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Saving Your Neck

(Taking Your Guitar On A Plane)

Debbie posted a plea for advice on on how to best protect one's guitar while travelling by air. Reprinted with permission. Here are some of the suggestions:

I've been sending my guitar as checked baggage for about twenty-five years and it has never been damaged. I use a Guild hard shell case. I'm a believer in loosening the strings before sending a guitar on a plane. On the other hand, I've had people tell me that it hurts the guitar more to loosen and tighten them than if you just left it tuned. I know I've been told to replace one string at a time when changing strings, to keep the tension on the neck. Although my guitar has never been damaged by the airlines, it hasn't always gone where I went. I've never been to Bermuda, but my guitar has. About the time I got my case, Martin introduced a whizzo fiberglass case. They showed a film of a D-45 being put into the case, and then the case was thrown off the roof of the Martin plant in Nazareth, to fall to the parking lot below. The guitar was undamaged. The only problem with this particular case is that it had "MARTIN" molded into the side of it. They got stolen a lot. You don't see too many of them around now.

I've flown with my guitar twice. The first time, everyone had told me that I would be able to carry them on. When I arrived at the counter, I was told that not only would I be required to check them, but I would be required to sign a waivier saying they would not be responsible if anything happened to them. When I protested, they said that such a waivier was required for ANY valuable or fragile items. Having no choice (the plane left in a brief time, and I couldn't exactly abandon them in the airport,) I signed the waivier, and the guitars arrived safely. However, I DID notice, when I got on the plane, people with carry-on luggage MUCH larger than my guitar, and one guy carrying a GUITAR.... On the second trip, I just went ahead and checked my guitar. Both times I loosened the strings and added some extra padding inside the case.

I haven't had as much experience with my guitar as others have here on the net, but I do have some experience. The 737 seems to be the best plane (as far as I'm concerned) for travelling with either of the Seagulls. It has the longest overhead compartment (46") and Seagull 1 (my 6-string) goes into a case that's something like 42" long, so it does fit. A few times, the airlines (American, United, Delta) have tried to get me to put it in the cargo hold, but I've said, VERY politely, "I've traveled with it before, and I KNOW it fits in the overhead compartment." There is usually a look of "we know better" until I put it in the overhead, with room to spare; then I usually got dirty looks. The only time I had trouble was on an L-1011, the compartments which are tall and skinny. However, I was lucky on that trip as I Flight Attendant said, "Let me see if it'll go w/the garment bags." She took it to the back of the plane and fit it on a hook, then activated the winch which took all the garment bags, and my guitar, UP into a safe area. Was I relieved. The only time I could NOT take it in the plane was just a couple years ago, when I took a commuter flight from LAX to NoCal for a ConSonance. The thing was a 31-seater turboprop. All I did was carry it out to the baggage handlers who carefully put it on the plane as the last piece of luggage. When I arrived at the destination, it was the first piece taken out and handed directly to me. I had been told by a lot of people to detune the strings, so I do, whenever I travel with a guitar. As for cases, I have the SKB hardshell, which I use sometimes and load into the overhead. I recently bought a Blue Heron case, and have not gone on a plane with it, BUT I did use to use a gig bag; matter of fact, when I went to Life, the Universe and Everything XII in 1993 in Utah, I took both Seagulls in gig bags and they BOTH fit in the aircraft, linked together, in ONE compartment.

In regards to air plane travel with guitars, I have a story to relate. Like many filkers, I took my guitar with me when I attended Worldcon in Winnipeg, Canada. And like many filkers, I agonized over checking it or trying to sneak it on the plane. I was sitting in the Minneapolis airport, at the gate, desperately (but vainly) hoping the airplane crew would let my guitar on an obviosly overcrowded flight. "No" I was told,"You need to check your guitar miss" I was told by a tired flight attendent. Soooo . . . I unhappily put it with other passengers' stuff (who obviously has the same vain hope that I did). We were directed to leave our precious items just outside the door of the airplane. It was next to a door which lead down a set of stairs to the lugguge people down there. (That sounds like they're part of the "Village People.") As I was about to get on the plane, a jaunty, smiling pilot walked up and pointed at my guitar and asked "Is that yours?" and I of course answered "Yes." With a smile, and a wink he picked up my guitar and said "You don't want to check -this-" and at my nod of amazement, he took it right into the cockpit and closed the door! Needless to say I was elated, and relieved. At the end of the trip, the guitar was delivered into my hands at the airplane door. I thanked the pilot most warmly.

