He was a total stranger. Yet four years ago, I agreed to courier an oversize instrument halfway across the world for an Israeli musician named Ignat Karmalito. I did it because of nightmare stories I’d heard so frequently about musicians struggling to get instruments on commercial airline flights safely. The instruments would end up being damaged, even destroyed. I wasn’t about to let that happen to Ignat. Besides, I was going to Israel anyway — how much trouble could it be?
The instrument in question was a hammered dulcimer, custom-made in a gorgeous (but fragile) soft-wood casing for Ignat’s band Digital Samsara. Its thin nylon strap hurt like hell, digging into my shoulder all the way through JFK. It barely fit through the X-ray scanner at security. Weirdly, the TSA officers didn’t seem to note this huge instrument. The screeners at El Al Airlines, though, scrutinized me and my cargo. They took me aside to a special screening area, questioned me almost to the point of badgering, and even looked through my phone at my email exchanges with Ignat. I had to battle with them to get the instrument through as a carry-on because — like so many musicians have before and since — I insisted that it was too delicate to be checked. But the flight crew was kind and accommodating, giving the instrument a plush ride in the first-class coat closet.
I lugged the instrument through Ben Gurion Airport, staring out at the Israeli desert sunrise, and met Ignat. Despite our stranger status, we hugged. He and his band were overjoyed, while I was relieved to have this weight off my shoulder, literally and figuratively. What a pain-in-the-ass thing to have to put up with just to do your job.
Making a Federal Case Out of It
In Deer Tick frontman John McCauley’s case, it all started with a tweet.
McCauley’s native Providence Journal picked up the incident, which would later report details of McCauley’s refund, voucher, and apology from U.S. Airways. (McCauley declined to comment further.)
“[Rhode Island] Senator [Jack] Reed read about it in the [Journal] and it just didn’t seem fair,” the senator’s Deputy Press Secretary Dan Curran told Flavorwire. “So the Senator sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation trying to help clear this up.”
Sen. Reed’s letter, which references the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012, brought much-needed attention to a too-often-overlooked situation. Sometimes musicians still can’t get their instruments on board a flight safely — or at all, in the case of McCauley.
“He thinks [the Department of Transportation] should act on it, particularly because musicians continue to run into problems when they carry their instruments on a plane,” Curran said. “Airlines should recognize that professional musicians depend on their instruments for their livelihood and work to accommodate them… [the DOT] simply needs to adopt rules to make sure this policy is consistently applied.”
As Sen. Reed points out on his letter, McCauley’s recent incident calls attention to the lack of a “final rule” from the DOT, which was supposed to come two years after the bill was passed, to give the airlines it regulates enough notice to adapt policies and employee training to the new laws. The DOT’s had plenty of time.
“[It] seems like its been getting worse in the last couple years, legislation be damned,” said singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, who reacted immediately on Twitter to McCauley’s incident. Isbell had his own recent incident with United Airlines, involving his custom-built Martin D35 acoustic guitar.
“Flight attendants refused to allow me to carry the guitar on the plane, even though it would fit, demanding I gate-check it,” he told Flavorwire. “I found two large cracks in the top of the guitar.”
Isbell wished he had done what McCauley did.
“I should’ve refused to take the flight, then taken to Twitter and Facebook to berate United. That’s certainly what I’ll do if it happens again.”
Considering McCauley’s happy ending — with a big assist from Sen. Reed, of course — venting on social media is probably the best, quickest thing musicians can do when airlines don’t follow the new law.
“I’m glad the airplane/guitar story reached so many people,” McCauley tweeted. “It’s a really annoying and scary problem that ALL traveling musicians face.
Dismemberment Plan frontman Travis Morrison has been relatively lucky, but then again he generally expects the worst when airlines are involved.
“Getting a guitar into stowage is not currently something I rely on because it’s clear that airline companies are not aggressively educating their employees about the law, so you end up at the mercy of individual airline staffers’ take on the situation,” Morrison told Flavorwire. “They are working stiffs and my insisting there is a law can only get me so far at the gate until things get stupid.”
And please believe, these things get really fucking stupid all the time.
“You Really Have No Problem Destroying a Guitar?”
Meg Baird’s story got awfully stupid and sad. Baird fronted Espers, a psychedelic folk band formerly on the Drag City label. In 2006, Baird’s bandmate at the time, Chris Smith, posted a detailed account of Espers’ frustrating encounter with Delta to the band’s MySpace page. It was picked up by several music-news outlets, including Pitchfork. He wrote:
At LAX they would not even let us enter the terminal. This is all prior to going through the scanners, etc., right at the front desk for Delta where you check in. We were told that the folks at the desk would have to clear it. So we went back and the agent said we’d have to buy a seat for a guitar. I asked to speak to the manager on duty and he came down and said that the only option was to check it in and put it under. I explained that we travelled many, many times per year via air and this had never been the case. He said, “It is a dark world these days and policy like this is a result of it…” and refused an alternative. He also let me know that it was my choice to deal with him or security depending on how I “wanted to go about this..” Meg, the owner of the guitar, was in tears as she handed it to him and said, “You really have no problem destroying a guitar?” He said he would walk it himself to the plane, he put the pink tag on it and said it was indeed ensured for up to $2500. On the plane, the crew noted that we should have been able to carry it on. In the Delta terminal we noticed 2 other folks with guitars in soft cases that had cleared check in. The guitar did not get delivered at the boarding gate in Philly. it came off of the belt with a large hole in it. This is the guitar that Meg recorded the Espers albums with, her solo work, plays live, etc.
When Flavorwire contacted Baird to follow up on the eight-year-old incident, she confirmed Smith’s account to the best of her recollection, but to her, “It seemed a bit overwrought.” Her all-mahogany Martin 00-15 acoustic guitar was “damaged, but not anything too massive, and it was repairable,” she said. “Delta denied any coverage for the damage or repair. I think there was some type of issue with regulations at this time that was particularly unfair to musicians on business travel.”
Flash forward eight years, musicians’ instruments still aren’t safe. But, hey, the federal government is on the case! So, you know…