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Traveling in the Key of Security: Musical Instruments & TSA

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Accordian

I’m a former "professional" musician - now it’s just a hobby - and I can understand the fears of musicians who are traveling with their precious gear.

Trust me... musicians aren’t just being picky. Each instrument has its own feel and tone and sometimes it takes years for a musician to find their perfect implement of noise and expression. Instruments can also cost a pretty penny and most musicians aren't exactly living high on the hog.

You've probably seen the old movie cliché where somebody doesn’t like their car touched, let alone looked at? Well... some musicians are exactly the same way about their instruments.

Every type of musician travels with their “axe” Our officers see every type of instrument imaginable and successfully screen them daily. Pan Flutes, Sitars, Dulcimers, Theramins, you name it... So here’s the guidelines and some tips on how to travel with your musical instruments:

  • First off, you can’t bring a grand piano through the checkpoint.
  • Instruments can be checked or carried on the plane. Check with your airline about stowing your instrument in the cabin (Especially if it is a larger instrument such as a cello) prior to travel so you can fully understand their policies.
  • If you have a fragile instrument such as a stringed instrument, it is suggested you carry it on the aircraft. Brass instruments are safe to check as luggage as long as you have the proper case.
  • Our officers need to either X-ray, or physically inspect your musical instrument. You’ll be involved in the process as much as possible. Basically, you can advise the officer the best way to handle the instrument, but you won’t be able to touch it until the inspection is complete.
  • Your instrument may need to undergo an explosives trace detection test which involves running a soft cotton or paper swab across the case and instrument.
  • It is not uncommon to check instruments as checked luggage and there are manufacturers that make road worthy and tough travel cases that will prevent damage. So basically, it wouldn’t be wise to put your guitar in a soft sided case and check it as luggage.
  • If your instrument is a collector’s item and you are uncomfortable with others seeing what you have, you can request a private screening.
  • When checking your instrument as checked baggage, include short written instructions, where an officer will notice them, for handling and repacking your instrument. Make sure these instructions are very clear and understandable to someone with no musical background.
  • If you check your instrument as luggage, be sure it is either unlocked, or that you are using a TSA recognized lock. If your case is locked with a lock we can’t open, we may have to remove the lock if the instrument needs to be inspected.

There are many great tips and advice on the web for traveling musicians: League of American Orchestras’ Tips for Traveling Musicians (PDF) And many more...

And now, I'll exit with some of my favorite extra corny jokes about instruments:

Q: Why did the man eat the Oboe?
A: He had a strange taste in music.

Q: What is the difference between an Oboe and a Bassoon?
A: You can hit a baseball further with a Bassoon.

Q: How do you fix a broken Tuba?
A: With a tuba glue.

Q: What do you do when a drummer knocks on your door?
A: Pay them for the pizza.

Two musicians are walking down the street, and one says to the other, "Who was that piccolo I saw you with last night?" The other replies, "That was no piccolo, that was my fife."

I play the harmonica. The only way I can play is if I get my car going really fast, and stick it out the window. ~ Steven Wright
Thanks,

Bob Burns
TSA Blog Team

Comments

Submitted by Brandon Daniel on

"Check with your airline about stowing your instrument in the cabin (Especially if it is a larger instrument such as a cello) prior to travel so you can fully understand their policies."

Yes, said policies are almost universally "buy a second seat/ticket for your large musical instrument if you wish to carry it in the cabin". So musician-friendly!

Submitted by Anonymous on

Doug Yeo (bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) has a
good collection of trombone-specific travel advice
, including recommendations on how to pack a trombone to survive a 6 foot drop out of the luggage hatch onto the tarmac.

Submitted by Jannis on

Thanks for the post; it really does help to know that TSA knows what they are doing if I ever decided to travel with my violin.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Safe to check as luggage? Nothing is safe to check as luggage unless it is both insured for replacement cost and realistically replaceable.

Between rampant theft by TSOs, TSA's insistence that bags be unlocked, and TSA and the airlines' non existent chain of custody for checked bags that makes it as easy to insert explosives/contraband as it is for TSOs and airlines to steal, nothing is safe.

And claiming musicians should put a note with instructions in their checked items is a joke. How many passengers have had items damaged or destroyed when TSA ransacked the luggage? How often does TSA needlessly open baggage that clears a scan? (I once checked a box with nothing but a CRT in it, and TSA opened the box. Surely it was obvious on the scanner that the item was a television.) What should make us believe TSA will be any more careful with instruments than they are with everything else?

Why not address those concerns when saying musicians can confidently check their instruments?

