Airline Horror Stories Please

In her other guise as Marcia Adair, journalist, Miss Mussel is writing and article for an aviation security magazine about musical instruments that is meant to act as a primer for security screeners at airports. As such, she needs to explain why musicians get so touchy about their instruments and what they find frustrating about going through security.

So, dear reader, it’s over to you. Please leave your thoughts/anecdotes/tirades in the comments. Some of these will make it into the final story and you will be contacted to confirm details so please do not use friend of a friend episodes. The incidents must have happened to you and you must be able to tell me when, which airline etc Ideally, these should have happened in the last 5 years or so.

If you don’t have a horror story but would like to give a tour of things found in your instrument case that may be confusing for security people (oils, reeds, grease, rosin, end pins etc) please do so. Details including what the items are used for, what they usually look like and what they are made of would be useful.

Double reed people: Do you put all your knives and other scary bits of kit in cargo? What happens if you forget to transfer some of the more menacing bits?

Finally – if you have any examples of good security experiences, I’d like to hear those as well.

Ok -over to you!


  1. Where to begin!
    Lost luggage is a regular occurance, which is frustrating and difficult to deal with when touring, but nothing compared to a lost instrument….

    Generally Robin ALWAYS travels with his guitar in the cabin of any plane, this usually requires long ‘debates’ with the airline staff, but he has to be persistant.
    He generally arrives early at the airport to allow time for this to take place!
    Occasionally the captain of a plane has intervened and given the go ahead for his guitar to be taken on board.

    There are many reasons why his concert guitar cannot go in the hold. The most obvious being the lack of care by ground staff, who can be seen throwing luggage around.
    But also the cold and altered air pressure in the hold would be very damaging to his irreplaceable instrument.

    The worst situation arose during the height of the terrorist threats in 2007 when NO hand luggage was allowed in the cabin at all.
    We had to purchase a second flight case, which went around the original flight case, thus offering a ‘cushion’ effect and providing added protection. But it did result in a very bulky and heavy guitar to transit around the globe.

    However, this occured:

    After this terrible experience, when the airline lost not only Robin’s luggage, but also his guitar, he vowed never to allow the guitar in the hold again.
    Luckily at that time the strict rules on hand luggage were beginning to be relaxed, and he was able to continue travelling by air and insisting on the guitar being taken in the cabin.

    The guitar fits easily into the overhead locker and still allows room for other passengers to add their belongings.
    Robin is always quite happy for his instrument to go through x-ray, so all security measures are met.
    He does have to pack his extensive nail repair kit in his suitcase as it contains superglue (fluid) and scissors, neither of which are allowed in the cabin.
    This can present problems if nail damage occurs during many hours of travelling, but he has to wait until he arrives at his destination, and is hopefully reunited with his luggage, to carry out repairs.

    The security at all airports is obviously essential but for this particular travelling musician it does cause a huge amount of stress.
    To know that you will have to go through the same converation, with many different people, just to get your instrument on board, doesn’t make for a relaxing start to your journey. And when that journey can involve three or four flights, it all gets rather tedious…
    As much of Robin’s work is abroad, and requires extensive travel, you can see why this is a very frustrating situation.

    Missing luggage is also difficult when due on stage very soon after arrival. ‘A case of the Borrowed Tuxedo’ highlights the problem nicely!

    And all this stress is before he has even played a note….

    Hope this helps with your research.

    I’m sure there are many other stories on the blog so feel free to search the archives.

  2. Certainly any string player has an endless supply of airport nightmares. My top two:

    1) TL-AMS Delightful Atlanta Security screener grabs case from the belt by the end of the case, not the handle, puts it upside down, wobbling on the edge of a table. I lunge for it and he says “don’t touch the tennis racket” upon which I explain that it’s a “violin” (I learned long ago that “viola” is a scary unknown and airport employees don’t like those!) and that its fragile, etc. he can’t figure out how to open the case and asks other employees to come help as opposed to letting me do it. I ask him to please not touch the instrument and he responds “I’ll touch what I need to.” He then asks what I’m doing with the instrument and I say I’m a violinist. he asks if I can actually play it. I say yes. He says “Play it then.” And so, in the Atlanta airport, I have to play the viola to prove it’s not a weapon of mass destruction.

