If you thought the worst part about being a traveling musician was jet lag and bad food, then you've never tried to carry an instrument onboard a commercial airplane.
From lost or damaged instruments to hassles with flight attendants and gate agents, musicians of all stripes complain that inconsistent airline policies make traveling with their instruments nearly impossible.
"Try traveling with a $5,000 guitar that they won't let you carry onboard," says Los Angeles-based guitarist Michael Andrews, who tours as a solo artist and as part of the Greyboy Allstars. "It's just a nightmare."
"Every airline is so different with their rules, we don't ever know till we get there if we'll be allowed to carry our instruments on the plane or not," says country artist Terri Clark. "Sometimes it depends on the agent. And sometimes you can have the exact same airline and have two different agents telling you two different things."
The issue has ruffled enough feathers that The Recording Academy and the American Federation of Musicians have taken it to Congress. The Senate version of the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act, S. 223, includes language that sets a national policy for musical instruments carried onboard airplanes. A House version of the bill does not address musicians' needs.
S. 223 was an issue lobbied on at April's GRAMMYs on the Hill Advocacy Day, the music industry's only annual music lobby day. The goal is to ensure the Senate bill's musician-friendly language survives conference committee and makes it into the final legislation.
"We need a consistent policy, not airline by airline [or] gate by gate," says Daryl Friedman, The Recording Academy's Chief Advocacy & Industry Relations Officer. "Right now musicians are faced with the choice of checking their instruments or buying a ticket for them — and even that is airline by airline."
Cellist Matt Walker learned that the hard way when his chamber ensemble traveled from Nashville to St. Paul, Minn., last November. Despite purchasing a ticket for his cello, and repeated assurances by the airline that a ticketed instrument posed no problem, a flight attendant still demanded Walker's cello be placed in the cargo hold.
Walker had no choice but to relinquish his cello and hope for the best. But airline employees failed to properly tag the instrument, and upon arriving in St. Paul it was left on the tarmac in 30-degree temperatures for more than half an hour.
"These things are not put together with screws and bolts, it's just wood and glue," Walker says of his cello. "You don't want to be looking at your cello sitting out on the tarmac in 30-degree weather."
Bluegrass musician Del McCoury found himself in a similar predicament last year when his prized 1957 Martin guitar was broken in airline transit, despite its fiberglass case.
"The thing is, the airline doesn't [care] about your instrument, they just don't," says Clark. "I've watched them through the window throwing guitars onto the belt. Not long ago they left ours out in freezing rain, just sitting on the tarmac. We had to watch while the guitars were getting rained on. You know, these are like $4,000–$5,000 instruments."
Los Angeles-based composer/musician Brian Tyler "cuts out the middleman" and ships his instruments ahead when traveling.
"I cut out the airline as much as possible," says Tyler. "I find the shipping companies are pretty careful with stuff. Their whole company relies on the fact that stuff has to get delivered safely."
Unfortunately, even employing due diligence offers no guarantees.
"You get a good flight case, you do all the right things, you hope for the best, but you can never absolutely count on it being there when you fly," says veteran artist manager Monty Hitchcock Jr.
Given these potential pitfalls, many musicians avoid flying completely. If a show is less than a 15-hour drive away, Clark takes a tour bus. Likewise, Walker will drive or, as on a recent trip to the Cortona Sessions in Cortona, Italy, use a rented instrument when he arrives. Playing an unfamiliar instrument is not ideal, "but it was the compromise I had to make, because I wasn't about to put myself through that ordeal again," he says.
Singer/songwriter Dylan LeBlanc, who is one of Hitchcock's clients, recently had his guitar destroyed en route to London for a European tour because a flight attendant wouldn't allow the instrument to be treated as a carry-on. The guitar arrived crushed, and LeBlanc had to tour with a replacement provided by Gibson. While he was grateful, the new instrument just wasn't the same.
"He said it was like wearing someone else's underwear," Hitchock recalls.
That's why The Recording Academy and AFM are working for a more permanent, legislative solution. Clark says a consistent airline policy would be a huge help.
"It would alleviate the stress," says Clark. "I just hope it doesn't take 10 years to get passed."
(Lisa Zhito is a Nashville-based writer covering country and contemporary Christian music.)