Submitted by Anonymous on

And if the musical instrument goes missing from a locked case does TSA bear any responsibility for recommending a faulty product?

Submitted by Ayn R Key on

All that and you failed to answer the most important question - what if the glue that holds your instrument together "smells funny"?

Submitted by Randy on

Cue link to video about his busted guitar...

Submitted by RB on

Checking any item of value including a musical instrument is just insane.

First we have cases like "United broke my guitar".

Then we have TSA approved locks that offer no real security and can be easily picked by children.

Then the problem of thieves working checked baggage areas is a well known problem.

Even if it's not a TSA employee stealing from luggage TSA hands over screened items to people who are not screened properly. This act creates another opportunity to take something out of a piece of luggage (or just taking the whole bag) and provides the opportunity to place a prohibited item in checked luggage.

If it was my one of a kind cello or other valuable instrument I certainly would not trust the TSA, baggage handlers or the airlines to safeguard my property.

Since baggage cannot be secured in any meaningful way we can thank TSA for making the act of checking luggage a crap shoot on if you'll every see the item again.

Submitted by Dunstan on

Most traveling performing musicians probably use either a van or bus- Bob should know, from personal experience in his previous career.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Are you for real Dunstan?

You have provided another glowing example of somebody talking about something they know nothing about on this blog.

Submitted by Sandra on

Blogger Bob on his pre-TSA life:

"Prior to the TSA I was a singer songwriter and traveled the world with my band. Songwriting is now one of my hobbies along with record collecting, ugly ties and photography. My favorite type of music is psychedelic garage rock music from the 1960s."

What say you now, Anonymous, in response to Dunstan?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Sandra, way to miss the point.

I was talking about Dunstans claim about bands probably taking busses. Bands do use busses and vans, but I am not sure what Dunstan is getting at. I could only assume he was saying that musicians do not use planes that often.

I think Dunstan should talk to some officers at airports in the music hotspots. Nashville, LA, Austin, NYC

What about all of the bands that travel to Europe - Asia - Africa - to play music? They can't take a bus or a van.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Quoted:
" brandon daniel said...
"Check with your airline about stowing your instrument in the cabin (Especially if it is a larger instrument such as a cello) prior to travel so you can fully understand their policies."

Yes, said policies are almost universally "buy a second seat/ticket for your large musical instrument if you wish to carry it in the cabin". So musician-friendly!

September 2, 2009 4:23 PM"
----------------------
And why shouldn't they insist you buy another ticket? You are taking up more than your share of space. Just like if you were fat.

Submitted by Jim Huggins on

Bob:

What about bagpipes? Since the Scottish government classified bagpipes as weapons, shouldn't passengers be prohibited from bringing bagpipes aboard a plane? :)

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob, I think some of your brethern should be reading this post after this incident

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2009/04/krystian-zimerman...

Three years ago at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, he substituted Gershwin for Chopin because the Transportation Security Administration had held up his piano at the airport and he didn’t have time to practice to adjust it properly. An earlier piano was destroyed by Homeland Security at JFK airport because officials were suspicious that its glue could be an explosive in disguise.

Submitted by Bob on

Anonymous said... Bob, I think some of your brethern should be reading this post after this incident... September 3, 2009 3:58 PM

--------------------

Krystian Zimerman's piano story again...

I really think I'm going to create a blog post that names every incident TSA gets blamed for called: "It wasn't us!!!"

I'm trying to get the official facts so I can share them here, but this wasn't TSA.

Blogger Bob

TSA Blog Team

Submitted by Anonymous on

"I'm trying to get the official facts so I can share them here, but this wasn't TSA. "

Be careful here.

TSA is part of the DHS.

"your brethern" could refer to another section of DHS

Submitted by Bob on

Anonymous said... Be careful here. TSA is part of the DHS. "your brethern" could refer to another section of DHS September 3, 2009 4:53 PM

-------------------------------

Correct. I'm 99.9% I know who that component is too.

However, most accounts I read blame TSA for this one. Not the case...

Blogger Bob

TSA Blog Team

Submitted by Dunstan on

Anonymous said...

"Sandra, way to miss the point.

I was talking about Dunstans claim about bands probably taking busses. Bands do use busses and vans, but I am not sure what Dunstan is getting at. I could only assume he was saying that musicians do not use planes that often.

I think Dunstan should talk to some officers at airports in the music hotspots. Nashville, LA, Austin, NYC

What about all of the bands that travel to Europe - Asia - Africa - to play music? They can't take a bus or a van."

