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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 RB on

Anonymoose said...
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?

September 9, 2009 6:53 AM
....................
the video I am refering is no longer available or at least I can't find it.

But, the kid used a paper clip. It was not a standard lock pick/tension tool. I know what those items are since I have had a bit of locksmith training some years ago.

The TSA approved locks are as secure as the lock on an old government desk that could be picked by anyone with a couple minutes time on their hands.

The fact remains that TSA Approved locks are poor examples of a lock.

Submitted by Anonymous on

URL said,

A plane is not a van - I can't get to Europe or Asia from the US in a van.

Earl

September 6, 2009 1:52 PM

Thank you for that Captain Obvious. Lets set sail to Asia then matey.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Anon said

"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.

September 9, 2009 1:02 PM

Just to clarify

TSA does not prohibit you from locking your bag.

Use what ever lock you want

Like the anon above stated if they need to get in your bag they will cut the lock off if you are unable to return with the key.

By the sounds of most of the posters you must travel a lot so you know if your property has a potential of being searched. Plan accordingly.

If you're that concerned don't check valuables.

For the guy with the violin and strings. The x-ray show a one direction image, if you had something else in the case it could look like it is inside of the violin anstead of under or on top so a check would be necessary.

As far as your string story I don't believe you either.

Submitted by Anonymous on

For the guy with the violin and strings. The x-ray show a one direction image, if you had something else in the case it could look like it is inside of the violin anstead of under or on top so a check would be necessary.

As far as your string story I don't believe you either.

September 11, 2009 12:19 PM

....................
So there is no prohibition to taking extra guitar strings in your carry on?

Never know when you might need a garrote.

Submitted by Jannis on

“The fact remains that TSA Approved locks are poor examples of a lock.”

Of course they are, just like every other lock that people use to secure their bag when they check luggage. All of those locks are cheap and can be easily broken. TSA has to make sure you don’t put a bomb in a bag on the plane that I am boarding, that is just a fact of life. The locks poor quality is not really a TSA problem, they don’t make the locks. It sounds like a problem with the lock manufactures, that’s who we should be yelling at.

Submitted by TSO Jacob on

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

That’s right! Your violin won’t be touched in any way if you x-ray your violin and there is nothing inside of it. I see musical instruments come thru all the time and the only time we have to do extra screening is when the owner has placed other items into the case with the instrument. If we can’t clearly see that you have not attempted to hide something dangerous we are going to check you musical instrument.

Submitted by Anonymous on

"you can't take a grand piano through the checkpoint"

Oh wow really? Oh my goodness you are just such a card. It's so nice of you to talk down to people and make a joke out of our very serious concerns. You don't care whether our personal property is damaged or stolen but you do get a kick out of making goofy stupid jokes on your cute little blog site. This entire site is paid for by the people and all you can do is amuse yourself. This site makes me ill.

Submitted by Anonymous on

"That’s right! Your violin won’t be touched in any way if you x-ray your violin and there is nothing inside of it. I see musical instruments come thru all the time and the only time we have to do extra screening is when the owner has placed other items into the case with the instrument. If we can’t clearly see that you have not attempted to hide something dangerous we are going to check you musical instrument."

You say that, but on scene, every "officer" does as he/she pleases, and many open the boxes and touch instruments.

"As far as your string story I don't believe you either."

Nice to know we are considered guilty before being proven innocent. Do you really think I could have invented such a stupidity?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Anonymous said...

"Nice to know we are considered guilty before being proven innocent. Do you really think I could have invented such a stupidity?"

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

Well, when you are less than honest, people tend not to believe you.

I will explain:

First you wrote on Sept. 8th, "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?"

Then, on Sept. 9th, you 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."

So which statement is true, which is a lie? Did you bring the strings on the plane with you, or not?

If you want someone to believe you, start by telling the truth.

Then on Sept. 13th, you write, ""As far as your string story I don't believe you either."

Nice to know we are considered guilty before being proven innocent. Do you really think I could have invented such a stupidity?"

Considering that your first 2 comments conflict with each other, yes, I do believe you are making things us.

Your first comment strongly suggest that you were not allowed to bring the items on the plane with you. Only later do you admit that you were allowed to bring the string on with you. By leaving that out of your first post, you changed the preceived outcome of your story, and I wonder if you did that on purpose.

Sorry, but from these few post, I would find it hard not to consider you "guilty" no matter what the situation. I don't trust people that are not fully forthcoming with me

Submitted by Anonymous on

Dear anonymous,

There is nothing contradictory about the statements I made. You are attributing statements to me that are not mine. I obviously never wrote "As far as your string story I don't believe you either." I wrote to the person who wrote that. As for my first and second versions of the string story, there is absolutely nothing inconsistent about them, unless of course you don´t know how to read.

