Traveling with a Bass Clarinet on airplanes
Another great question today from the mailbag:
I'm traveling on a plane with my Selmer bass clarinet (low Eb) for the first time this summer and I'm wondering what you do for traveling with your instrument. Do you trust the airplane gods with your instrument underneath? Or do you have a separate case for air travel? Some other brands of cases are compact enough that it's fine for carry-on, but mine is too large currently.
I never, ever, ever travel on a plane with my instrument underneath. Not once. I just don't allow it. But it's not why you'd think: yes they might get tossed around, but it's the temperature that worries me most.
Here's why: ambient temperature at most airline cruising heights (35,000 feet) is -60F/-51C, and it takes an average 737 about 1/2 hour to get from the ground to that cruising height. Descents take longer, but typically not more than an hour.
Cargo holds of most larger airplanes are not heated unless there is an animal scheduled to be carried in the hold. (Smaller planes like commuter aircraft — you know, the ones that have two seats on one side, and a single seat on the other) are usually heated in the cargo hold, and since it's more likely that your bass clarinet will have difficulty fitting into one of those small holds, I'd be less worried about that.
So, rapid cooling of the cargo environment — and your instrument — is not good for the wood. You are basically freezing your instrument for a few hours while you sit up top and watch clouds go by. This is one of the bigger reasons instruments crack.
Thank you, I'll pass.
So here's what I recommend:
First of all, in the USA, you are legally allowed to bring an instrument on board. Thank the AFM (musician's union) for that. They lobbied congress or whatever, and we now have protections as musicians. Note: this only is allowed if your instrument fits in the overhead or under the seat in front of you. Your string bass won't ever make it on board.
Finally, here is the official letter that you can download to bring with you in case you get a snippy flight attendant. (That said, most of them never hassle me about bringing my case onboard. And if they have a question about it, I am very polite and say "It's a musical instrument, and though it has fit in every airplane I've traveled in, if I have any problem I will bring it right back up to the front of the plane. Would that be okay?")
But now, you need a case that will fit. I personally own two of these Wiseman cases and they will fit even the smallest commute plane. They're expensive, but if you've got a $10,000 instrument, $900 is a small price to pay to make sure it stays perfect. Another alternative is the smaller BAM bass clarinet case. It's a little cheaper, and a little bigger, but it should fit as well. But if you have a big old bass clarinet case, it will likely only fit in the larger airplanes.
If you have no other option, you can ask if they have pets traveling on the plane, and ask them if you can have the instrument hand-carried onto and off of the plane (rather than having it put through the baggage claim system). This is something you can negotiate with the lead flight attendant. If no pets, ask if the pilot would be willing to turn the heat on in the hold.
Remember though, the Captain of the aircraft has the final say. You can't overrule him. If you were the president you couldn't overrule him. So don't try.
Good luck, be polite, and keep that instrument safe!
Update! Here is a video discussing various Bass Clarinet cases and their benefits—specifically whether they will fit in the overhead of a plane!