All the bands that travel to Europe and Asia probably account for far less than one tenth of one percent of the traveling, performing musicians in this country. There are regional bands, local bands, high school age garage bands, endless numbers of part time players who at most make a few hundred dollars per gig. Really, the stars and headliners are few and far between. Like the majority of actors, musicians who make a great living at their craft are a very small minority. Most couldn't even pay for health care on what they make performing. And, yes, consequently they don't fly that much, because they can't afford to, or their venues are not that distant.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob said:

"However, most accounts I read blame TSA for this one. Not the case..."

But not the link provided above. That link states:


"... An earlier piano was destroyed by Homeland Security..."

Can you provide links to accounts that blame the TSA?

Submitted by Dunstan on

Anonymous said...

"Are you for real Dunstan?"

Rumors to the contrary, apparently I am a living, breathing human being. How about you?

"You have provided another glowing example of somebody talking about something they know nothing about on this blog."

A wildly inaccurate observation, and more descriptive of yourself in this case. Closer to the heart, and all that. Bob gave up touring, for reasons unknown, though I suspect: he wants a steady income and a happy spouse. I'm sure moderating this blog was the last thing he expected to be doing.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Sandra said...
Blogger Bob on his pre-TSA life:

"Prior to the TSA I was a singer songwriter and traveled the world with my band. Songwriting is now one of my hobbies along with record collecting, ugly ties and photography. My favorite type of music is psychedelic garage rock music from the 1960s."

What say you now, Anonymous, in response to Dunstan?

September 3, 2009 10:52 AM

Yes Sandra, you can travel the world by van i heard. You really should stop belittling folks seeing how you're not good at it. >.>

Submitted by Anonymous on

RB said,
Then we have TSA approved locks that offer no real security and can be easily picked by children.

Please provide peer-reviewed scientific research of this claim and list references...

waiting...

Submitted by Dunstan on

Anonymous said:

"Yes Sandra, you can travel the world by van i heard. You really should stop belittling folks seeing how you're not good at it."

Let us all engage in a moment of reverent silence and contemplate the misguided treatment of anonymous by Sandra.

Submitted by RB on

Anonymous said...
RB said,
Then we have TSA approved locks that offer no real security and can be easily picked by children.

Please provide peer-reviewed scientific research of this claim and list references...

waiting...

September 3, 2009 9:07 PM
....................
Well Anon I figured you would be smart enough to do a little looking around but I apparently gave you more credit than you deserve.

Here is one link of a TSA lock being opened. There are many othes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6RXWiJbMoY

Submitted by Anonymous on

While your researching the piano, what about this:
http://www.smartmoney.com/Spending/Travel/Checkpoint-Gnarly/

At least the agency responds to complaints. A few days after reporting my zealous pat down, I got a call from a TSA security director, who told me he sent one of his deputies to test the officer who frisked me. He was surprised to learn that the ensuing pat down literally knocked the deputy off her feet. My nemesis, he said, will be retrained. Yes, it's safe to go back to the airport.

Sounds like someone should be spending scanning checked luggage, instead of being retrained.

Submitted by Jim Huggins on

RB writes:

Then we have TSA approved locks that offer no real security and can be easily picked by children.


An anonymous responder says:

Please provide peer-reviewed scientific research of this claim and list references...

I typed "picking tsa lock" into Google and came up with a large number of links, including at least three videos showing you how to do it yourself. Are those good enough references for you? :)

Submitted by Anonymous on

Passengers don't need their instruments while onboard the plane, so they shouldn't be allowed to carry them.

Submitted by Earl Pitts on

@Anonymous: "Yes Sandra, you can travel the world by van i heard. You really should stop belittling folks seeing how you're not good at it. >.>"

So, Anon, how do you cross the oceans in a van?

Earl

Submitted by Anonymous on

Earl sayeth,
So, Anon, how do you cross the oceans in a van?

Earl

September 4, 2009 5:21 PM

Thats a fine question you got there Earl. I believe they use these bus-like vehicles with wings... Airplanes! Ya ever heard of 'em?

Dunstan said...
Let us all engage in a moment of reverent silence and contemplate the misguided treatment of anonymous by Sandra.

I'd rather you take a vow a silence, but thats just me. ~<@:)

(good thing its friday, im getting awefully irritable/obnoxious lately). Have a nice weekend everyone!

Submitted by Ayn R Key on

Anonymous said...
Passengers don't need their instruments while onboard the plane, so they shouldn't be allowed to carry them.

I just went on a business trip. I had two carry-ons and no checked luggage. There was plenty in my carryon that I didn't need on the plane, technical specifications for my project.