Yes, I was finally allowed to take the strings, but I had to fight for that right. I had to call a supervisor. I lost time, and could have lost the strings if I wasn´t a person of strong opinions. That kind of situation is common when you fly through US airports, and it is absolutely unnecessarily ridiculous.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Anonymous said...

"Dear anonymous,

There is nothing contradictory about the statements I made. You are attributing statements to me that are not mine. I obviously never wrote "As far as your string story I don't believe you either." I wrote to the person who wrote that. As for my first and second versions of the string story, there is absolutely nothing inconsistent about them, unless of course you don´t know how to read.

Yes, I was finally allowed to take the strings, but I had to fight for that right. I had to call a supervisor. I lost time, and could have lost the strings if I wasn´t a person of strong opinions. That kind of situation is common when you fly through US airports, and it is absolutely unnecessarily ridiculous."


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


You are correct, I made a mistake when I wrote that you said, "As far as your string story I don't believe you either." I had meant to type that this was what someone else had said in response to you.

However, your first post of Sept 8th suggest that you were not allowed to bring the string on board with you. There is no other conclusion. You said you were told they were not allowed. Simple as that.

Only after another person wrote in response to you did you then say you were able to take you strings with you after a 10 minutes argument.

I do agree that it was silly and outright stupid for anyone at TSA to question you about the strings.

However, your first statement, taken by itself, greatly implies you were not allowed to bring them with you, your next statement says you were allow to bring with you.

That is the part I have a problem with.

Again, I am sorry for my mistake in my post, didn't mean to attribute that to you. But your seperate post do seem to say different things, and its natural to question your intent, and by defacto your honesty.

Submitted by Colyn From Seven:one on

You know, there is a lot of complaining about the hassles of trying to get to the gig on a plane with your instrument, but in the end, if you have to do it, most of you will be re-reading the info and researching more info. All we can do is prepare as much as possible, protect our gear as much as we can, and hope that things come out okay on the other end. Unfortunately, most people show up with their own ideas about what they can do with their instrument/gear and it doesn't line up with current restrictions. Do items get stolen? Yes. Do items get broken? Yes. Do musicians think about that ahead of time and make sure they are adequately insured and alternate plans in place for such an instance? Mostly, no. You can't lay everything at the feet of the TSA and the airlines. If you are a professional musician, it's not your first rodeo and you are well aware of the pitfalls of traveling and gigging across the the country and around the world. Prepare for it and be ready to execute plan B when necessary. Your insurance will cover the rest. If you are bringing an instrument worth thousands of dollars to gigs...you may want to consider a "road" axe or instrument for those "plane" worthy gigs. It might not have exactly the same tone or feel, but most players can find a satisfactory instrument to do the gig until they are back to the bus instead of the plane. Prepare for the worst and you're going to come out okay on the other end.

Submitted by Jennyw12 At Pia... on

As a pianist myself I am quite releaved not to have to bring my instrument around while may friends, like for example cellist have to by double plane tickets to be able to bring their instrumets! Well, there is a backdraw of not having your own instrument with you and many pianists are only dreaimg of not only owning a good instrument but also being able to bring it around for concerts. I however heard a very interesting thing recently, that many of those (quite few top artists) who carry their instruments around, say that the same piano sounds and feels like a completely different instrument in different concert halls.
Anyway, regarding the travel issue, it is easy to understand but difficult ot accept that many of you are having a difficult time explaining to the flight staff why checking in your violin is not even a possibility...

Submitted by Anonymous on

What makes me crazy is when agents take the joints of my instrument out of their molded beds in the case. No, nothing fits under them. They're molded to the shape of the instrument. I HAVE submitted comment cards complaining about my valuable instruments being handled by dirty, uninformed gloves - glad to see my concerns are met with stupid jokes about oboes. And that's not even the right punchline - the bassoon burns longer.

In all seriousness, though: instruments are fragile, personal, typically one-of-a-kind, and rarely insured for actual replacement value, and TSA agents are not qualified to touch them, so there needs to be an element of professional respect. I guess when your job is just to manhandle other people's stuff all day, professional respect is a joke.

Submitted by Latest English Songs on

TSA people are so used to seeing all kinds of musical instruments, and if you know them, why they insist to me that the violin strings, and on the board without taking up arms? This is why they never touch the bow hair on their dirty gloves, putting up, including the need to insist on touching my device? Why do they have any way to touch a violin? You should not be manipulated by anyone other than the owner of the lot, which means that individual accomplishment is precious and fragile?

