Which are the better airlines for travelling string players?

Edited: January 7, 2018, 10:57 AM · The recent breakage of a 17th-century viola da gamba placed in the baggage hold of an Alitalia jetliner (the airline had said that it would be handled carefully and not to worry) is one but far too many instances of airline callousness causing sometimes non-repairable damage to precious, often irreplaceable instruments.

From my professional standpoint, I must underline that one always assumes a high risk to place an instrument in the airliner hold with the other baggage if the case is not specifically designed for this purpose. And almost none are. But, sometimes the airline personnel force you to do so anyway, and you are not always in a position to bargain.

The purpose of this thread? Well, it is two-fold: one is for other V.comers who would like to give their recommendations for the better airlines with which to travel with their instruments. Secondly, but not least, is to shame the worse airlines into improving their act. Internet has this power, you know.

Let's hear your experiences!

Replies (23)

January 7, 2018, 2:05 AM · It depends on what instrument you play.

As a violinist, I've had a great experience with JetBlue. Traveling with them and always paying for their premium service, I've not had any issues with my two regular trips, LGB-SFO and LGB-JFK.

One time, Alaska Airlines made me take my viola out of its case. I had to check the case, and hold the instrument in my lap the entire flight. I have not flown with them since.

January 7, 2018, 2:19 AM · Southwest and Delta have yet to fail me; both let me stow my instrument in the overhead bins with no issues at all.
Edited: January 7, 2018, 3:45 AM · I've crossed the Atlantic at least 50 times and probably more, perhaps even a hundred. In the good ol' days I used to travel with a double violin case which would fit in the overhead bin, but I haven't in years so I can't supply any first-hand information.

That said, it seems that Alaskan tends to use smaller planes. I once took an Alaskan flight from Kahului to SeaTac. They put us on a 737 and at almost 2,300 nautical miles distance, all over open ocean, it was at the very end of its range! A little scary.

@Gene - just curious, you're based near LGB? I used to own a home in East LB :-)

January 7, 2018, 6:19 AM · Mr. Musafia:

I just traveled with a luxury classic double violin case on Lufthansa over the weekend. No issues. I showed the ground staff my violin case and made sure an "approved cabin baggage" tag is given for it. And this is in addition to a 22" carry-on roller which I also had with me. Both carry-ons were given approved tags.

One time, I took two oblong violin cases on Qatar, and they still let me go onboard.

I have always traveled with my oblong violin cases, and I have never had any issues, provided that I am always upfront about the presence of it when I check-in. And those airlines which use "approved cabin baggage tags" such as Lufthansa, Qatar and EVA airways, I always make sure they put one on the violin case to avoid any further interrogation at the gate.

The one airline I always feel 200% safe to travel with my violin is EVA airways. This is because Evergreen Corporation has its own orchestra which travels frequently, and they are very friendly to musicians. But with other airlines, I always have to do my homework, print out all publicly stated baggage rules from the airline's website, just to protect myself in case they show any hesitation in allowing the instrument to go on board.

These are the airlines I had experience with and has so far, no problem with: Emirates, Qatar, Lufthansa, EVA airways, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines.

January 7, 2018, 9:30 AM · British Airways also supplies yellow "approved cabin baggage" tags. Perhaps that helps at the gate!
Edited: January 7, 2018, 9:55 AM · I don’t remember having trouble with Virgin Atlantic, but now their website says instruments are forbidden. It would be nice to get some clarity on that, as I am going transatlantic more often these days, sometimes with a violin or two.

The other thing that is worrisome is that while US regulators require reasonable accommodations now, that doesn’t apply to foreign airlines going IN to the US. So cashing American Airlines miles might not help if I end up on a BA flight. Anyway, I am currently on an American flight to London, and got no grief about a (Musafia) double case.

One pleasant surprise: Easyjet seems to be OK with violins, at least on their website.

January 7, 2018, 10:20 AM · I try to fly Southwest whenever I have to fly with a violin. All of their planes are 737s so I know there will be bin space, and I pay for early bird check-in to make sure I'm in the first group to board.

January 7, 2018, 10:21 AM · I have no first hand experience with BA, but there sure are a few horror stories published about them. I only flew in once on AC with a shaped violin case without issue, but that was before the Carry-on crackdown.

January 7, 2018, 10:25 AM · The thing is that it only takes one bad experience to really wreck your life. You're traveling to make a recital or orchestral appearance and you have to choose whether to risk your instrument in the hold of the jet or not to fly! Virgin Atlantic doesn't want musicians' business? Well okay, but at least they're being up-front about it instead of bait and switch.
Edited: January 7, 2018, 10:57 AM · I travel frequently with my violin on Air Canada, both domestic and international flights. I've carried both oblong and shaped cases. Never had any trouble, and I've always found them to be very accommodating. Ditto for WestJet. Sometimes the cabin crew on domestic flights to Newfoundland or Nova Scotia have joked that I'll have to play a tune before they let me off . . .
January 7, 2018, 11:06 AM · @Parker - how nice to see some genuine humanity from time to time! :-)
Edited: January 7, 2018, 11:33 AM · Air Canada! I travelled internationally with violin via AC since I returned to violin in 2007 and I have never had any issue. They even have a policy for early boarding with instrument. And yes, WestJet and Lufthansa too, no problem with violin.
Edited: January 9, 2018, 5:01 AM · Travelled Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand last year, no issues. About to travel with Qantas and Virgin Australia again, so hopefully ok.
January 9, 2018, 10:14 AM · I have sax in a bigger case, that do not fit in the regular bin. I use skyteam alliance airlines mostly, so i have sax as cabine baggage but deliver it to staff on board, so they store it somewhere in cabinets for jackets. We take my son's cheep violin always with us. And i never had an issue to have it as an extra item to all the listed items approved. I would never let my instrument in checked-in baggage.
January 14, 2018, 12:20 PM · With Air New Zealand, Easyjet, BA, Singapore Airlines, and Quantus, never a problem. Stay away from Ryanair as they allow NO instruments on board.

