Gate Checking Your Large Musical Instrument (or Case)
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Some jetways have very thin doorways with narrow staircases leading down to the ground.  These jetways and others sometimes use a cloth or plastic slide to get strollers and infant car seats down to the tarmac.  Having a baggage handler (sometimes referred to by unhappy customers as a “baggage gorilla”) deal with a musical instrument in this circumstance could put your instrument in more danger than checking it on the oversize belt at the ticket counter.  However, the baggage handlers do have more civilized options for dealing with such situations.  As the above mentioned Northwest ticket agent also noted, baggage handlers often have to take a motorized wheelchair from the gate area down to the tarmac.  These items are quite heavy and bulky so the baggage handler simply uses the nearest airport service elevator instead of the jetway stairs or slide.

If you do decide to try to gate check your instrument be sure to give the ticket agent the impression that you know more about gate checking a musical instrument than they do—in most cases, after reading this article you will.

Start by having your frequent flyer card, a printout of the page from the TSA’s website showing its phone number, a printout of the page from the FAA’s website showing its phone number and, if you’re flying delta, the name of the customer service representative who responded to my inquiry.  If the ticket agent is reluctant or hesitant to allow you to carry your tuba, bass trombone, quad-case, or other musical instrument through security, take the posture of “the informative passenger” rather than “the confrontational passenger.” If the agent starts in with the TSA/FAA blame game, gently tip your printouts in their direction while politely informing them that you have previously contacted these agencies and they have indicated that the ticket agent (actually, the airline company) has sole discretion on whether to make such an accommodation for their frequent flying musicians.  This focuses the responsibility of good customers’ service on this issue squarely back onto the ticket agent.  Having the printouts with phone numbers in hand suggest that you’re not only serious about your job but that you’re also not simply bluffing.

If the ticket agent does allow you to carry your instrument to the gate thank them and politely ask that they write this on your boarding.  This will give you something to show the folks who check identification at the security checkpoint.   Currently, these folks are not employees of the airlines or the airport.  They are subcontracted through another company. Sometimes they stand next to a "size-wise" cutout and may try to tell you that your instrument is not allowed through passenger screening.

Remember to get to the airport early.  You’ll need to leave extra time to 1) wrangle with the ticket agent, 2) convince the people at the front of the passenger screening line that you are allowed to bring your large instrument through security, 3) monitor the TSA agent searching your instrument at passenger screening, 4) explain to the gate agent what you need and 5) wait for the baggage handler to show up and transport your instrument.

Finally, be reasonable with your expectation of service.  A harp or double bass is less likely to receive favorable treatment than smaller items like a bass trombone, tuba or trumpet quad case.  However, if you have an important engagement that evening and want to do all that you can to ensure that your instrument is taken care of, gate checking your instrument is definitely “worth a challenge.”


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