Submitted by Gitarre Lernen ... on

Once I heard of a photographer's trick. It's no secret that cameras and such things are really expensive and actually unique. As are instruments.
So what he does: He bought himself a kind of "pistol". Actually it's not a pistol but some self-defence device similar to a pistol. It doesn't do harm but still has to be declared.
Whenever travelling by plane he then declares it. Rules have it that his bag (containing the "pistol" and his cameras) then have to be handled in a special way for safety reasons.
This way, he said, his bag never got lost again.

Is there really a rule like he described? Is it ok for HLS and airport security if musicians proceeded the same way?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Nice info, you could mention about used pianos as well.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Thank you for this good info ! In my case, I have great respect for all musicians because you have to work hard to play well to a musical instrument.


Locksmith London

Submitted by Anonymous on

It's really good that airline have increased there security even if its for small things like bringing a
musical instrument onboard

Submitted by Guitarguardian Com on

Quite honestly anytime I travel I just ship my guitar out ahead of me via fedex. TSA agents have enough to deal with in regards to passengers, they don't need to deal with musical instruments and we don't need our guitars, banjos, violins or whatever damaged. And I know about this, my company deals with stringed instruments and display cases, so I hear all kinds of stories on how they can be lost in transit. So just ship them ahead on a parcel airliner.

Submitted by Kieu Choe on

Once I heard of a photographer's trick. It's no secret that cameras and such things are really expensive and actually unique. As are instruments.
So what he does: He bought himself a kind of "pistol". Actually it's not a pistol but some self-defence device similar to a pistol. It doesn't do harm but still has to be declared.
Whenever travelling by plane he then declares it. Rules have it that his bag (containing the "pistol" and his cameras) then have to be handled in a special way for safety reasons.
This way, he said, his bag never got lost again.

Submitted by Beptucaocap on

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.

Submitted by Carl on

I am a musician and I travel regularly on domestic flights and international flights (sometimes to the USA) and I know protection of equipment is crucial for musicians. Although I have never had an instance of damage to my gear, I have had a few instances of theft. This is why I recommend that any musician take their equipment cases to a locksmith so that they can attach a super-secure lock of some kind. I know a musician who had his $20,000 violin stolen from an airport baggage centre and his insurance only covered the cost because he declared the details of the extra security he had installed on the case

Submitted by Ian on

I am musician too, but I find it hard to do some piano removal during my mini tour within the continent so instead I rented and cost big time.

Submitted by Wdar on

I am a musician and love to play harmonica. Your blog post is fantastic and inspirational. I will keep visiting here.

Submitted by Daily Income Review on

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

Submitted by Mp3Download on

First of all, TSA people are so used to seeing all kinds of musical instruments, and if you know them, why they insist to me that the violin strings, and on the board without taking up arms? This is why they never touch the bow hair on their dirty gloves, putting up, including the need to insist on touching my device?
** Why do they have any way to touch a violin?
Secondly, You should not be manipulated by anyone other than the owner of the lot, which means that individual accomplishment is precious and fragile?

Finally, I however heard a very interesting thing recently, that many of those (quite few top artists) who carry their instruments around, say that the same piano sounds and feels like a completely different instrument in different concert halls.

Submitted by Nold S on

Hi Bob / TSA Blog Team.

How does one exactly request for a private screening of a musical instrument? You used a collector's item as an example. I’m wondering how would TSOs know (unless they're collectors themselves), or how owners would prove so. If this option is open to everyone, then every other guy could say they have a collector's item.

Also, how will the instrument be handled exactly during private screening?

Submitted by Michelle on

Reading this makes me kind of glad I play the piano. Sure, it's annoying that I can't take my instrument with me when I travel, but the thought of trying to take an expensive instrument that I love on a plane gives me nightmares. I couldn't check it. I'd be paying extra for another seat, and even then I'd still be worried about dropping it, stupid passengers, ect. Way too nerve-racking.

Submitted by MEA on

Lol @ First off, you can’t bring a grand piano through the checkpoint. Does that mean you can bring a regular upright piano?

Submitted by Pumber Phoenix on

First off, you can’t bring a grand piano through the checkpoint.

This made me laugh. Wow. Thank goodness I won’t have any trouble bringing it as I can never bring it through the checkpoint. Haha. I need to look for people like this site that would be so much help in moving my piano. Now, I just carry around my ukulele on the aircraft.


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