Have a decent hardshell case. Detune the strings before flying. These days, most planes have overhead luggage compartments that will accomodate a guitar (at least, one in a standard case). Show up early, explain to the person at the gate that it =will= fit overhead but that it pretty much has to go in first, and that you'd like to go on with the "pre-boarding" group. Usually they will let you. If they don't let you pre-board, be the first person in your group of seats (if they board by seat number). If you are not able to find an empty overhead space, ask if you can move items or enlist the help of a cabin attendent quickly. They can make it work. On rare occassions they will insist that you check the guitar. Usually this happens when the plane is very crowded. Don't be afraid to use anything that might help your cause, i.e. "I'm scheduled to perform a concert when I arrive, I can't afford to have anything happen to it..." But if all else fails, you'll have to let them check the guitar. They'll probably also make you sign a waiver of damages because the guitar isn't packed properly. "All the more reason it should go in carry-on, no?" never seems to help. You'll have to sign and hope for the best. Fortunately, your odds of safe arrival are still good. I've had 2 Ovation cases damaged, but they protected the guitar inside them. The alternative is to go the armoured route. You can buy a massive, armoured case for the guitar. One such case is the ANVIL case. Back at the time I bought mine, it was the only flight-certified case around. You didn't HAVE to sign their damage waiver. I don't know if this is still inn effect or not - ask people who sell them. The big problem with this is, they are a damn nuisance to lug around. They are big. They are heavy. You won't be using it to take your guitar down to the filk room. Instead, you'll leave the case in your room. In a small setting like a filk con, this is usually not a problem. At a Worldcon, where you might not be in the same building as the filking, this could be a big problem. Plan accordingly.

Short answer: Pray. And sweat a lot. Longer answer: Try to find out ahead of time what equipment the airline uses (that is, what kind of aeroplane), and if possible, whether your axe, in its case, will fit in the overhead luggage racks. If the folks at the airline don't know the answer to the second question, some people here (or on will probably be able to tell you once you know what kind of aircraft it is. Pack it as though you expect the worst. If you have, or can get ahold of, a hardshell case, do so. If you're stuck with cardboard, pack shirts and towels around it for extra padding and tie the case shut. Slack the strings in case you have to check it. Then try to carry it on and try to put it overhead. They don't have to let you, but they let me do so more often than not. On a DC-9 (I think) I once fit my guitar into an overhead compartment with another guitar (and a third one was in the compartment across the aisle). If there's no room overhead, or the plane has compartments that are too small, see if the crew will stash it in the galley or something -- sometimes they will (a 747 crew did that for me). If, despite all of that, you have to check it, go back to the short answer (and remember that's why you packed it so carefully). A lot of people have lost a lot of guitars (or incurred expensive repairs) due to &$#$* airlines. Personally I have not had a guitar damaged (knock on wood), but twice the airline _lost_ it! (I got it back the next day.) Most often I got away with sticking it overhead. (It's been a while, so my memory may be less than perfect, but as I recall a Strat will fit in the overhead compartments of a 737 if it's not in a case (at the time I had no case for my Strat-copy). A dreadnaught won't fit there, but it'll fit into the overhead compartments of a DC-9 (and, I think, DC-10). I do not remember what the answer was for an L10-11. Double check all of this with folks who've flown more recently than I have.) One final bit of advice: When you put your guitar on the conveyor belt for the X-ray machine, get through the metal detector as quickly as you can so you can watch the inside of your axe on the screen! It's really cool! Good luck.

The only time I've been able to carry on my guitar was when there was room in the garment storage closet for it. I once went so far as to lash a hook to my guitar case so I could hang it up. I had no problems with this. I considered hiding it inside an actual garment bag... The best solution is to learn to play the mandolin. They store easily underneath the seat in front of you. :-{)} My current solution is a Vagabond travel guitar. It's just 30" long in a soft but well-padded gig bag, and no trouble at all to carry on. The only problem is that the bag looks a lot like a gun case...