If it isn't a danger to the plane, it should be allowed on the plane. Larger items can be cabin stowed or have their own seat. Restricting people to only what they need on the plane is rather absurd, but just what I'd expect from an anonymous TSO.

Submitted by Dunstan on

anonymous said: "I'd rather you take a vow a silence, but thats just me. ~<@:)"

I'm sure you would love to see everyone who doesn't share your tedious viewpoint do the same. Then you could just have a boring conversation with yourself.

Submitted by Jannis on

I am amused by the complaint that TSA locks are so easy to break open. Of course they are, just like every other lock that people used to put on there bag when they check luggage. All of those locks are cheap and can be easily broken. “TSA Friendly” locks are no better and no worse then any other lock marketed to be placed on baggage.

Submitted by Earl Pitts on

@Anonymous: "Thats a fine question you got there Earl. I believe they use these bus-like vehicles with wings... Airplanes! Ya ever heard of 'em?"

Anon, if you're going to be a snark, at least be a smart snark.

Someone, maybe you, said you could see the world by van. A plane is not a van - I can't get to Europe or Asia from the US in a van.

Earl

Submitted by Anonymous on

I love how all of these posts have decided that theft from luggage in airports never happened before TSA showed up. Yes.. the TSA invented theft and no cases of it ever were ever documented before November 19, 2001.

Submitted by Bubbaloop on

Anonymous said...
Passengers don't need their instruments while onboard the plane, so they shouldn't be allowed to carry them.

Anonymous,

As much as I hate people who take everything and the kitchen sink on board, instruments are a very different case. Many are fragile and have to be in the pressurized cabin. All are valuable (at least personally to the owner). Just as an extreme example, do you suggest shipping a Stradivarius violin??

Submitted by Anonymous on

Jim Huggins said...
... Are those good enough references for you? :)

:). Thanks for the vid's. I was trying to get my jolly's off of RB's point he was making about locks being secure, but i enjoy your posts just as much. I think thats its equally as easy to take a pair of hedge clippers and cut the lock clean off as well. Perhaps everyone should use master locks imo... theyre "hard". lol.

Submitted by Anonymoose on

RB said...

Well Anon I figured you would be smart enough to do a little looking around but I apparently gave you more credit than you deserve.

Here is one link of a TSA lock being opened. There are many othes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6RXWiJbMoY

September 4, 2009 10:09 AM

---
I love how you chastise those who want to check your evidence.

Anyways,
So a young person with a lockpick set, can pick a lock. Okay, and this proves? I've got a set myself (my roommate was a self-employed locksmith in college) and I can do the same with the Master #3 lock, probably one of the most common in existence. What do you expect in a lock that size? You can't have both a super high security lock and a cheap price in the same package. I hardly think most would spend 30+ dollars on a luggage lock.

I put one of the small TSA approved locks on my luggage (not the one shown in the video) knowing full well it's not very pick resistant. But, I measure that against the risk of a TSA or airline employee possessing lockpicks on the job (highly unlikely), the value of my items in the bag, and the chance my bag will be the one selected by a possible thief, and determine the risk is negligible. Besides, if they want to steal something from a bag, wouldn't a logical criminal (most are) take the path of least resistance? Like an unlocked bag?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Reading this post, I am amazed by how different the TSA talk is from the reality of flying with a violin.

If the TSA people are so used to seeing all sorts of musical instruments and know what to do with them, why do they insist with me that violin strings are weapons and cannot be taken on board? Why do they insist on touching my instrument, including putting their dirty gloves on bow hair, which should never be touched? Why do they have to touch a violin anyway? Don´t you understand that these are very fragile, valuable and personal instruments that should not be manipulated by anyone other than the owner?

X-ray them, open the box, look at them, swab them, admire their beauty. Fine. Stop any other action. And stop thinking they are explosive, dangerous or suspicious.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Anonymous said...

"Reading this post, I am amazed by how different the TSA talk is from the reality of flying with a violin.

If the TSA people are so used to seeing all sorts of musical instruments and know what to do with them, why do they insist with me that violin strings are weapons and cannot be taken on board? Why do they insist on touching my instrument, including putting their dirty gloves on bow hair, which should never be touched? Why do they have to touch a violin anyway? Don´t you understand that these are very fragile, valuable and personal instruments that should not be manipulated by anyone other than the owner?

X-ray them, open the box, look at them, swab them, admire their beauty. Fine. Stop any other action. And stop thinking they are explosive, dangerous or suspicious."


----------------------------

Post what airport did this so that maybe this will change.

