A Case in Point!

The art of getting your musical instrument onto a plane.

There is an expression that sometimes appears on peoples faces, an expression that, it seems, is becoming more and more common. It is a look that some barmen give you if you question the quality (or indeed the price of) your pint; it is the nondescript reaction of some bus drivers to the fact that you’re not sure where you’re going, or indeed that your pidgin English is inadequate to understand the concept of ‘correct change only’; it is the ‘I didn’t make the rules’ glare of some car clampers for whom ‘Getting Dublin Moving’ is the prime directive and overrides any and all other concerns — including the fact that you only stopped to help deliver a baby — and it is the patronising apologetic visage occasionally present at flight check-in when you are informed that you are not allowed to bring your instrument on the plane.

Approaching the check-in desk is the part I hate most about travelling. Airport queues, extortionate exchange rates, aeroplane ‘food’, jet lag, these things hold no fear for me, but the fate of the entire journey rests on the initial reaction of check-in staff when they see my guitar.

Depending on the carrier, the popularity of the flight and the mood and general attitude of staff, my baby — and yes, it may not be the most incredible guitar in the history of mankind, but it is mine, has been for a long time, and I love it like a child, a fact of which my actual children will be well reminded should the day come — may spend the journey in a cosy overhead locker (‘It fits with room to spare, yes it does, I have been on planes before and I know this for a fact, I know it may not appear that way to you, etc., etc., etc.’), or in the slightly more opulent confines of the first class coat room — which has only happened twice, but I never forgotten those two wondrous stewardesses who guarded the safety and comfort of my guitar with the precision and pride of none but the most consummate of professionals — or (and definitely more mythically) in the region of the plane into which disappears all luggage which is deemed ‘outsize’ or ‘fragile’.

I have long laboured under the misapprehension that by characterising luggage as ‘FRAGILE’, this in some way increased the likelihood of it being treated with care and attention. Hard objective evidence, however, has forced me to conclude that in the ancient language of baggage-handlers ‘FRAGILE’ represents a synonym for ‘Legitimate Target’ and actually increases the likelihood of my instrument being thrown, dropped, kicked, fumbled, lobbed, hurled, buried, run over and quite possibly shot at during the course of any particular journey.

Other musicians inform me that they never, under any circumstances, allow their respective instruments to be placed in the cargo hold of a plane and I must take this opportunity to applaud whatever gift of infallible logic they have utilised to attain this end. Perhaps I am simply not forceful enough, because whenever my bluff is called and the airline staff seem quite prepared to ignore my threat of allowing the plane to depart without me, I usually hand my guitar over with no little whimpering on my part and no little apathy on theirs. Even their genuine-sounding promise to deliver the instrument to the plane ‘by hand’ offers little consolation, as I spend the entire journey contemplating whether said ‘hand’ has a pathological hatred of music in general, and guitars in particular.

From the moment my instrument leaves my sight, my mind replays every horror story recounted by sage, elder musicians concerning the arrival of the bridge of their hand-made Loudain semi-acoustic on time into JFK international — while the rest of the guitar was 15 minutes late. Tales and reruns of such grimness occupy pretty much the entire journey until musician and instrument are reunited once more. It should be noted that alcohol does help in maintaining the happy delusion that ‘everything is going to be OK’, and adds to the festive cheer of the reunification process should instrument arrive untainted by the journey. Conversely, however, should all not be well upon arrival, and should some anonymous hand have wreaked a terrible injury upon the house of your instrument, alcohol tends to lessen the ability to deal with the tragedy on a psychological, emotional, social, and indeed pragmatic, level.

I must admit that such injuries occur in a tiny minority of (instrument) cases. In general, the near paranoiac anxiety with which many plane journeys are composed is both misplaced, fruitless and quickly forgotten after the reunification process. However, the fact that such anxiety exists, and indeed that there are incidences of grievous bodily harm against instruments, is enough to taint the enjoyment of any journey. I do not say that travel scars are unacceptable, any instrument which annually sees several countries is bound to accumulate some indentations of character, and flite-cases are built for the occasional fall, or for an infrequent entrapment under a bag of bowling-balls, but sometimes instruments arrive having apparently been regurgitated from the belly of a blade-lined cement-mixer, and it is this sort of vandalism that represents every musician’s travel nightmare.

It is, unfortunately, seldom that the great patrons of foreign gigs entertain the expense of purchasing an extra seat for one’s instrument, although the expression on their faces when we inquire after such a concession is a familiar one!

Published on 1 May 2001

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