Flying With a Baritone Saxophone

I think the most common question I am asked about the baritone saxophone is, “How do you fly with one??” Traveling by plane with a baritone is a tricky proposition, and below are some tips that I've gathered from flying with one countless times over the past 23 years.

For starters, familiarize yourself with the U.S. Department of Transportation's page on travelling with musical instruments

Also, keep a copy of this TSA letter with you. I am not convinced it will have much effect when it comes to instruments larger than the allowed carry-on size, but in any case I recommend printing this out and having it with you as you travel; it has come in handy for musicians I have known, and might help get you by some of the checkpoints at the airport.

Method 1: Buy a seat for your baritone sax

Sorry to have started with the most costly of recommendations (read below for the alternative method), but with airlines today, it is the only way to completely ensure that your instrument will end up at the other end damage-free. Given that I need my instrument to be in top working order upon arriving at the destination, and am often flying places without professional saxophone repair shops, I can't afford any alternatives. When you buy a seat, keep a few things in mind: 

  • Do not book a seat in an Emergency Exit; the saxophone is not allowed in this row.
  • The baritone sax must have a window seat, and you should book the seat right next to it. Most online booking sites allow you to choose specific seats for your flights.
  • Book the saxophone's ticket along with yours, and give it your last name (ie: Saxophone Smith). The airline system will then know to seat you together in case you can’t pick your seats, or in case of itinerary changes. I do this when I fly domestically and book tickets online.
  • Alternatively, some airline will opt to name your baggage something like 'CBBG', which is industry standard for 'carry on board baggage'. 
  • When flying overseas, I recommend calling the airline to book the seat, and use the naming protocol they suggest. This will help the process when you show up at the airport, and there is no passport or visa for your instrument. I have also found some airlines to have lower prices for CBBG tickets than for your own real live human ticket.

Then, when you get on the plane, it is helpful to tell the lead flight attendant that you have a seat for the instrument, and to include it in their head count. In other words: before the flight takes off, the attendant counts everyone on the plane and compares that number against the boarding passes collected. I can’t tell you how many times they have come up one short (they often don’t notice the bari in the seat and don’t count it as a ticketed passenger), and then they have to go seat-by-seat to figure out who is missing, delaying the take-off.

Lastly, the baritone saxophone is required to be strapped securely into the seat. Using the regular seat belt, you can loop it through both handles and buckle it, and that suffices. If you prefer, you can ask for a seatbelt extension from the flight attendant (they are usually used for large passengers), and strap that around the whole instrument.

Method 2: Getting your bari on a plane without buying a ticket

So you don’t want to spring for a ticket? I don’t blame you, it’s pretty expensive, and just not always feasible. Before 9/11 I used to not buy tickets for mine, and had the following routine. I’ve used it a couple times since then, but airlines and airports have become generally less accommodating, and so it is just much more iffy.

For starters, figure out how the airlines board their planes. You want to board early, before the overhead spaces get taken, which for some airlines means booking a seat towards the back of the plane, and for others it means booking a window seat. The best route here is to purchase an early-boarding upgrade; it may cost ~$20-$75, but is worth it.

When at the airport, your goal is to get the baritone saxophone on board with the least amount of attention. So, make your baritone sax as inconspicuous as possible, from the beginning. Be sure you are using a form-fitted hard shell case, instead of a large rectangular case. When you check in to get your ticket, don’t make a big deal about your horn, and as much as possible, don’t let the ticket counter agent even notice it. Even they can make life difficult for you, and I have seen ticket counter agents insist on having you check the instrument as luggage before you leave their station. I keep mine slung over my back while in line, and when I get to the counter I place it on the floor against the desk, out of sight from the agent on the other side.

The biggest obstacle I've usually found is the airport employee who stands at the start of the security line and pre-checks your ID and ticket. These folks can be unsympathetic and unwavering. Be nice, explain that it's a valuable musical instrument, show them your TSA letter, and explain that you will work with the airline to try and find a way to stow it on the aircraft safely. If it doesn't work you can say you'll gate check it (but in reality, don't gate check it!)

Going through security is usually not much of a problem; TSA employees are there to make sure you aren’t bringing dangerous materials onboard, and are less concerned with the size of your carry-on. My only advice here is, when placing your bags, shoes, and horn on the conveyor belt, place your sax on last. The worst thing is to see your horn come out the other side before you get through the scanner, and have it slide down the incline to ram into the wall at the end of the rollers. Be there to catch it.

Your next mission is to get past the gate agent. Some musicians approach the agents before the flight boards, explain they are travelling with a valuable instrument, and ask assistance or for the ability to pre-board.  This doesn't always work, depending on how much of a stickler you're working with. The alternative is to try to make your bari as inconspicuous as possible. When you are in line approaching the ticket agent, sling the horn over your shoulder with the strap, rather than carry it at your side using the handles, and get as much of the case behind your body as possible. If you have a BAM case, don’t use the backpack straps – that big old case sticking out over your head looks gigantic to them. Use the single shoulder strap.

