Flying with a musical instrument? Tips to help you land on a good note

Sally Kohn, CNN CommentatorPublished 20th April 2015
Traveling with a child's cello is a cinch, compared with flying with a harp. Just ask harpist Lavinia Meijer.
Editor's Note —
(CNN) — My 6-year-old daughter plays the cello. It is incredibly, heart-ticklingly awesome. Not so awesome? Traveling with a cello.
But because we travel a fair amount and have in the past not brought the cello, my daughter has fallen a bit behind other students in her program. So recently, my partner has lobbied strongly -- which is to say, insisted -- that we bring the cello on trips. And so we have started flying with a cello.
In 2009, the musician Dave Carroll had a runaway viral hit -- 14 million views on YouTube and counting -- with his song "United Breaks Guitars." In the song, Carroll details helplessly watching as United baggage handlers carelessly tossed his and his band mates' guitars around and, unsurprisingly, later discovering that his very nice Taylor Guitar had been busted in the melee.
As the chorus of the song explains, "You broke it, you should fix it / You're liable, just admit it / I should've flown with someone else / Or gone by car / 'Cause United breaks guitars."
Cellos, I should note, are arguably more fragile than guitars.
Airline policies on instrument travel have indeed changed, for the better, since Carroll raised the issue.
And recently, the Department of Transportation issued a ruling obligating all U.S. carriers to allow small musical instruments, such as violins and guitars, on domestic flights -- if there's enough room. Small instruments are now treated the same as any other carry-on luggage, so space is first come, first served.
As part of the allowance of one carry-on bag plus one personal item, a passenger may carry a violin, guitar or other small musical instrument onboard the aircraft if:
1. The instrument can be stowed in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of the passenger; and
2. There is space for stowage at the time when the passenger boards the aircraft.
The instrument must be in a hard-shell case. And carrying on an instrument counts in each passenger's carry-on allowance.

Buying your harp a business class seat

If there isn't cabin storage room, or your instrument is too big -- say, a full-size cello -- you have two options.
You can check it and take the chances that Carroll took. But even if carefully handled, the bridge on a cello or upright bass could easily shift a bit or break altogether.
The other option? Buy your instrument a seat.
"My cello has his own frequent flier account," says Cristina Wallace, a professional entrepreneur and amateur musician. Though she does so less now, Wallace used to fly with her cello three to four times a year. He even has a name, according to his mileage card: "Mr. Cello Wallace. He has points."
Bear in mind, my 6-year-old's cello isn't even full size -- it's about the proportions of a bloated guitar.
Anyway, if I think we have it hard, that's nothing.
What if, a friend asked me, you play an even bigger instrument -- say, a harp? Great question!
Elizabeth Hainen, principal harpist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, says if at all possible she avoids traveling with her harp.
After all, harps are huge -- about 6 feet tall and more than 100 pounds -- so generally they have to fly as cargo. That means packing it in a hard trunk, bringing it to the airport often a week before your own departure.
"And then they take it from you, you have no idea what happens to it after that," Hainen says. "It's really scary."
Traveling to Bulgaria for a performance, Hainen says her harp arrived OK, but when she shipped it back home, "something happened. They might have dropped it, I don't know." She had to have repairs done, but "it was never the same again."
Harpist Lavinia Meijer, based in the Netherlands, got tired of cargo shipping her harp. So last year, when she was invited by the Dutch king and queen to perform during their state visit to South Korea, Meijer had her manager investigate whether an airline might let her buy the harp a ticket and bring it on board.
KLM said no, but Korean Air was open to the idea. So weeks in advance, Meijer's manager brought her harp to the airport for a test run. It didn't fit in a coach seat. The harp could only fit in business class.
Navigating the airport with a full-size harp isn't exactly easy. It had to be taken out of its case at security, ostensibly for a cavity search, and Meijer said it only just squeezed down the aisle of the plane.
Still, eventually the harp nestled into its seat with two seat belts and some pillows. Meijer sat next to her harp. "It was so nice to have it right next to me," Meijer said over Skype as she touched her hand to her heart.
But at least one passenger apparently thought it was a body bag. And when they reached South Korea, Meijer had forgotten to bring a letter in Korean explaining the special situation. After a long holdup in security, she almost missed the state dinner. But it was worth it to Meijer, and she hopes to convince other airlines to allow harps on board.

Calling ahead is key

Airlines for America, the airline industry trade association, has posted a list of the instrument policies of all major carriers in the United States on its website. Other policies can generally be found on an airline's website, but as a rule, the association recommends contacting your particular airline to discuss your travel plans.
It would be awful, for instance, to show up with your instrument in a soft case thinking you can stow it on board, only to be told you have to check it, basically unprotected.
Dave Carroll says that he frequently still gets emails from airline passengers with broken guitars or other instruments.
"I think I've seen increased awareness from employees across several airlines that musical instruments require more care," Carroll says, "but that doesn't protect against honest accidents or flagrant disrespect from a relative few."
All of which makes occasionally flying with a 4-foot rented cello seem relatively easy -- while suggesting many airlines could work a little harder to protect the instruments and the hearts, and often the livelihoods, of their owners.