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Traveling with a Nyckelharpa

by Bart Brashers

If you plan to fly with your nyckelharpa (or fiddle, or other instrument for that matter) you might find the following advice helpful.

You can fly with a nyckelharpa and/or a fiddle — I’ve done it many times. Just minimize your other carry-on bags and jackets, and pretend you know what you’re doing and have taken your nyckelharpa on planes a million times before. If they give you a hard time at the gate, say “Oh no, it fits in the overheads just fine” and keep going. If they really make a stink, keep arguing and tell them how expensive and fragile the instrument really is. Stand your ground, and be prepared to quote them their own policy as listed below (unless you’re flying United or Continental!).

If all else fails, just check your nyckelharpa at the gate. They put a tag on the case, and as you step onto the plane (at the end of the jetway) you put it down. Somebody hand-carries it down the stairs and puts it in a compartment near the nose with the rest of the strollers and such. When you land, another person hand-carries it up the stairs and it’s waiting for you 10 feet from the door of the plane.

‘Checking at the gate’ avoids the guys who chuck your suitcases onto the little carts with very little delicacy as you watch out the window after landing, and avoids all the conveyor belts and machinery inside the terminal. As long as your instrument is somewhat stationary in its case (using either foam blocks or dirty laundry or whatever) it’s quite OK to check it at the gate. Just NEVER EVER check it at the front counter (unless you have a case like Virginia Thompson’s!)

HOWEVER, be sure to specify that you want it to appear at the gate when you get off the plane, along side the baby strollers! If you check a suitcase at the gate, it goes through baggage handling, which is exactly what we wanted to avoid by checking it at the gate!

We’ve queried most of the airlines we could think of and asked about their policy for carrying instruments aboard the aircraft. Sometimes, if you quote the name or number of the airlines policy to the agents at the gate, you can win an argument and carry your instrument on.

Thanks go to Dave Golber (updated annually by the ANA) for relaying most of this information via the SCAND listserv. He notes: “these are telephone conversations, and I don’t have a copy of the written policy in hand….”

Alaska Airlines

While there is a policy in place for instruments, it’s still up to the discretion of the flight attendants whether they make you check it at the gate our let you carry it on.

From Alaska Air’s baggage handling page (As of Aug 10, 2008):

“Small musical instruments (e.g. violin, flute, clarinet, or a small guitar) provided they are of a size or shape that can be safely stowed in an overhead bin or closet. Any musical instrument (e.g. oversized or odd-shaped) that cannot be properly stowed, must be checked or travel as cabin seat baggage.”

American Airlines

American used to have a policy (“DBAG”) you can take on board a “portable musical instrument” as long as it is below a 39 inch (99 cm) length limit (I guess that’s the length of the overhead compartment). Unfortunatly, that rule no longer applies. Here is a note Chris Gruber wrote:

Well, I tried to recreate my prior success at AA, but the word is “….since 9/11 things have changed.” I spoke with the AA Platinum desk and then with someone on the AA website support team. There is no longer any special language regarding musical instruments and all the official language on the web site gives dimensions that consistently “don’t fit” fiddles or fiddle cases (let alone nyckelharpa or double fiddle cases). There are two rules: Carry-on total linear inches (length + width + depth) not to exceed 45″, and Personal item total linear inches not to exceed 36″.

Continental Airlines

No special allowance for musical instruments as carry-ons. They do mention them in terms of checked baggage here, but only in terms of their (non-) liability if it gets damaged.
(Current as of Aug 10, 2008)

Delta Airlines

From Delta’s Special Baggage Handling Information page
(As of Aug 10, 2008):

“Guitars and other smaller musical instruments, such as violins, will be accepted as your free carry-on baggage on Delta operated flights. These items must easily fit in the overhead compartment or approved stowage location in the cabin, on a space available basis at the time of boarding. If adequate space is not available, the item must be checked.”

Northwest Airlines

You can carry it on board as long as it will fit in an overhead compartment, but with things as they are these days, make sure to read their full policy here.

Excerpted from their site (As of Aug 10, 2008):

“Northwest accepts musical instruments that exceed size and/or weight limitations as checked luggage or cabin-seat luggage. Musical instruments are not included in the free luggage allowance and an excess fee of $100 USD/CAD each-way will apply for domestic travel. For international travel, overweight/oversize luggage fees vary by country.”

Southwest Airlines

No special policy for musical instruments. They seem to want you to purchase an extra seat for your instrument, according to their musical instruments carry-on policy page.

It looks like Southwest is joining United in installing sizing windows at the security checkpoints to stop you from carrying your nyckelharpa with you to the gate, even if you intend to use the ‘check at the gate’ method.

