Taking your hurdy-gurdy on an airplane trip has the potential to be a nerve-wracking experience, and for some it has been disasterous. Don't despair: every year many hurdy-gurdy players take their instruments on trips with no problems. Here are some of our experiences which should ease your journey with your instrument.
The principle is simple: Never let the instrument out of your control. Always carry it onto the aircraft with you. With this guiding principle in mind, here are the techniques to use to achieve it.
It is possible to purchase an ATA-approved flight case for a hurdy-gurdy. This is the only type of case that will allow you to collect insurance if the instrument is damaged. We have one, and we don't use it any more except sometimes as a coffee table: it's just too large and bulky. Although it's immune to most damage, it's still too easy to have it disappear to some unknown destination, and the treatment it receives is usually pretty rough - the baggage handlers figure that it's a flight case, after all, so everything in there must be well-protected.
Hard cases are, to our mind, the worst of both worlds. They're large and heavy, impossible to fit in an overhead bin onboard, and uninsurable.
A soft case is probably the best option. They provide the least protection, which can be an advantage when convincing a sceptical airline employee to let you take it on the plane with you, because it's obvious that it shouldn't go into the cargo hold with the luggage. They can be compressed a little bit in one dimension or another (carefully!) to get it to fit in a particular space. They are far lighter than the other kinds of case, which is good because you're going to be carrying it a lot more.
Check that your case shoulder strap and its clasps are in good condition.
Some airlines only allow one piece of hand luggage. This rule is flexible, and often has an exception for musical instruments. If you are flying on an airline that is particularly sticky on this issue, just take your instrument as your carry-on piece. Put your other inflight needs (medications, reading material, etc) in your coat pockets, your purse, or a small briefcase.
Airlines often have a box at the check-in counter and gate counter with a sign that says, "If it doesn't fit in the box, you have to check it." When you take a look at the box size, you'll know your instrument isn't going to fit. Ignore the box: it's just there as a guideline. The crew and ultimately the captain of the aircraft has the final say about what goes in the passenger cabin.
Don't bring your instrument to the attention of the ticket agent. Before you reach the counter, put the case strap over one shoulder. Keep the case behind you, pointing vertically. This is why you checked your strap clasps earlier. If this position makes you too nervous about dropping the instrument, carry it by the handle and keep it below the counter. Another alternative is to sling the case across your back with the strap diagonally across your chest. This may be a little uncomfortable, but it's only for a few minutes. The ticket agent has seen literally thousands of passengers carrying luggage of every shape and size in every conceivable fashion, so you would need something pretty unusual to attract their attention if you don't do it yourself.
Have your ticket and ID ready for the agent. It's unlikely that the ticketing agent will hassle you unless you bring the instrument to their attention. Once you're checked in, their attention will shift to the next person. Stand aside and shuffle your papers or something for a moment until they're engaged. If there's no line behind you (unlikely as that is) just turn and walk away.
In the unlikely event that the ticketing agent hassles you, tell them that you'll check it at the gate if there's not enough space for it. This is a little white lie, but it will get you away from the agent.
A few airports have size-limitation templates on the X-ray machines. If your case doesn't fit through the template and the first-line security person won't agree to hand-search the case, ask politely to speak with a supervisor. They have the authority to decide that something odd-sized can go through. Open the case and show them the instrument, explaining that a) you've travelled with it before and it fits in the overhead bin, and b) it's too fragile and expensive to be checked. The hurdy-gurdy is so exotic-looking that this usually gets you through.
If you arrive too late for pre-boarding or the gate agent refuses you early entry, stand as close as possible to the boarding line. Wait until your row is called, then get in at the head of the line. This should still allow you time to find a place for your instrument.
Once it's in the bin, protect it. You know it's a valuable instrument, but someone may try to shove a duffel full of hockey gear on top of it.
If by some awful chance it doesn't fit, ask the flight attendant where it can be stowed inside the cabin. Most aircraft have a closet, a rack for garment bags, or some other bin where unusually shaped luggage can be placed.
Sometimes airline employees will try to cite FAA regulations as the reason for having to check your instrument. This is not the case: we asked the FAA specifically about this, there are no FAA rules mandating size limitations or anything else that would affect you.
Be prepared to be very polite and yet very insistant with the agents and flight crew. Here are some things you can say:
"It's a very valuable instrument."
"It's quite fragile."
"I need to keep it with me in the cabin."
"It fits in the overhead bin."
"I was told I could carry it on with me." (We're telling you, right?)
"It's essential that I have it available to play at a concert."
Generally saying one or two of these phrases with gentle determination will do the trick. The next step is to voluntarily open the case and show it to them, explaining again about the value, the irreplacable nature, and fragility.
If these measures are not effective, take a deep breath and try again. Airline people are used to dealing with the irate and the belligerent, but that doesn't mean they like it. Being polite, calm and friendly will be a welcome change. Try these:
"I'm sure there must be a place on board where it will fit."
"I've flown on this airline before without checking it."
"I'd like to talk to the captain about this."
The captain has the right to allow or disallow whatever luggage he or she chooses. It's even possible that the instrument could ride in the flight crew's onboard storage bin: there's a hurdy-gurdy-playing pilot who flies with a lute-back in a large hard case.
Be wary of the airline people who may insist that the instrument will be "perfectly safe". They may suggest a door tag, which is what is put on baby strollers and other items which are returned to the passenger at the gate instead of at the baggage claim. You can counter this claim with, "I have a friend who was told his instrument would be handled very carefully and returned at the gate, and his 150-year-old instrument was destroyed beyond repair." This happened to someone with a beautiful Nigout while flying British Airways.
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Alden and Cali Hackmann
Olympic Musical Instruments
PO Box 166, Indianola WA 98342-0166
Beati illi qui in circulum circumeunt, fient enim magnae rotae.