I have transported whole rock bands and hoards of equipment many times all around the World. and my advice is as follows: 1) Select a large and respectable Airline "United" for instance. 2) Talk to a senior body within the region you are travelling from and explain exactly what you will be taking and the best ways to do so. 3) Take out sensible insurance that covers you for these eventualities 4) Arrive at the Airport in plenty of time to check it if needs be NOTE: If you ask to do so the Airlines will often let you stow the intrument(s) yourself. if you ask nicely and make the arrangements in advance. another hint is to speak nicely to the ground crew (possibly tip them) and it is amazing what people will do for you. 5) Detune, un-string and pad your instrument well, use a sensible case, preferably a flight case, I know they are expensive but your instrument is precious. 6) If you are really paranoid about it being damaged either a)hire one at destination or b)buy a seat for it. 7) The keynote to all of this is communication. remember there is a lot of competition in air travel if you speak directly to your chosen airline *not their booking agents* and explain what you wish to do and that if they cannot help you there is always another airline, you will find that they will assist you in anyway they can. I hope this is of assistance to you, I have followed these procedures for ten years and in that time I have had one breakage and that was due to a faulty flight case and NOT the Airline. BTW I have always found either United or British Airways to be the most helpful.

As everyone else will tell you, carry it on if possible. The best ways to be able to carry it on are to book a flight on a large plane at an off-hour (thus, fewer people competing for carry-on space). Full planes cause airlines to insist on as much as possible being checked; they're less strict about emptier flights. Try to carry it on in any event; at worst, you will check it at the gate (and prepare a tag in advance, so that if they insist, you won't hold up the line too much -- or miss the flight) and thereby allow the apes to pound on it for as short a time as possible. Also, if you MUST check your instrument, slack the strings. Pad the instrument in some sort of soft, insulating material (if your case isn't already "skin-tight" to your baby ).

Personally, I have hard cases for my three acoustics. They're Hiscox hardshell cases, and the shop demo is to stand on one - they're that good. I've taken guitars to the States in those cases (in the hold) on a number of occasions, with no trouble at all. The only advice I would give is DETUNE THEM. In a low pressure, low temperature hold, you *have* to do this, or you run the risk of string tension snapping or warping the neck, or other worse expansion/contraction related fate. How much? enough the guitar sounds like a percussion instrument! On a related topic - Anne, I, Bill and Brenda Sutton took a whole band's worth of equipment to this year's Minicon for our set as Separated at Birth... the only problem was at Midway on the outbound leg, where the girl at the checkin desk *insisted* we sign a disclaimer for their handling of the instruments. I'm actually confident enough of Hiscox cases that I don't care, but we all made a *point* of annotating our signatures 'Signed under protest'. (This for four guitars, a mandolin (carryon), a bodhran (carryon) and a bag of music and assorted woodwind (Anne's)).

Not a guitarist, but a few semi-uninformed comments follow. The pros I've spoken to seem to disagree on the best approach. Some say "Get the most durable hardcase you can, so the airline's baggage monkeys can jump on it without harming the instrument" while others seem to feel that this only encourages them to throw it around and that a visibly less durable case may scare them into somewhat more careful handling. Of course the monkey-proof fiberglass cases also have the disadvantage of being heavy and expensive. I'm told it's a good idea to slack the strings, reducing one source of stress on the instrument. The same amount of shock that could snap the neck if the strings are tight may do no damage at all if they're loose. Insurance of some sort -- either from the airline, from the hardcase manufacturer, or purchased seperately -- might be reassuring. (Insurance is by definition a game rigged in favor of the insurer, but it has its uses.) Another thought: Ask the airline whether there's any way you can take the guitar as carry-on... and if they say no, ask again on the day of the flight; they may just happen to have additional space available. For discouraging thoughts, see Tom Paxton's song: "Thank You, Republic Airlines, For Breaking the Neck of My Guitar". He still performs it on a regular basis... good indication of the hazards of offending a bard.