United Airlines

They had a “special policy” for violins (S*BAG/MISC.U), but they say it changed in November 1998. Essentially, it’s no longer special. Violins have to fit in 22x14x19 like everything else. They have also instituted sizing windows at the security checkpoints (see Sheila’s comment below). Even though a nyckelharpa case fits through the 10 by 16 inch hole, they make you check anything that’s longer than 24 inches right there at the security checkpoint, far from the gate.

An e-mail I sent United on 6 July, 1999, by going here:

Dear United Airlines,

I am disappointed that United recently (Nov 98) changed their policy toward instruments as carry-on baggage. I am even more disappointed that my usual work-around for the problem, checking my instrument at the gate and retrieving it at the destination gate, is becoming less feasible due to the new ‘sizing windows’ at the security check points.

A nyckelharpa is rather fragile with lots of moving parts, and can not be checked as regular baggage. It fits in the overhead compartments with ease, being slightly larger than a violin. On very full or international flights, I have checked it at the gate for the worker to hand-carry down and load, and then hand-carry back to the jetway upon arrival (the same as the baby strollers). This method worked very well. But now that I and other nyckelharpa players are being stopped at the security checkpoints due to the case being longer than 24 inches, we can’t use this method that was formerly quite acceptable to both the airline and the passengers.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but United no longer has a special policy regarding instruments. I urge you to re-instate your policy on instruments, or at least make it easier for us to get it to the gate for checking. Especially helpful would be an official-sounding policy reference for us to quote at the security checkpoint.

I have already heard from one nyckelharpa player who said she will no longer be flying United. I realize that musicians make up a small fraction of your customers (and nyckelharpa players even smaller) but I wouldn’t think you would want to turn away any customers at all! Most of the other major US airlines have special policies for instruments, and it would be a shame for United to lose our business over this.

Here’s the response I got:

Dear Mr. Brashers:

Thanks for taking the time to express your feelings about our carry-on baggage policies as they relate to instruments such as the nyckelharpa. We are sorry to learn of your dissatisfaction and appreciate this opportunity to respond.

Our baggage procedures have been implemented for the comfort and safety of our customers and to help better manage our on-time departures. Our Customer Service and Airport management involved are closely monitoring customers’ comments regarding this issue, and won’t hesitate to consider making adjustments or modifications they feel are warranted. Your concerns about our carry-on policies are appreciated, and have been shared with our appropriate management.

You’re an important customer and despite your unhappiness over this issue, we hope to have the continued pleasure of serving you.

A good time to get involved:

Jeanne Sawyer also wrote a similar letter, and got nearly the exact same response (form letter). But the more people who write, the more likely they are to reverse their decision and make an exception for fragile musicial instruments.

US Airways

US Airways policy (“QRM” possibly old policy name, as of Nov 2004) is that “small musical instruments, such as violins and banjos, will be accepted as your free carry-on baggage item, provided that you have met the US Airways baggage limits and that the instrument, including the case, is within the following dimensions: 49″L x 16″W x 10″H. Musical instruments that exceed these limits must be handled as checked baggage (see checked baggage) or a seat may be purchased for the instrument (see seat baggage)”. Their policy is listed here. It just doesn’t seem fair that banjos should be mentioned by name, and not nyckelharpas…

SAS (Scandinavian Airlines)

According to their website, when traveling in Economy Class (including Economy Flex) you are allowed one piece of cabin baggage, maximum weight 8 kg. Size: 23x40x55 cm, though the sum of these three measurements may not exceed 115 cm. When traveling in Business Class you are allowed two pieces of cabin baggage, maximum weight 8 kg each. Size: 23x40x55 cm, though the sum of these three measurements may not exceed 115 cm per piece.

I have personally flown with my nyckelharpa on SAS, both within Scandinavia (small plane) and on trans-atlantic flights. I’ve never had a problem. In fact, the flight attendants have allowed me to put the nyckelharpa in the front closet on occasion.

Putting it all in perspective:

And finally, some good quotes from nyckelharpa players:

Paul Jordan-Smith: “be nonchalant and don’t raise the issue — let them do it; and be prepared to open the case. All those keys scare the bejesus out of attendants.”

Sheila Morris (who flew to Sweden recently with one harpa, and returned with two) on United Airlines’ new policy regarding carry-ons: “I can’t get anywhere near the gate with a nyckelharpa, in a hard case or in a soft one. They are stopping every bag longer than 24 inches at the security checkpoint before you head out to the gates. It can ride the conveyor through the scanner, then they tell you you have to check it. Every bag. No exceptions other than wheelchairs. None, zero, zip. No nyckelharpas. No guitars. Some, but not all, fiddle cases qualify.”

“I guess I won’t be flying United much any more. “