Flying with a guitar


In 2013, My wife Pam and I spent a week on Water Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was amazing! Beautiful beach, crystal clear water, refreshing breeze and lots of sunshine. What more could a man want? Well, that’s easy: a guitar.

I missed my guitar. I was surrounded by beauty and yet I kept thinking about how nice it would be have a guitar with me. I didn’t bring one with me in 2013 because I’ve heard the nightmares about how airlines treat guitars. Since Pam and I aren’t well travelled, airports and their staff can be very intimidating.

Nevertheless, the regret was still there. So when Pam and I decided to return to Water Island in 2014, we vowed to bring a guitar too. This is the story of my first attempt to fly with a guitar.

The Preparation

Early on, I had some decisions to make. First of all, I had to decide whether I would bag check the guitar (as in, let it be stowed below deck with the other luggage) or try to carry it on with me in the cabin and store it in the overhead bin. After seeing what can happen to guitars when they are mixed with general luggage, I decided to try to carry it on. Besides, I didn’t want to spend the hundreds of dollars for an airline ready case.

Which guitar would I bring? Well, based on information that I found around the web, the smaller the guitar the better. I immediately thought of a Taylor GS Mini. In fact, when we were in an airport on our way to Water Island in 2013 I saw a guy with GS Mini walking through the terminal and kicked myself. So this year, I decided to purchase a GS Mini.

As luck would have it, Guitar Center had a used GS Mini in perfect condition for $300. They retail new for about $500. I couldn’t get the wallet out of my pocket fast enough. When I called Pam to tell her that I had just purchased a GS Mini, she laughed and told me that she was going to buy one for me as a surprise. Good thing she didn’t! We saved $200!

The GS Mini came with a nice gig bag. It would be my one carry-on item. Pam would be carrying on a small bookbag that is considered a personal item and can be stored under the seat. My guitar would be going in the overhead compartment. I hoped, anyway.

I printed out a US Airways policy for musical instruments and placed that in the GS Mini case. Their policy is clearly in my favor. My guitar should be allowed as carry-on.

I put extra strings, picks and the string winder/cutter in a Ziplock bag and put those things in our checked luggage. I didn’t want any hassles at the TSA checkpoint, so I kept any items that might confuse non-musicians out of the guitar case. Besides, the string winder/cutter would definitely be confiscated because it could be used as a weapon. That would be a terrible way to die, eh? Death by string winder!

First Flight

Pam and I had to take two US Airways flights to St. Thomas, U.S Virgin Islands and two flights back home. Our first flight took us from BWI Airport in Baltimore to Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina on a Boeing 737.

We got through the TSA screen with no problems. The GS Mini fit in the x-ray machine comfortably. We made our way to the gate and waited for boarding time.

Pam and I were boarding with the last group, zone 5. Trouble right from the start. If we’re last to board the plane, there may not be space in the overhead bins. Anyways, I tried not to worry about it.

Just before boarding was about to begin, a lady from US Airways announced that the flight was overbooked and that she needs volunteers to take a later flight and/or check their carry-on luggage. No way, not me sista! My guitar is staying right here with me!

The boarding began with, as my wife jokes, the Diamond Platinum Gold Encrusted Dividend Priority Package Members Union Club. After that, First Class, then Zone 1, 2, 3, and 4. Just before the called zone 5, our zone, they announced that the overhead bins were full and all carry-on luggage will be gate-checked. That is, the luggage will be carried down the jetway onto the tarmac and loaded manually on to the plane. Damn it! That meant my guitar too!

A gate agent came by and unceremoniously placed a tag (henceforth, this tag Tag of deathwill be called the “tag of death”) on my guitar bag as I stood in line waiting to board. Another gate agent told me to place the guitar at the end of the jetway. It would be stowed in the cargo hold of the plane and I could pick up the guitar when we landed in Charlotte on the jetway.

Well, that was sort of a relief. At least the guitar would be one of the last pieces of luggage in the cargo hold, which means it would sitting on top of all the other luggage. And it means it would be first to get off the plane. The less time the guitar spends down there the better.

But it also meant that when we land in Charlotte the guitar would be sitting on the jetway for about 10 mins for anyone to steal. At that point I just crossed my fingers and tried to relax.

Inspect the guitarAs I walked to my seat, one thing was clear, there was no room left for any type of luggage in the overhead bins. In this case, I understand why my guitar had to be gate-checked.

