Flying with a (carbon fibre) cello

By , August 1, 2011 10:17 pm

When flying, most cellists are faced with either buying an extra ticket or getting a flight case, paying oversized baggage fees, and praying. Experiences vary widely and are in places well documented and full of useful advice, e.g.

My situation is different because I have a Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello which is incredibly robust and generally does not even go out of tune when checked in as normal baggage and placed in the hold of the aircraft in a normal hard case. My case is a Bam Hightech measuring 54.5 × 21 × 13.75″.  It seems virtually all airlines policies regarding oversized baggage operate in “linear” or total dimensions, which generally means by summing up the 3 separate dimensions together (although in some cases the wording is so confused, even that’s not clear).  This means my case has a linear dimension of 89.25″ which unfortunately is outside the 62″ standard limit, and even just outside Delta’s second tier limit of 80″.  Having said that, so far I have always managed to get it treated as normal sized baggage just by behaving exactly as if it was a normal suitcase, or even need be simply by confidently pointing out that the height is 54.5″ which is under 62″. In my experience, most staff at the check-in gate are not familiar with the exact terms in their airline’s policies, so having the right attitude (confidently knowledgeable and up-front but non-confrontational) can go a long way.

I’ve done some research on the policies of some popular airlines and referenced the relevant extracts below, with one section per airline. The quotes I’ve taken are focused mainly on national flights within the USA, because despite being from the UK, I’m currently flying around the USA a lot. However the policies for international flights seem similar, although sometimes with higher fees.

N.B. In addition to the below fees, most airlines typically charge around $25 for checking an extra bag.

Delta Air Lines

http://www.delta.com/traveling_checkin/baggage/special_baggage/musical_instruments/index.jsp

What Musical Instruments Can Be Checked?
Musical instruments or equipment can be checked if the total linear dimension (length+width+height) does not exceed 115 inches (292 cm) and provided the weight, including the case, does not exceed 100 lbs. (45 kg).
Standard rules and fees for overweight and oversized baggage

http://www.delta.com/traveling_checkin/baggage/excess_baggage/index.jsp#oversize

175 USD/CAD* for bags measuring 63–80 inches (161-203 cm) in combined length, width, and height. Some Specialty Items may be exempt from this fee.

300 USD/CAD* for bags measuring 81-115 inches (204-292 cm) in combined length, width, and height. Some Specialty Items may be exempt from this fee

Summary – could cost over $300 but been lucky so far.

Jetblue Airways

http://help.jetblue.com/SRVS/CGI-BIN/webisapi.dll/,/?St=351,E=0000000000047971896,K=4928,Sxi=18,Case=obj(2132)

Musical instruments as checked baggage:
There is no charge for Musical instruments as long as they are within size and weight requirements. JetBlue accepts no liability for damage to Musical instruments. We suggest packing them in a hard-sided container designed for travel.

http://help.jetblue.com/SRVS/CGI-BIN/webisapi.dll/,/?St=351,E=0000000000047971896,K=4928,Sxi=18,Case=obj(634)

63 – 80 inches (203.2 centimeters): $75 per bag
Bags over 80 inches: Will not be accepted

Summary: could be forced to buy an extra cabin ticket, or even turned away. However they have a good reputation amongst cellists.

United Airlines

http://www.united.com/page/article/0,6867,50773,00.html#music

Maximum weight/size for musical instruments as checked baggage
50 pounds/62 linear inches
(23 kg/158 linear cm)

However standard oversized baggage allowed up to 115 linear inches:

http://www.united.com/page/article/0,6867,52907,00.html#oversize

for fee of $100:

http://www.united.com/page/article/1,,53403,00.html

Summary: musical instruments discriminated against and limited to max of 62″ whereas other oversized baggage can go up to 115″ for cost of $100.

Frontier Airlines

http://www.frontierairlines.com/frontier/plan-book/travel-info-services/baggage/baggage-chart.do;jsessionid=5DBD43BCE9C1368C59705E648F626AD4

For musical instruments, no extra charges but excess, oversize and overweight charges apply if applicable.

http://www.frontierairlines.com/frontier/plan-book/travel-info-services/baggage/checked-baggage.do

We know it’s a weighty issue, but please remember items which exceed 62 linear inches (length + width + depth) or weigh more than 50 pounds will incur a fee. There is a $75 fee for bags exceeding these weight limitations and a $75 fee for exceeding the size limitation. These fees are charged separately and one item can incur multiple fees. You can read more about baggage in the Contract of Carriage (PDF).
We take the safety of our passengers and employees very seriously. Frankly folks, our employees have to lift and carry these bags to get them to your flight and we’d really like to keep those checked bags under 50 pounds each. And, as much as we’d like to help, we don’t accept baggage that weighs more than 100 pounds or exceeds 110 linear inches (length + width + depth). If you need to transport items this large, please check with your favorite package delivery company. Thanks for your understanding of our policy.

Summary: $75 worst case – the best policy I’ve found so far.

Continental Airlines

http://www.continental.com/CMS/en-US/travel/Pages/BaggageExcess.aspx

Oversized Baggage

  • Customers who travel with checked baggage exceeding 62 linear inches (157 cm) (total length + width + height) will be charged at the rate of $100.00 per piece for travel within the U.S., and between the U.S. and Canada, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Customers to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America with oversize baggage will be charged at the rate of $200.00 per piece.
  • These charges are in addition to any charge assessed for additional or overweight baggage.
  • Baggage measuring more than 115 in (292 cm) (total outside dimensions; length + width + height) will not be accepted as checked baggage.

Summary: $100 worst case.

American Airlines

http://www.aa.com/i18n/travelInformation/baggage/baggageAllowance.jsp#overweight

Checked baggage which is larger than 62 in/157 cm will be charged at the rate of $200 per piece.
Baggage measuring more than 126 in/320 cm will not be accepted as checked baggage.

Instruments may also be transported as checked baggage, however, due to their fragile nature AA does not accept liability for damages and has limited liability for loss. AA is also not liable for any damage to checked musical instruments not presented in a hard-sided case. If the outside of the hard-sided case does not have visible damage, AA is not liable for any damage to the musical instrument inside the case.

The implications of the last two sentences don’t make any sense – if they do not accept liability for damage (as in the previous sentence), why even bother specifying requirements for hard cases and visible damage on the outside?

Summary: as bad as Delta, and with highly ambiguous wording regarding liability for damage.

Conclusion

Any cello case, even a non-flight case, will exceed the standard 62″ limit for oversized checked baggage, and unless you are lucky at check-in, will incur a fee typically around $75 to $100. Most cello cases are unlikely to top the overweight baggage restrictions. Generally musical instruments are subject to a slightly different “special baggage” policy to normal checked baggage, but usually this amounts to a disclaimer of liability and similar or identical rules regarding dimensions.  Some airline policies are much worse, e.g. Delta, will potentially charge a whopping $300 for exceeding 80 linear inches, but having said that I have travelled with Delta several times and they didn’t charge me any oversize fee at all, just the extra checked item fee. United could potentially require a cabin ticket, and Frontier have the cheapest and most tolerant policy I’ve found so far.

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