Ideally, the sax won’t catch their eye, or if so they'll be okay with it, and you’ll proceed to your next target, the flight attendant. However, at this point the gate agent may notice your honker of a case anyway. In which case, they will either: 1) tell you there’s no way that can go on the plane, and that you need to return to the ticket counter to check it with the luggage, or 2) tell you there’s no way that can go on the plane, and that you need to gate check it. Out of these two options, gate checking is preferable – it means you give it to a baggage handler at the end of the jet bridge, and they return it to you when you deplane on the other side. However, you want to try to avoid either of those options, as even gate-checking can lead to a damaged instrument. Trust me, it's happened to me even with a super strong case.

Whatever happens, be polite and professional. Explain that you are a professional musician, this is a very fragile $10000+ instrument on which your livelihood depends, and could they please allow you just to go take it to the plane and speak with the flight attendant to see if they can accommodate it. Usually the ticket agent will be okay with this. Whatever happens, don’t check it back at the ticket counter with luggage. Nor should you allow the the ticket agent to take it and process it with regular luggage, meaning it will come back out at the luggage claim area instead of the jet bridge, unless you have an Anvil-type case. That luggage gets tossed around like bales of hay, and I have heard from credible sources that putting ‘fragile’ stickers on things inspires some luggage handlers to throw even further.

Sometime the agent will pull out a gate check tag and hand it to you, in case you end up needing to gate check it after speaking with the flight attendant. Sometimes the ticket agent will place the gate check tag directly on your instrument. If they do this, don’t argue, and just accept it and keep walking. When you are a few steps into the jet bridge, I recommend taking it off and putting it in your pocket. If the baggage handlers see the tag on the instrument, they will give you a hard time and make you give them your horn.

When you get to the plane, again just be as polite as possible, don’t make a big scene about the horn, and pass swiftly through. Once I’m past the flight attendant I like to keep the horn in front of me as I walk up the aisle – both because it’s easier to handle in the narrow aisle, but also because it’s then harder to see by the flight attendant. Personally I avoid bringing it to the attention of the flight attendant and asking if they have a closet for it – occasionally (and increasingly rarely) they might, but more often than not they balk at its size, and tell you it can’t be on the plane. Truth be told, most form-fitted bari cases will fit in the overhead compartments, particularly on the larger airplanes. The exception I suppose is if you are on a small plane and have a large case, in which case you probably have no choice but to ask to put it in a closet. Sometimes, if there is an empty seat, you can sweet-talk the attendant into letting you strap it into that (again, it needs to be a window seat).

If you’ve gotten this far, then congratulations, your mission is accomplished!

Method 3: Check your instrument as luggage

In order to check your instrument as luggage, you need to get a flight case that is built specifically for this. This does not include Walt Johnson, ProTec, BAM, or similar cases. 
You need to get an Anvil or Anvil-type case that is built for this type of travel. A few things to keep in mind:
- Airlines have length and width regulations that luggage needs to stay within. If you exceed this you will be charged extra every time you check your instrument. So, be sure to check these dimensions, and try to have your case designed to stay within those dimensions. However, more important that staying within these dimensions is ensuring that there is enough padding all around the sax. So, if your case must be a little bigger to give sufficient protection to your horn, so be it; you may just have to pay the ~$100 charge each time you travel.
- Similarly, airlines require that your luggage remain within 50lbs, or you will be charged more. So, weigh your instrument, neck, mouthpiece, and any other accessories you plan to keep in your case, subtract that from 50, and let the case manufacturer know what the finished product should weigh after being made (they may or may not be able to hit this target). The manufacturer may be able to offer different materials to help keep the weight down.
- Make an outline of your horn on a large sheet of paper, and send that to the manufacturer, so they know how to size the case and cut the foam. Make sure there is enough padding on the top and bottom to protect it from impact on those ends.

The last option is to put your case in a large cardboard box with lots and lots of peanuts/bubble wrap, and tape that up and check it underneath. Again, you may go over the size limit and have to pay more. 

Some final thoughts on flying on an airplane with a baritone saxophone: 

- Never use a soft-sided gig bag – not cloth, leather, or anything else soft. Just don’t. You never know when you will encounter a by-they-book, obstinate ticket agent, who will make you check your instrument. Or, even when you are able to get it on board and overhead, you want to have your horn protected from everyone else cramming their backpacks and suitcases into the same space.
- Pad your instrument with clothes, so there is no space between the horn and the case padding.
- I prefer to fly with a small, narrow, form-fitted hardshell case, as I have better luck putting those in the overhead compartments. While my Walt Johnson is great protection, it’s a little wide around the bell to fit in some small planes; instead, I use a Winter hardshell case for air travel, which is not as good protection, but which is more narrow. Berkeley Cases (and some others) are also quite narrow. 
- Get to know the type of airline you will fly on. The small Embraer jets (with 2 seats on one side and 1 seat on the other) have very small overhead bins. You may be able to fit a Winter-type case in, but just barely - if at all. Most planes that travel between larger cities have overheads that can accommodate a bari case.
- If you are traveling with a quartet or other musicians, let your other members go on first. Chances are they will not get hassled with their smaller instruments this way. If you go on first and draw attention to yourself, they might give you a hard time and then may be more apt to hassle your colleagues about their instruments as well.

Good Luck!

Taimur Sullivan
PRISM Quartet