Gate Checking Your Large Musical Instrument (or Case)

by Kenneth Amis
Tuba player of the Empire Brass and Palm Beach Opera Orchestra

Is Delta the friendliest airline for musicians?  Absolutely not, according to the June and July 2006 issues of The International Musician (the official magazine of the American Federation of Musicians).  But what if you actually do want to gate check your large musical instrument.  If your instrument or the case you’re using (i.e., double, triple or quad-case) is too large to be considered a carry-on item, you have two choices when you fly in the United States: check your instrument as baggage or buy a seat for it.  If you fly often, purchasing an extra seat on every flight may not be practical.  So how do you minimize the risk to your instrument when you have to check it?  Try gate-checking it.

Of course, you should pack your instrument as well as possible, however, there is never a guarantee that an representative of the Transportation Security Administration agency, an agency in the United States responsible for searching all passengers and bags before they are allowed onboard an aircraft) will repack it correctly, even when left written instructions (as they advise musicians to do).  There are many places where a checked instrument may suffer damage and I was curious about the possibility of minimizing these opportunities.  I had heard of some tuba players (before September 11, 2001) being allowed to take their instrument to the gate to be tagged and checked to its final destination.  This allows the musician to, at the very least, ensure the safe transport of their instrument to the aircraft and the safe inspection and repacking of their instrument by TSA agents at the passenger screening area.

In order to judge the likelihood of whether this was possible, I first verbally polled airline personnel and TSA agents at many airports between November 2005 and May 2006.  I also wrote to the customer service centers of the major US carriers and spoke by telephoned with the TSA Contact Center and the Federal Aviation Administration’s New England regional office and Public Affairs office.  As expected, the feedback from the airlines was less than decisive.


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