TSA lock on a guitar case. Airline security personnel can open and re-lock these for inspection purposes when you’re not present (they can break non-TSA locks if they have to).
A lot of guitars will be flying around—literally—this holiday season, and if you’re like most guitarists, you view the prospect of taking a guitar you care about on a commercial flight with something ranging from unnerving trepidation to outright dread.
And well you should, since we all know how delicate airline baggage handlers can often be. We’re reminded of that time in 2008 when United Airlines baggage handlers in Chicago nearly destroyed passenger Dave Carroll’s $3,500 acoustic guitar, and Carroll struck back after a year of unsuccessful attempts at redress by posting a video for a charmingly scathing ditty of his called “United Breaks Guitars.” A viral hit, the song racked up 4 million views in just over a week, after which United finally offered to compensate Carroll. Several news outlets somewhat dubiously reported that the airline’s share value subsequently dipped by ten percent; what’s certain is that United definitely got tons of bad press in the wake of the turbulent incident despite the fact that it doesn’t actually break a lot of guitars.
Nonetheless, there are a couple lessons here. First, you might consider not traveling with an expensive guitar you truly care deeply about. Second, don’t be surprised if you glance down at the tarmac and see your guitar being tossed around like the S.S. Minnow by baggage handlers who have an Everest of luggage to load and a very tight schedule to keep.
If, however, you have no choice and your guitar is going on the plane with you one way or another, do not check it in as luggage. Your best bet is to take it to the gate with you, where you might be allowed to board the aircraft with it and store it in a forward closet or, if size permits, an overhead compartment. More likely, your guitar can be gate-checked, making it one of the last items on and first items off, reducing the chances of handling damage.
Also, before you two fly together, loosen your guitar’s strings by a whole step or so. In aircraft baggage holds, guitars are subjected to significant changes in temperature and pressure, both of which can harm the body and neck if the strings remain tuned as usual. Not too loose, though—you want some string tension; just not the regular full amount.
Baggage hold of an Airbus A320 airliner, typical of the space in which your guitar accompanies you on your trip.
The U.S. Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement Division offers several sensible tips on avoiding baggage problems, all of which pertain to traveling with a guitar:
- Don’t put items that are valuable, fragile or irreplaceable in checked baggage (a guitar can be any one or all three). Carry such items with you.
- Like any checked bags, guitar cases may need to be opened for security inspections away from your presence. Use a case with TSA locks, which airport security personnel can open and re-lock (security staff will break non-TSA-approved locks if necessary).
- Tag your guitar case on the outside with your name, home address, and personal and work phone numbers. Airlines provide free stick-on tags; most offer “privacy tags” that conceal this information from passers-by.
- Put the same information inside your guitar case, and add an address and telephone number where you can be reached at your destination city.
- Don’t check in at the last minute. This is good advice anyway, but just barely making your flight all but ensures that your baggage will be handled roughly—if it makes the flight with you at all.
- If you check your guitar, be sure to get a claim check. Do not lose the claim check.
- If possible, choose flights that minimize the potential for baggage disruption. The likelihood of your guitar going astray increases as the numbers of stops and connections increases. Go nonstop if you can.
- Buy “excess valuation” from the airline if your guitar is worth more than the airline’s liability limit.
- If your guitar case arrives open, unlocked or visibly damaged, check immediately to see if anything inside is missing or damaged.
- On arriving at your destination airport and receiving your guitar case, open it to see if anything inside is missing or damaged. Report any problems to your airline before you leave the airport. Insist that the airline fill out a form and give you a copy. Get the agent’s name and an appropriate phone number for following up (not the number for reservations).
Also, an Air Transport Association (ATA) hard case can provide great protection for your guitar. On the low end, you can usually get one of these for around $250—well worth it if you’ve made a big investment in your instrument. You might also want to pad the neck and headstock with bubble wrap (the headstock is typically the most fragile part of a guitar)—use enough to make it slightly difficult to close your case.
By using common sense and observing these guidelines and precautions, your guitar will most likely arrive with you at your destination intact and unharmed. Horror stories aside, the odds are in your favor—the November 2010 U.S. Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Report notes that from January 2010 to September 2010, the 18 U.S. airlines listed therein amassed 1.53 million mishandled baggage reports (loss and damage) for 428.7 million passengers. That’s 3.59 reports for every 1,000 passengers, and we can probably safely assume that not all of those incidents involved guitars. Probably.