Over the years I have worked for TSA I have screened numerous violins, and have seen others screened. Not once have I seen a TSA employee refuse any part of the instrument beyond the checkpoint. However, I have told people such as yourself that the can/bottle of oil of certain sizes are not allowed past the checkpoint.

And always when I have to hand check an instrument it is not because I have thought it was an IED, it was becasue of some other prohibited item inside the case, such as a LGA, knife, etc, or because the passenger did not want their instrument sent through the x-ray.

If you are told that the strings are weapons, the employee is incorrect. Ask to speak to their supervisor, and if need be, that supervisor's supervisor, and so on.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Earl Pitts said....

"@Anonymous: "Thats a fine question you got there Earl. I believe they use these bus-like vehicles with wings... Airplanes! Ya ever heard of 'em?"

Anon, if you're going to be a snark, at least be a smart snark.

Someone, maybe you, said you could see the world by van. A plane is not a van - I can't get to Europe or Asia from the US in a van.

Earl"

-----------------------


I went by boat! Best 3 week trip ever!!

Submitted by Dunstan on

Anonymous said...

"I love how all of these posts have decided that theft from luggage in airports never happened before TSA showed up. Yes.. the TSA invented theft and no cases of it ever were ever documented before November 19, 2001."

Posts don't decide anything. TSA has left a huge security hole by not securing luggage. Of course TSA didn't invent theft, it just pretends it is not a problem, and continues to suffer the logical consequences- that ignoring the problem promotes disdain, distrust, and derision.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Anonymous said...

"Passengers don't need their instruments while onboard the plane, so they shouldn't be allowed to carry them."

Lets carry this to its logical conclusion- since the passengers don't care about their instruments enough to keep them with them, they probably won't mind if they go missing.

Submitted by RB on

Anon said in part.....

I love how you chastise those who want to check your evidence.

Anyways,
So a young person with a lockpick set, can pick a lock. Okay, and this proves?

........................
There is a vid of a kid opening a TSA Approved lock with a paper clip. He does it in just a few seconds.

The point about locks is that with the TSA Thieves and Baggage Handler Thieves working airports a traveler should be able to secure their property with a real lock.

TSA rules prevent this so TSA should be held responsible for setting up the environment that encourages theft from checked baggage.

Of course since everyone working in an airport has had a background check there is no way a thief could be an employee.

Submitted by Anonymoose on

RB said...

There is a vid of a kid opening a TSA Approved lock with a paper clip. He does it in just a few seconds.

The point about locks is that with the TSA Thieves and Baggage Handler Thieves working airports a traveler should be able to secure their property with a real lock.

---

Sorry, but you're wrong. That's not a paper clip. It's a tension tool and a lock pick. Like I said, part of a lock pick set. And he had to practice to get it done that quickly.

What do you consider a real lock? How can you make a lock that's at one end highly secure in such a small package, and yet still be accessible to screeners needing access to bags?

Submitted by Anonymous on

If the TSA people are so used to seeing all sorts of musical instruments and know what to do with them, why do they insist with me that violin strings are weapons and cannot be taken on board? Why do they insist on touching my instrument, including putting their dirty gloves on bow hair, which should never be touched? Why do they have to touch a violin anyway? Don´t you understand that these are very fragile, valuable and personal instruments that should not be manipulated by anyone other than the owner?"

To someone who does not have an intimate knowledge about violins, I doubt your umbrage as to their screening process matters. As to why do they need to "touch" your violin, I suppose no one would ever think of hiding explosives or a gun or a knife inside. I doubt your violin strings story, as I have seen many instuments fly with me that had strings attached.

Submitted by Anonymous on

You say: "As to why do they need to "touch" your violin, I suppose no one would ever think of hiding explosives or a gun or a knife inside."

I say: The instrument is X-rayed. The X-ray does not show any objects inside it. There is no need for anyone to touch it.

You say: "I doubt your violin strings story, as I have seen many instuments (sic) fly with me that had strings attached."

I say: I did not say this was about attached strings. It was about the extra strings that we keep in the box. Happened at BWI, about a year ago. Escalated my complaints to a supervisor, including explaining that if strings were indeed lethal, those on the instrument were lethal too (and those cannot be removed). I was finally allowed to fly after a good 10 min discussion.

It is not uncommon to have to have such discussions when traveling with an instrument. That, added to the liquids, shoes, laptop out and all other silly rules makes air travel downright nasty in the US. Much better to board airplanes just about anywhere else in the world.

Submitted by Anonymous on

"What do you consider a real lock? How can you make a lock that's at one end highly secure in such a small package, and yet still be accessible to screeners needing access to bags?"

Oops, Joe took the keys AGAIN. Hand me the bolt cutters.

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