Musical instruments get damaged in flight with depressing frequency. As another instrument bites the dust with heartbreaking consequences for the owner, Benjamin Hebbert shares some experiences for the musician putting their instrument in the hands of the airlines.
On average 8 million people fly every day, with more than 3 billion people flying every year. Musicians with their special needs will always comprise a small part of this vast industry. However much we campaign for reasonable treatment of musical instruments its worth considering how small a part we are of the big picture, and even with the best intentions moving instruments by plane always involves risk. Air turbulence, or a hard landing can be as violent to an instrument as mishandling. Whatever the circumstances, it pays to understand the risks of travel and prepare for the worst.
I have seen the best and the worst of airlines whilst travelling with musical instruments. I’ve been given privileged boarding in order to safely stow a violin before the fight for overhead luggage space ensues, and I’ve had gate staff insist I put a carry-on instrument in the hold having observed every precaution through the process of buying a ticket and checking in. The nerve wracking experience I had on a low-cost airline with a 17th century violin of considerable worth was enough for me to learn not to try and stretch the rules. Most of the time when carrying violins, I’ve just been able to walk through confidently even with a double-violin case. If I’m travelling with just one instrument, the small cases without the length to keep a bow work best. You can keep the bow in a separate tube. It’s all about balancing risk. If you have problematic luggage get to the airport super-early. Get yourself into a situation where you can wind down over a few expensive coffees with some literary trash from the airport bookstore with everything settled. Being the first to check in, and the most familiar face in the departure lounge will win you points, and if there is a serious problem you have the time to rearrange your flights or take whatever measures are necessary. Many people, not only yourself, arrive late and stressed to the airport. Whatever the faults of the airline system, the staff are human beings like you and me. Collectively they deal with 3 billion passengers many of whom are stressed, worried, entitled, angry, bizarre and incomprehensible. Your problems pale into comparison to many of the things they encounter.
With all instrument cases, whether you are a violinist or a cellist, new technologies and fashions have played havoc with the safety and security of instruments. The old brown canvas cello bags that were so common up to the 1980s were almost a godsend because they looked exactly as dangerous as they really were, so people tended to treat them carefully. W.E. Hill & Sons and others produced light hard cases, but these were complex to build and very expensive. It was not until the moulded ABS polymer (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) cases reached the market in 1985 that a universal hard case became a possibility, and set the market going for similar products. Hiscox cases have three things going against them – by comparison to sleek colourful modern cases they are ugly and heavy, and for many of us they are the kind of case we had with our first full-sized instrument. Most cellists remember the delight and liberation of finally buying a light and elegant case for their instrument and relegate memories of their Hiscox to the back of their childhood. Many dealers will tell you how much they appreciate these cases for schlepping cellos, and with new ones available for less than £500 they provide an immediate easy solution, that will prevent most risks, with excellent internal foam padding and a 2 – 2.5mm incredibly hard case. I’ll get on to bubble wrapping cases presently. In the meantime, watch this video to see five guys standing on a case without harming the guitar inside. That’s not the same as a sudden impact… but it’s a good test of strength.
As classical musicians we tend to forget that Hiscox cases are widely used amongst the rock industry and around marching bands where instruments are under much greater risk of damage on tour. It’s easy to be dismissive of them, and I don’t much like taking the London Underground with one on my back, but they are the fabulously secure cases and the minimum standard to go flying or on tour.
One of the real problems of the last few years has been the ease with which carbon-fibre and other light polymer cases can be produced. Let’s be clear that some of these are very good quality, but not all of them. Kevlar, carbon fibre and other substances may be incredibly strong, but that does not mean that they retain their shape (a bullet proof jacket may be able to stop a bullet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be folded). Regular luggage will deform in the hold considerably, and the test of quality is how it holds together, rather than how it maintains its shape. Before we even talk about their resilience in the hold, the major weakness can be the rim and the quality of locks and hinges. If a lightweight cello case is difficult to close properly it’s structural integrity is already compromised and if it deforms it will offer no real protection to the cello in a crisis. Yet it has proven easy to flood the market with sexy-looking lightweight cases made of 21st century wonder products that have hardly any structural integrity. This goes further than just cello cases. Violin and viola cases made of expanded polystyrene or from unsupported sheets of kevlar will give no protection against being crushed.
With Hiscox cases, the aluminium ‘valance’ that goes around the middle is integral to the structural integrity of the case, not only giving a solid plate that the straps and locks are attached to, but creating a completely rigid spine that gives the case its strength. It may be a feature that is as characteristic as a brand-name, but extending two inches inside the case, it’s the difference between one of the most resilient products in the business, and modern lightweight hard cases.
For the real pro, Alan Stevenson has been making rock solid fibreglass cases (and now carbon composite cases) since 1976. (David Gage in the United States produces a similar line). Many of the earliest ones are still in use by professional musicians and touring orchestras – a real testament to their longevity and quality and there is a good second hand market amongst musicians for them. Prices are from around £1000 to over £2000 but that’s a small price to pay for the security that they offer.
Nothing is perfect, and if you get the wheels of a baggage car riding over your cello, there is only a limit to the amount of protection that any case can afford. That being said, I’veseen various Stephenson cases with holes smashed in them which have taken the force and left the instrument less harmed than it would have been.
For most cases an outer cover adds protection – companies such as Bam and Accord sell these to fit around normal cases and even Alan Stevenson sells these as an optional extra, but you have the problem of storage so for many musicians it can be a question of the choices they have to make. Remember that these are not rigid, so if you have a flexible case in the first place they are unlikely to offer any protection.
Violin dealers tend to transport cellos in full stripped down mode if they are going in the hold, taking off the soundpost, bridge, tailpiece, pegs, endpin and travelling with those in checked luggage, but this is obviously not practical for a touring musician. It can be an idea to make arrangements with a luthier at the other end of the flight to check over the instrument when you arrive at your destination city and if there are humidity changes this may be sensible whatever the circumstances. The compromise – which involves risk – if the instrument is going into the hold is to let the strings down so that they are tight enough to keep the bridge in place, but not putting additional pressure onto the bridge. Stuffing some bubble wrap firmly under the tailpiece and the fingerboard to make them more rigid will help distribute the force if there is a frontal impact, and may save the instrument.
If you have to put it in the hold (or if you are shipping a cello) an effective trick is to use bubble wrap to make the instrument as unwieldily and impractical as possible. Most damage happens if a case is put on its side or on it’s end, so I tend to tape a pillow of bubble wrap to the bottom so it can’t stand upright, and then just create enough to make it impossible to use the handles, and making it cumbersome enough that you can’t stack other things on top of it. If they have to move it like a coffin and store it on its back all the time, it removes many of the circumstances that cause damage.
Accidents with instruments should never happen, but even in the best of circumstances baggage handlers work under incredible pressure moving thousands of pieces of luggage per hour, and the people who make promises at one end of the flight have no control over what happens on the other side. Be very careful of connecting flights as the speed with which the luggage has to be sorted at connecting airports introduces unacceptable elements of risk. Expect the worst, but be positive and cheerful. Charm the airport staff and hope for the best.
Case makers are constantly innovating and responding to new problems. I’ve mentioned cases by Alan Stevenson, Hiscox, BAM, David Gage and others. Check with a trusted violin shop and ask for their recommendations.