Thursday, March 18, 2010

Guitar Workshop: Have Guitar Will Travel

My last trip by air was in the summer of 2003, to Ohio, from there to Seattle, and back to Ohio, all in a two-week period. I actually drove to the airport a day in advance, showed them my travel-size guitar at the counter, and specifically asked them if it was okay for carry-on. They said okay, and indeed it all turned out okay, as my guitar fit easily into the overhead compartment.

But that was then, and this is now.

Recently the Washington Post came out with a piece in its travel section on traveling with carry-on luggage, with some emphasis on those who travel with guitars. ("Airlines, passengers squabble over baggage fees", 02.21.10) I recommend it for anyone and everyone who, like me, has a long-standing tradition of limiting oneself to carry-on luggage. As far as I'm concerned, any business that can damage your property with impunity is not to be trusted as a matter of course. (That said, I have no choice but to trust them to fly the plane.)

The experience has been a nightmare for a professional guitar man named Dave Carroll. Jimmy Akin gives the lowdown.

Basically, here's what happened: United Airlines baggage handlers recklessly damaged his $3,500 Taylor guitar and then the company refused to pay for repairs. After exhausting his options with United, he told them he would write three songs and put them on YouTube. Reportedly, he was told, "Good luck with that one, pal."

The first has eight million views, one million of which happened in the first week of release. He was quickly contacted by United with an offer of compensation in hopes of his pulling the video. Reportedly, he replied, "Good luck with that one, pal."

When I first heard this story, I wondered if his friends put on a benefit for him. Musicians can be like that for one another. Like when Willie Nelson lost many of his belongings to the IRS for back taxes, and his friends all showed up for the auction and bought his stuff back for him. It seems Carroll had a happy ending, or at least he made one out of it. (Catch him on Twitter by clicking here.)

But for many working guitarists, the treatment of their instrument by the airlines is no laughing matter. The world's air carriers are notoriously unapologetic when one of their employees damages someone's means of making a living, and insurance doesn't always cover that damage. Articles appear in guitar periodicals with some regularity. The latest is in the April 2010 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, where Chris Smither talks about "Flying With A Guitar"...

There is no anxiety quite like that of the guitar player as he or she approaches the gate and prepares to board a plane ... The purpose of this piece is to share some tips and observations that can make you a major leaguer when it comes to getting your ax on board.

There are even outer cases specially designed to protect your guitar case and its contents from the neanderthals that airlines usually hire as baggage handlers. That's right, a case within a case. If you are a professional who travels a lot, travels light, and your guitar is worth several thousand dollars (especially if it's a vintage piece worthy of a collector), the expense may be justified.

With the travel season gearing up, I'd recommend Southwest. If you've ever flown them, you know they have a style of customer service all their own, and they seem to hire budding stand-up comics as flight attendants, including during the safety lesson: "For those of you who are traveling with small children, what were you thinking?" If you read the Post chart for "Maximum combined linear measurement of carry-on luggage", you will find that most travel-sized guitars will fit the requirements for most airlines. If you have a problem competing with some idiot's ski equipment (and I wouldn't have believed it I hadn't seen it), remind the flight attendant of your compliance, and appeal to his/her sense of reason.

On the other hand, if you still have to travel with a full-size axe, be sure and catch the fourth video clip, where a representative from Taylor Guitars gives some very helpful insights (and that happy ending I was telling you about). There is one that he neglects to mention, though: avoid O'Hare at all costs, especially if you have a connecting flight.

Happy trails!

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