. Tell them that it's your instrument, and that you're gate checking it. (Even if you're going to try to squeeze it overhead.) Never argue, and never cause a scene. In fact, use any encouter to plug your band -- you could even end up with a new audience member.
8. Use SeatGuru.com. Learn about the plane you'll be on. If your flight has a tendency to fill up, prepare to use the gate check option. Choose flights with equipment that has enough room to stow your musical instrument. (Pat Kirtley has a list of "guitar-friendly" aircraft, including the Boeing 737, the MD-80, and pretty much anything by Airbus.)
9. Upgrade. Act like the star we know you are! Airtran and other airlines have made it easy to upgrade to Business Class for just a few bucks more. Or, you can fly some extra-service airlines like JetBlue or Midwest. Paying a few extra dollars can buy you a more attentive airline crew that's eager to help.
10. Be nice. Seriously. Most airline staff are so stressed out from rude customers that a simple smile can make their day. Make eye contact, and ask -- genuinely -- how their day is going. Express how much your audience will appreciate it if they help you out. A great relationship can get you the favor you need to get your gear on board.