I always use a hard-shell case, because I don't feel like playing Russian roulette with all of the cylinders loaded if I *do* have to check my poor guitar. In my experience, if you ask if you have to check your guitar, you will probably have to do so. Your chances of carrying it on are much better if you just attempt to do so. If you have a choice in your seat assignment, try to be near the rear of the plane. Planes board starting at the rear, so you will get on sooner and have more opportunities to stow your guitar somewhere in the overhead bins. Most modern planes will hold a dreadnaught hard-shell case in the overhead bins. A few, unfortunately, won't, so your best bet is the garment storage in first class. However, the airlines really don't want you to put it there. Ask nicely. (In some cases, it isn't possible, because the garment bags are hauled up into storage. *gleep*) *Always* detune your guitar to remove tension on the neck, whether you expect to check the guitar or not. If the plane has a rough landing, you'll have enough to worry about -- why worry about the neck of your guitar? (Worry about your own neck!) You may still have to check your guitar. If the airline tries to get you to sign a damage waiver, try using the magic phrase, "This case meets or exceeds the manufacturer's original shipping specifications." If this doesn't work, sign the waiver, but *first* add "Signed under protest." (This advice from Eric Webb, who used to work for the airlines.)

AVOID Republic Airlines! As Tom Paxton put it, Thank you, Republic Airlines, For breaking the neck of my guitar!... (Further quotation deferred to the copyright laws.) Of course, R.A.L. is now gone. NEVER tick off a folksinger!

We have had no trouble taking Mary's guitar on airplanes.(at least 15 trips).. We use a top quality hardshell case, and MOST IMPORTANT! loosen the strings until they are totally slack! this prevents the cold baggage bin from shrinking the strings and breaking the neck! Many dreadnaught size soft cases will not fit in the overhead compartments -- hint: a Boeing 737 usually has large bins, most wide body aircraft has hanging coat closets where a gig bag may be stored. In any Case check with the airline FIRST!

Good luck with the guitar! When I brought mine over to LACon, I borrowed a friend's extra-heavy-duty case, detuned the guitar enough that the strings were hanging loose, and padded it with t-shirts (mundane) and underwear. It wouldn't fit in the o/head bins, so it ended up in the hold. This is an acoustic, BTW - I didn't bother with the electric and have no experience with them. As it is, one of the strings broke when I brought it back up to pitch, but getting a replacement set wasn't too hard. The only real problem was that I was only allowed two checked bags, so I ended up picking up a cheap behemoth (aka the Hobbit Body Bag) as the other one... :) Next time, though, I'll probably try to hire one at the other end. Less trouble all round. (BTW, when the friend I borrowed the case from was buying it, the salesman put one of the shop's stock of guitars into it, closed the case, then jumped up and down on it vigorously. Now that's confidence...

When I flew out to Harmonicon, I gate-checked my guitar. You take it to the check-in counter and tell them that you want to gate-check it. They put a tag on it, you take it down the jetway and leave it by the exit door just before you board the plane. An airline employee will hand-carry it from there to the plane and hand-load it into the baggage compartment. When you arrive, another employee will hand-carry it from baggage into the jetway, where you pick it up. If you're changing flights, you have to go through this at each changeover point. But it does prevent the main risks of having your bag go through the rough-and-tumble of normal baggage handling.

SKB has an airline deal - if your instrument is in an SKB hardshell case and something happens to it, the airline is liable. No one else has this. I would suggest either this way, or take it as carry-on if you can.

Most everyone, I think, will tell you to avoid checking the thing as baggage. You can ask Leslie what happened to hers on the way to Conterpoint. :-( What I do is carry mine in a soft case. Unlike a hard case, a soft one will almost invariably fit in the overheads. (You can always check an empty, or packed with other stuff, hard case as luggage if you want it for carrying the guitar around later.) If you do that, it helps to travel with a party: you stick in the guitar, they pad it with their stuff, then there's no room for your fellow passengers to dump their bowling balls on the neck of your guitar. :-)

What about putting your guitar in the space "reserved" for carry-on garment bags. I'd think that there would be enough room in one of those.

I have successfully checked my guitar through so many times I don't worry any more. I always loosen the strings, and use a heavy hardshell case. But if you're slightly more paranoid, you might want to take your guitar to the gate. They usually let you take it on the plane, and if they don't, you check it as luggage at the gate, and you've avoided a few hundred yards of conveyor belts. Asking them to hand-carry your guitar also may help. One can usually get reasonably-priced guitar insurance as a rider to a homeowner's or renter's policy. (This may be different in Canada.) They will probably try to charge you more if you tell them you're a professional musician.

Urban Tapestry --