    2) PHX-NYC-LHR Ogre-like America West gate agent stops me an says my viola case (which is the smallest lightest case one can buy but not shaped like a roll aboard suitcase!) won’t fit in the “sizewise” basket and must be checked all the way to London. I protest, presenting a copy of the latest TSA rules on carry-on luggage which states that instruments should be allowed provided they fit in the overhead. I state that it will easily fit in the overhead and she responds that “the oblong shape of my instrument could be a safety hazard–that’s why there’s a sizewise container” and “Ma’am unless that case is in my hand in 5 seconds or you buy it a ticket to London I’m taking you off this flight and you can think about what you want to do until the next flight tomorrow morning.” And so, prospect of a night in the Phoenix airport and missing connections unappealing, I take the viola and bow out of the case and carry unprotected 300 year old instrument onto the plane and hold it in my lap for 5 hours.

  3. trumpets are easy, for the most part. my bag looks oversized, and it always gets tagged during the boarding process of regional flights. i’ve learned to not argue and just take the tag off as i’m walking down the jetway. the bag always fits in the overhead, even on puddle jumpers. only once have i ever had to plead my case with a flight crew about why it couldn’t be checked.

    still, this is ALWAYS a source of great angst during the boarding process. i’m always braced for an argument.

    it’s not at all uncommon for my bag to go through the x-ray and prompt a hand search because they can’t figure out what they’re seeing on the screen. the screener usually opens it up, sees all the mutes and the various trumpets, and promptly zips it right back up again.

    i invariably forget about the ridiculous liquids prohibition, and my valve oil has never once been noticed by security. that’s probably why i keep forgetting about it.

  4. I haven’t traveled with my oboe in eons … LONG before rules became more rigid and security is as it is now. But even back when I took a tour to the UK (right after high school way back in 1974!) I was told to put my knives in my checked luggage, which I did. I would never think of bringing any of my tools into the cabin with me. I think a sharp pencil could easily become a killing device, but I’m not gonna test the airline folks, and I don’t want to lose my tools.

    I would never check my oboe or English horn. If they told me I couldn’t travel with them I wouldn’t travel. Our instruments are far too fragile to check them. We have small enough cases that they can be taken as carryon quite easily.

    Someone once wrote that he/she had to actually open the oboe case, pull it out, and play the darn thing for security to prove it really was a musical instrument. If that story is really true it’s pretty bizarre. I’ve also read that our reeds (which I’d want with my carryon) can sort of look like bullets. Go figure.

    I’ve had several students travel recently with oboes and English horns. They’ve not had any problem at all taking the instruments on with them.

  5. Yvonne

    Flute players probably have an easier time than most, and I’ve certainly never experienced any difficulty or anxiety. The most anxious I felt was when relocating internationally (2006) and therefore travelling with a backpack containing all my instruments at once: flute, piccolo and two baroque flutes, each in their particular cases or wraps. At LAX this bag drew the attention of the x-ray screener, who was no doubt perplexed by the amount of inexplicable tubing.

    The woman pulled the cases out of the backpack, and asked me what they were. I said flutes and her eyebrows went up at the plural. I also offered, more than once, to unpack them if she wished. Evidently there’s some policy about not allowing passengers to touch their own luggage when it’s being checked. In any case, she side-stepped this offer. To my relief, though, she just opened the cases/”jewellery rolls” and looked. No attempts to remove the pieces, and no requests that I play them in the middle of an airport.

  6. Ren

    The only instrument-related trouble I have ever had in an airport is that I accidentally left my mandrel in my oboe case, and didn’t put it in my checked luggage with my knives. The mandrel is like…a wooden handle with a thin metal post attached to it, and they stopped me at the luggage scan and I had to show them what it was for. I guess it looks a little frightening or something?

  7. Ursula Pieper

    The following happened in 1989, in Moscow, with Aeroflot:
    We traveled to the then Soviet Union with chorus and orchestra to perform Bach’s B-minor Mass (I was a chorus member). When getting into Moscow, security couldn’t fit the original baroque timpani into the x-ray machine. They insisted on opening them up, to see what’s inside. It took a couple of hours (as far as I remember) talking to them, until they let us through without destroying the timpani.

  8. Marcia, the latest kerfuffle is that Ryanair, Britain’s most notoriously non-caring budget airline, is charging violinists (& presumably violas, & goodness knows what else) for *an extra seat on the plane* for their fiddles. A friend of mine who runs a music festival is spitting fire and brimstone over this as now it will cost them double to fly over a chamber orchestra from Vilnius. It’s patent nonsense, too, since violins have fitted in overhead compartments as long as planes have existed. And all we can say is ‘well, what do you expect from Ryanair?!’ – this is the company that’s decided to charge passengers extra for going to the loo, and a lot extra for checking in at the airport, and for virtually everything else – but I wish to high heaven that someone could do something about it. Tom and I get around it by just not flying Ryanair unless we absolutely have to. Who decided it is OK to treat people like pieces of muck just because the tickets are cheap?

