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Flying with an Upright Bass

Many bassists will, at some point, find it necessary to fly with their upright bass. Although a professional bassist should be able to play acceptably on any bass that is thrown at them, there are a number of reasons why we want to play our own instrument on the road.

If you are doing anything other than the simplest of bass lines, playing on a borrowed instrument is far from an ideal situation. Basses vary in size, string length (read: the notes are in different places), string height, set-up, etc., more than most other instruments. Furthermore, having a familiar instrument allows us to play at our highest level of artistry. Having a familiar instrument is even more critical for those of us who have exceptionally specialized set-ups. Also, many of us are recognized by our “sound,” and our sound is affected in part by the particular instrument we play, and how we have it set-up.

The bottom line is that you never know what you will get when you are relying on borrowed or rented instruments. I remember touring Mexico using rented instruments at each venue. The instruments varied from extremely low quality to virtually unplayable. I felt lucky to get a soundpost and all the strings at few venues. The fact that two of the concerts were broadcast live on national television did nothing to alleviate my discomfort with the low quality instruments.

Because of the size of the instrument, upright bassists are often expected to play on rented or borrowed instruments. Primarily, this is because traveling with an upright is seen as terribly cumbersome. However, a little knowledge and preparation can make traveling with an upright bass much more manageable.

When you fly with your bass, there are a number of things to consider:

  1. The days of buying an extra seat on the plane are long gone. If you fly with your bass, you will need to use a flight case and the bass will go as baggage. There are a number of case makers, but you want one that is sturdy and light. The best are usually made with carbon fiber and Kevlar or some similar material. If you don’t already own one, borrow or rent one. Unless you are travelling regularly they are not worth the expense of buying one. If you are travelling regularly, and you don’t already own a flight case, I suggest thinking toward the future, and going a different route entirely: see number 4 below
  2. Not all airlines will take the instrument in the flight case as baggage. Don’t bother calling ahead or asking anyone before you fly, it will not help. Trust me, it’s a waste of time.
    1. Most won’t do it, but if you can get a Skycap to take it out front, let them do it and tip them well. It saves a lot of time and hassle for you, and the tip helps them remember you. When you come back through in six weeks they will help you again. After four years of flying out of IAD, the guys at Dulles airport are very helpful to me now.
    2. For domestic US travel, Southwest and JetBlue have the best reputation amongst the bass community. They are bass friendly. I personally go out of my way only fly only these airlines when I have my bass, and I have never had a hassle. Which is more than I can say for other domestic US airlines.
    3. For other domestic US airlines, it all boils down to who is at the ticket counter. No matter what the situation, persistence and a pleasant demeanor is your best bet. Look for a counter person who has been around the block a few times. A trainee is surefire doom.
    4. Try not to stand it upright at the airport, lay it on its side.
    5. If asked, it’s a cello.
  3. For US domestic flights the bass and case need to come in at under 100 pounds, even on a friendly airline. As a result some of the older flight cases will not fit the bill. Be aware of this when you rent a case. Even if you are under 100 pounds, you will still end up paying extra in oversize/overweight fees, usually between $50 to $100 each way. In the future, this weight limit will likely be lower, and travel be more difficult for basses as baggage. If they measure the bass you are doomed unless the airline has a musical instrument “exception.” This is why I like Southwest and JetBlue.
  4. International weight restrictions are stricter than US, currently at 70 pounds, with size limitations as well. Most people who fly internationally with any regularity have an instrument with a removable neck, which decreases the size (and weight) of the flight case. This also helps in trains, buses, cars and the other cramped ground travel you might experience overseas as well. There are a number of people who will retrofit your instrument and provide a good case.
    1. Prices and quality of workmanship vary considerable for a removable neck conversion. Some conversions are meant for “workingman” basses, while others are designed for museum quality instruments. Make your choices based on your needs.
    2. Some companies are making new instruments that are made with the removable neck from the beginning.
    3. Having an instrument with a removable neck, and the appropriate flight case, means that ANY airline will currently accept your bass. There will still be an oversize charge, but some cases are even under 50lbs with the bass inside. This makes travel much, much easier.
  5. TSA and customs can be a nightmare, so expect them to do things like fail to strap your bass back in after inspection, forgetting to put your bow back in the case (I travel with mine as a carryon) or not re-latching all the latches.
    1. A clearly visible, and brief, set of instructions can go far here. I keep it simple but I do include things like “please don’t attempt to open the instrument itself.”—- I started doing this after a colleague told me how US customs opened his 150 year old instrument with a crowbar to “make sure it was empty.”
    2. All the more reason to get a removable neck instrument and flight case. It doesn’t solve all the TSA problems, but they seem to be able to deal with those more easily, and with fewer disaster stories.
  6. Referring back to number 4:
    1. Flying with a bass is only going to become more difficult, not easier.
    2. If you want your own instrument at the gig, you need to take this into consideration.
    3. Removable necks are the future. If you don’t feel comfortable converting your 250 year old instrument, then get a second one that mimics yours as best you can for travel.
    4. I know one bassist who has a removable neck instrument as his travel bass. He ships it via FedEx to avoid all the hassle of flying with it. In his opinion, just avoiding the TSA is reason enough to ship it.

