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Andrew's Tips: Traveling on Airlines with Bagpipes

By Andrew T. Lenz, Jr., Santa Cruz, California, ©2006-2015

You are planning a trip and are hoping to play your pipes in an exotic location—be it Scotland or Aunt Gertrude's backyard. Since it'll be a new experience, you are a bit trepidacious about getting through security checks and getting on-board with your pipes. Here are some guidelines for traveling the skies with your pipes.

IMPORTANT RULE #1: NEVER check your pipes though into the cargo hold!
IMPORTANT RULE #2: Refer to rule Important Rule #1.

Luggage holds on many aircraft are not heated and temperatures can drop to below freezing—not good for wood pipes! Plus you've probably seen those guys throwing those suitcases onto those conveyor belts, right?

Just a few true examples. In October 2005, a piper from Houston, Texas was told she had to put her pipes (in a soft case) into the cargo hold against her wishes. Upon arrival at her destination, she learned that the imitation ivory ferrule on her lower bass drone stock had been broken into two pieces. In 2001, a piper checked through his pipes and later discovered his chanter had been cracked as a result. In August 2006, an airline lost a number of sets of bagpipes, including SFU PM Terry Lee's prized silver-mounted pipes after pipers were forced to stow their cases in the hold due to extreme security conditions. All the pipes were recovered after a week or two of nail-biting.

Before Heading to the Airport

Measure your pipe case then check with your airline as to the carry-on size limitations. (Checking may be a trip to their website or a call to their agent.) Depending on the airline, a "pipe major's case" (extra long) may exceed a particular airline's size limitations for carry-ons, but a regular size case is typically fine.

If your case exceeds the limits, ask an agent what your options are other than checking your case though (such as the coat closet)—but there may not be any other options for that particular pipe case. An easy alternative is to transfer the pipes into something temporary, such as a backpack or soft satchel. It would be wise to bring such a carrier along because, even after all your precautions, you may still be told at the gate that your case is too big to carry on. Once your pipes are removed—unless you have something breakable or freezable still inside—your case should be able to be safely checked-though. (Keep in mind that some airlines may charge you extra for stowing another piece of luggage if you are already stowing the maximum number of pieces not including your pipe case.) You might consider a strap around your pipe case rather than trusting two small clasps—and though tempted, avoid locking your clasps because if something appears suspicious in your case, the clasps will be broken in order for security agents to gain access. (Even a stack of chocolate bars may appear to be plastic explosive!)

If your case is under the maximum dimensions but it constitutes an extra carry-on beyond the normal quantity limit—say three carry-ons instead of two—contact the airline and explain the situation, that is, you are hoping to carry on a musical instrument case of such-and-such a size. Many airlines allow an extra carry-on if it is a musical instrument. If you live in the United States, I would recommend printing out a copy of the following letter (PDF format) from The Traveling Musicians Union (Local 1000) website and keeping it in your pipe case:
The Traveling Musicians Union (Local 1000)
The above letter may come in handy for pleading your case to an airline steward, but as noted on the following web page, the airline does have the authority to deny an extra carry-on for a musical instrument:
U.S. Transportation Security Administration | Transporting Musical Instruments

Also keep in mind that if at any point you are changing planes to a smaller regional-sized aircraft, the carry-on limits may shrink dramatically. Be sure to check for this.

Now on to some other preparations!

Remove any sharp instruments from your pipe case. Yes, this means pocket knife, scissors, razor blades, sgian dubh, dirk, etc. Those items you can move to your check-in luggage prior to the airport. In 2006, quantity restrictions on liquids were implemented. This would include bore oil, hand cream for your electronic bagpipe, sunscreen and other similar items that you might be taking with you.

If your pipes have room to move around inside their case, consider padding them with a towel or a sheet of foam. Also consider completely disassembling your pipes. They'll likely be fine, but joints may tighten up due to the pressurization in the cabin.

Put your complete contact information in your case clearly identifying you as the owner of the pipes. On the outside, attach a luggage I.D. tag to the handle of your case. It might be wise to include care of handling along with your contact information instructing the recipient of your pipes to not subject them to extremes and that they are fragile. Heaven forbid that you'd leave your pipes on the plane or someone else might grab them thinking they are their prize oboe, but who knows. One-too-many overpriced airline 'drinky-poo' and it's all over. (I'm sure it's the oboe player and not you!)