Cheers Carlo

January 14, 2018, 1:41 PM · For domestic in the US, Southwest with the early boarding option is the best bet if they travel where you are going. I've had no problem carrying on a full size acoustic guitar in a flight case and putting it in the overhead. Internationally I've carried a mandolin in a flight case on Lufthansa with no issues. I mostly fly British Airways now but haven't tried carrying an instrument on.

One thing I've found that helps is to carry the instrument case vertically on your back, on the opposite side of the person taking your ticket. Then it mostly looks like a backpack and people don't question it.

The problem with ALL these airlines is that in the written policy there is a line about "space permitting." This means a crew always has the power to tell you that you can't bring your instrument on no matter how many other people have had positive experiences on that airline. Once that happens it seems like there is no recourse and no amount of arguing helps. In that case hopefully you can afford to wait and take a different flight, or your instrument is insured and in a flight case.

Since I'm not a professional musician and my trips are not music related, I've stopped trying to carry an instrument for trips shorter than a week. It's just not worth the hassle.

January 14, 2018, 8:57 PM · I have tried to do minimal flying with my violin. As a high-status flyer with United, I have generally had no problem getting them to stash the violin in the first-class coat closet. I would have a lot less confidence about having it in the overhead bins, given how crowded most United flights now are. Also, many of those bins get extremely cold.
January 15, 2018, 2:01 AM · How does it work when an entire orchestra is on tour? A few years back I attended a concert in the Netherlands by a Chinese symphony orchestra with Ray Chen as a soloist (I'm the proud owner of a signed cd :-) ). I can't imagine the entire violin/viola section arguing about taking their cases as carry-on at the check-in counter, nor how the cellists would put their cases on the baggage belt.
January 15, 2018, 2:54 AM · Musicians wouldn't be arguing to take violins and violas on board. There would have been special arrangements made between the airline and the orchestra themselves so they can take smaller instruments on board. Also, I have never seen an entire orchestra on one single flight. Usually they are divided into two or three groups on different flights.

Larger instruments are packed and loaded in crates, as I remembered the old days of travelling with an orchestra.

January 15, 2018, 8:48 AM · I have a violin, and with the exception of budget airlines i never had a problem.

In the case of the viola da gamba pointed out by the OP, the musician seems to be also at fault. The viola is a large instrument and i wouldn't reasonably expect an airline to accept it as carry on luggage.

January 15, 2018, 9:22 AM · Regarding the 17th-century viola da gamba that was used as example to open this discussion, and which has drawn some comments that even suggest the musician is at fault: not only is the damage truly outrageous (smashed through case as if repeatedly struck with a large hammer), but also the story told by the musician shows the callous attitude of the airlines and personnel towards musicians:


"why didn’t I in the first place buy a seat for the viol? Because of my previous experiences of flying with viols. During 48 years of professional life, I made many flights with viols, which were accommodated in the wardrobe of the plane or taken by hand to the hold...."

"Why can’t cellos and viols be stored inside the plane, in the same closet that stores the manual folding wheelchairs? Why can’t cellos, viols, guitars be handed at the door of the plane (to be taken straight down to the hold making them far less likely to be damaged), and returned at the door after landing, exactly like baby strollers?"

"Fellow musicians in the world, we should NOT accept the present draconian rules that scorn our professional necessities. The younger musicians do not have even a clue of what kind of treatment was dispensed to us in the past. They think it is normal that airlines treat instruments worst than suitcases (mine, by the way, arrived unscathed!). But it is NOT normal. It is our duty to demand a change in this one-sided policy. For things are getting worse all the time, and nowadays, even violin cases are being rejected into the cabin of the planes."

Edited: January 15, 2018, 11:22 AM · The thing is all luggage is subject to damages, will. The structural integrity of a case is different than of a suitcase. Try jumping in a packed suitcase and on an instrument case. The instrument will be smashed, and the suitcase will hardly be damaged, because of their construction. Try travelling with an empty suitcase and it will arrive as bad as the viola case of the unfortunate musician

A suitcase is a suitcase. Doesnt matter what is inside. More than once i had a bottle breaking on my suitcase, or the suitcase itself damaged. It doesnt make headlines because the damage is at most 100 bucks. Which i get back because of the international regulations.

Knowing the risks associated, a professional musician should know better. Let's be honest: the musician argument is the equivalent of "i never crashed my car, so i will not buy insurance". This is no excuse for the airline behavior, but if they will abide by international laws (as they probably will), the musician is screwed. once the damage is done, there is little that can be done.

Also, times change. "Old times were better" is hardly an argument.

Edited: January 16, 2018, 8:24 AM · One piece of advice I can give is to be careful if you get a seat on the upper deck of an A380. The overhead lockers are very shallow and space is at a premium, due to the curvature of the ceiling. Since they know that at the gate, the personnel will likely take a dimmer view of you carrying your case on board.

Better to specify you want a seat on the lower deck if possible.

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