Good luck!

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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4 comments

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Uriah

This is a great article- thank you! Although I do not travel with an upright, I have been carrying a bass on board an aircraft regularly since 1985, and everything you say here is parallel with my experience. :-)

There’s a few things I’d like to reiterate/expand upon (as it pertains to bringing your electric bass onboard):
Check in online EARLY! 24 hours prior is usually the time. Get a seat near the front. The earlier you do this with Southwest, the better line position you have when boarding, thusly guaranteeing some overhead space for your axe. Sometimes I’ll even pay the $20 extra to make sure I’m in the first half of group one. And if you have freq. flyer miles with an airline you can usually board before everyone else- check your airlines requirements.

TSA has almost never been a problem for me when heading to the gate… (except in Australia & Japan). Sometimes they look through the gig bag, but it’s not a big deal. They’ve been known to take wire-clipping type tools though. Once through, It’s usually the gate agent that you have to be prepared to deal with.

Hold the bass low (ie. not up on the backpack straps). Also, If the gate attendant is on the LEFT, I hold the bass low like a suitcase on the RIGHT, and vice versa (a trick I learned from Victor Wooten). Get to your seat and secure a spot in that overhead bin, offering to help others fill the spots around your instrument. That way, you can make sure they don’t slam your axe, but more importantly, you can do it without a flight attendant needing notification.

An electric bass fits on board at least 90% of the time. Not often, but sometimes the bins are actually too short. The next step is a closet if the plane has one. You usually need assistance with this, as the space is commonly reserved for the outer garments of first class passengers.
Failing all of these options, the last step before checking your gig bag as baggage (yikes!) is the GATE CHECK- a service reserved for strollers and wheelchairs. This stuff gets hand delivered from the jetway to the baggage compartment under the plane, and is the first stuff to be removed upon landing. You can often collect the gate checked item at the exit on the jetway, although I’ve had to collect it as regular baggage on occasion (Vegas airport comes to mind). Sometimes it’ll come out on the special SKI carousel (in Denver) or in special handling/oversize items (SFO).
These non-jetway collection points are also true if you use a hardshell case and have checked the thing as regular baggage (be careful of airlines that now charge for this, ie. United).

Airline selection:
GOOD: Southwest, Jet Blue, even American… United possibly, but that’s stretching it.
BAD: VIRGIN, any flavor (US, Australia, etc…), Delta. Surprising that considering the way Virgin is marketed. Sorry I (or any of my musician friends) wont be flying with y’all! Delta actually came back onto a fully loaded plane and removed my bass from the neatly packed overhead bin. This was because I had previously entered a pissing contest with the gate agent, so he flexed on me. I was right: the bass fit even after everyone was onboard. But he had the authority to deny my brief success.

Airline Staff: Very important! Get someone who’s experienced that you can flirt with (ie. win over with your amazing demeanor). Being a pompous rock star is a sure fire way to get denied! Trainee’s going by the book to impress the boss? STAY FAR FAR AWAY!

We are musicians, which when approaching the counter with an instrument inherently means Second-Class Citizens. We’re all considered derelicts and start out with a handicap when it comes to negotiating with the man. So whatever you can do to bridge the gap between our world of creativity and their world of corporate structure will go far when trying to get your instrument to that gig!

-Uriah Duffy

Jason Spencer

Great, great read. Thank you so much! Thankfully I don’t have to travel with an upright anymore, but I still await the day that I need to take some piece of my DJ equipment on a plane. Talks of crowbars to “see inside” is perhaps my biggest fear, second only to the videos of how they just throw things into the cargo hold. Yikes!

I’ll be sure to forward this one on to my friends.

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[...] Sometimes purchasing an extra seat for your gear can be a reasonable solution when it comes to larger or more valuable instruments like the cello — and while not cheap, in the end, buying that extra seat might be a safer, easier, and less expensive option than renting or shipping. If you’re thinking of doing this, be sure to call ahead, explain the situation, and see if any special accommodations need to be made. For specialized tips on flying with an upright bass, check out this article. [...]