If you are heading to a country that doesn't speak your native language, you might consider taking a photo of a piper—ideally, you—playing bagpipes to help explain what these possibly dangerous wooden tubes are for.

If you are taking an electronic bagpipe/practice chanter, make sure it has functional batteries in case you are asked to play it. Also remember to keep earphones with it at all times! Avoid transporting such an electronic device in a PVC pipe (as recommended by some) since this combination may look like a pipe bomb to a screener and, in fact, one such configuration shut down and evacuated a whole airport in Portland, Maine on January 13, 2004!

If you have ivory mounted bagpipes. You may be aware that there are international restrictions on travelling with certain types of ivory which fall under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Some types of ivory have not been restricted such as that coming from a walrus or—perhaps surprisingly—an extinct mammoth. Elephant ivory is highly restricted, but there are some exceptions, particularly for mounts that predate the CITES agreement. Many countries require permits to travel with ivory. Definitely plan well ahead and research the country to which you are headed—you don't want your pipes permanently confiscated! Laws regarding ivory are in a state of flux and are becoming more and more restrictive . . . even for non-elephant ivory that was perfectly ok in the past.

Here are a few links that specifically discuss bagpipe travel:
United States - U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Canada - Canadian Wildlife Service
New Zealand - Department of Conservation

You may also be interested in my article on Cleaning Ivory on Bagpipes.

Corrupt Countries. It was pointed out to me that not all countries have as typically reliable and honest officials as here in the United States. A story was related of a Brazilian piper who returned to his own country only to find that a rogue officer demanded import fees on the set of pipes that the piper had owned for years! (The storyteller seemed to recall that the piper had to bribe his way out of the situation.) Even your checked-in knives might disappear. These unfortunate events can be avoided by getting a signed and stamped ownership certificate from your customs office prior to your departure. Again, this is something that should be investigated well in advance.

At the Airport

Sometimes, after having your pipes/electronic instrument X-rayed, you might get to enjoy a brief chat with an airport screener. (Sometimes, however, the encounter may not be so brief, so you may wish to arrive at the airport a little earlier.) I've flown with an electronic DegerPipes many times and have only been asked a couple of times what it was and I suspect that those questions were more out of mild curiosity than professional concern. As for pipes, I do recall a story of a piper being instructed to play his pipes to prove that they were not a weapon; only after the supervisor ran over and stopped the piper from striking in was the screener convinced. This is highly unusual. My pipes have been regularly ignored by the X-ray technicians and once I was even asked: "Bagpipes?" When your pipes are being scanned, keep an eye on the operator. If he or she starts looking concerned by what's on the screen, you might do well to lean forward with a quick: "They're bagpipes."

In any case, if the officials say they have to take your pipes for inspection, do your darndest to not let them leave your sight. Aside from possible rough handling, the last thing you want is for them to check your pipes through without telling you. Or, ok, worse yet, slipping them out the back door to their buddy—though that's even more unlikely.

If an airline official insists on moving your case (with your pipes inside) to check-though luggage—violating Important Rule #1—ask to speak to the supervisor. If you are forced to check your pipes—did you forget your backup pipe carrier?—whatever you do, refuse to sign any release. Once you've signed that release, you have virtually no legal recourse if your pipes are damaged. Really, the question should be: "Is this flight worth destroying my pipes by checking them through?" Often, it's no. Either transfer them to a different means of carrying them on the plane (with no hard case) or simply don't take the flight.

While Flying

Watch out for that one-too-many drinky-poo, you don't want to grab an oboe case by mistake. Seriously, after your preparations, once you are on the plane, you are in great shape, the rest is typically easy.

Enjoy your trip!

Low temperatures up in the sky. Temperature decreases with altitude at an average rate of approximately 3.6°F per 1000 feet (2°C per 305 meters). Many commercial jets cruise around 35,000 feet. So, 35 x 3.6 = 126°F (70°C) drop in the temperature of an unheated cargo hold. If you start at 68°F, that means -60°F at cruising altitude! Cold!

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This page last updated Tuesday, November 10, 2015.
Page first created in April 3, 2006.

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