    • sergio

      Jessica – Ryanair (which is an Irish not a British airline, and doesn’t charge for using the loo) only insists on an extra seat for musical instruments which don’t comply with its cabin baggage rules. One of these is the airline standard maximum length of 55cm. Anything longer won’t fit in their lockers unless placed lengthways. This deprives the other two passengers in the row of locker space. Most Ryanair passengers travel with cabin baggage, so this is a real issue. They charge so little for seats, they need to make their money elsewhere. They are a business after all. If you are careful with baggage and pre-booking extras, it’s a cheap way to travel, but you can’t expect to pay half the price of a big airline and get the same service. All the airlines are struggling to stay in business at the moment. If you want hassle-free travel you need to pay for it. Your choice.

  9. Kate

    I’ve just travelled to France & back with easyjet – another UK budget airline. Their website states that a violin or viola (and other similarly sized instruments) can travel in the cabin ‘if there is space’. Therefore, I paid a bit extra for ‘Speedy Boarding’ to make sure I was one of the first on the plane – so that there would indeed be space. Five of us did the same outward journey, and the people who beat me to the check in desk had a bit of a standoff with the easyjet employee (at 4.30am – great!). My colleague just kept saying “No” to the violins and violas going in the hold, until a supervisor was phoned and everything cleared. After that, it was easy for me! The cellist, who had bought an extra seat for her cello, had some explaining to do about the fact that there was no name on the cello’s seat. So they named it Mr A Cello and all was OK again. Security screening guys were fine.

  10. Candace

    Stringency of rules (and intelligence of personnel) varies from time to time. On my first flight with a new baroque guitar, slightly larger than a viola and most definitely in a case resembling a tiny guitar, I was told that “Absolutely no instrument” could go on board. As a hypothetical I asked about a flute or recorder and was told “NO!” I had to gate-check the guitar on the first leg, then retrieved it for the second leg and removed the red tag. No one else questioned me. Still, I would rather gate-check at the door to the airplane than have my instrument flung from conveyer belts and luggage carts. Since then I have carried a copy of the agreement between the musicians’ union and the TSA.

    My second incident had a funny and happy ending: I purchased an old bandoneon (tango accordion) in Buenos Aires, kept it in its original historic case, and had it taped up. It was heavy so I also bought a luggage cart with wheels to bring it on board. When at the gate all hand-luggage was again being inspected, I simply told the Argentine staff what it was and that they could open it if they wanted to but they would have to play it and then tape up the case again. They declined with a smile and sent me on my way.

    My most recent experiment was to travel with a theorbo — a bass lute with an extended neck. The case is about 6 feet long. I was surprised to learn that I could actually buy a seat for it and strap it in at the bulkhead. Instead, I talked to the agents at check in, locked it up, had it hand-carried to the oversized-luggage. No problems. On the way back it was screened in front of the ticket desk, but was still opened somewhere “in the back room” (it had been left unlocked this time) and the standard TSA note put in. I’m sure they were just curious to see what was inside such a case with a weird shape. To lock or not to lock?? A friend’s theorbo case was opened and all the bubble-wrap and padding around the neck removed and unwrapped, then simply stuffed inside the case. If delicate or fragile items are already pre-screened, it seems like we should do as in Europe and put a seal over the locks/closures. Why waste time and money and invoke lawsuits for damage over simple curiosity?

  11. Nicole

    If they asked me to play my violin (they never have), that would signal to me time to break out something extremely entertaining like ‘Csardas’ and get the other travelers clapping along, and maybe get a few tips out of it!

  12. Pierre Random

    I travel frequently with a traditional Czech Anální Harfa, a rather unusual traditional instrument. I find that if I detach and introduce the 18 inch input piece into place as if I were preparing to play, the remainder can be carried on in a transparent case without any problem.

  13. Andrew Wagner

    I have found that a box of harmonicas will get scrutinized every time unless you tell the x-ray operator what it is before it goes through the scanner. And you need to check the little files and scrapers you use to maintain the reeds; I have had some of those confiscated when I forgot.

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