After we landed and I steppped off the plane, I immediately saw my guitar. With a smudge on the case! Oh no! What happened. I tried to act cool as I walked off the jetway. I opened the case immediately and inspected the guitar. Double oh no! There was a smudge on the guitar too, in the same place! Heart dropped. I wiped it with my thumb and the smudge wiped off easily. After inspecting the rest of the guitar, there was no damage. Phew! One flight down, three to go.

Second Flight

The second flight was on a Boeing 767 taking Pam and I from Charlotte, NC to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. We were boarding zone 4. A bit better than the first flight and the gate personnel didn’t mention being overbooked, so I thought things might be looking up!

Guitar in the overheadWhen our zone was called, I walked through the gate with my guitar and no one gave me a second look. As I walked down the aisle to my seat, a flight attendant jokingly asked if I was a “guitar man in a rock and roll band.” I said “you know it!” and tucked my GS Mini into an overhead bind. It fit easily. I plopped down into my chair and sighed with relief. Mission accomplished. For that flight at least. I knew we had two more to go, but no worries. All that lay ahead at that point was a week of fun in the sun.

My Guitar in Paradise

Having my guitar with me was amazing. I played it for a few hours on the only rainy day we had. I also took it to the beach a few times. I was sure to keep it dry and sand-free. It was nice knowing that I could pick it up any time I wanted. Pam even seemed to enjoy the aural dance of crashing waves and strummed strings. Bliss.



Third Flight

After a glorious week in paradise, Pam and I took a taxi to the airport and began our journey home. Just like our second flight, we’d be flying on a Boeing 767 between St. Thomas and Charlotte, NC. But this time we were clever: I purchased for $26 a perk called Priority Access. This allows me to board just before Zone 1 for both flights home. That means I’ll be one of the first passengers on the plane and most of the bins will be empty. I hoped it would guarantee that I’d be able to board with my guitar and place it in the overhead bin.

The boarding agent called the Priority Access passengers to the gate and I sailed on through, no problems. I stowed my guitar in the overhead bin and sat down. I high-fived Pam and settled in for the 3.5 hour flight to Charlotte.

Fourth Flight

Remember how clever I thought I was with that Priority Access thing? Yeah, total waste of money. Just after first class passengers boarded, the gate agent called Priority Access customers up to gate. With the confidence gained from the third flight, I walked up to the gate with a little extra bounce in my stride. But as I handed the boarding pass to the gate agent, I knew immediately that my guitar was going to be checked. With the scanning eyes of a Terminator, the gate agent immediately spotted the guitar and without hesitation told me that I have to gate check it.

As the gate agent put the tag of death on my guitar, I pondered my predicament. Firstly, I knew I was about to walk on to an almost empty plane. There would be tons of empty storage on board. Secondly, US Airways policy states specifically that musical instruments should be allowed to be carried on as long as the instrument meets certain physical criteria and there is space in the overhead bins. Check and Check. This should be an open and shut case, right? Well, no. I gate checked my bag without a word of protest.

Why? Because of a little wrinkle in my personality. I can be confrontational when I need to be. Certain specific factors, however, take precedence over my need to be understood. One of those factors is I don’t like to inconvenience others, especially strangers. So as I stood at the gate knowing that I had a right to take my guitar on board, I didn’t want to annoy the crowd of people that were standing behind me to get onto the plane. Simple as that.

empty binPerhaps next time I’ll be a little more comfortable with airport personnel and speak up, but not this time. I placed my guitar at the end of the jetway and made my way to my seat, passing one empty bin after another along the way. As more passengers got on the plane, I fumed at the thought of my fragile guitar sitting below in the cargo hold while more durable luggage was placed in the overhead bins. Not fair. Not fair at all.

I got over it, though. After all, my guitar was fine on the first flight, right? Just 80 minutes until I’d see my guitar again. And sure enough, it was unharmed when we landed in Baltimore.

Conclusion

I hoped that the only factor to my success was how early I boarded. But clearly, that is not the case. The other factor is an ever-present one: different people behave differently. Policies are made to create consistent responses to specific scenarios by which all employees should follow. But employees are just people, and people make mistakes or have other agendas that make them deviate from the policy. All US Airways employees treated me kindly, but the execution of their own policy was inconsistent.

After all of this, I say fly with your guitar, but do so at your guitar’s own risk. In some cases, like mine, the opportunity to play guitar on the beach was too good to pass up. And I’ll do it again.

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit www.ewguitar.com.

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