Bassoons on a Plane

In case of turbulence, put that thing away.

I was getting so excited about my upcoming trip to New York City in June, planning to eat some big sandwiches, do a lot of walking, take a bunch of pictures, and maybe visit with some old friends in New Jersey.  But now every time I think about the trip I get a big knot in my stomach, because I can’t figure out how to get my daughter’s bassoon there.

It’s too big to be a carry-on and it’s too fragile to be a throw-around, checked bag.

I would just leave it at home, except the whole reason for the trip is so that she can play her bassoon. She kind of needs it.

I would skip the flight and just drive there, except driving in Manhattan puts an even bigger knot in my stomach.

Shouldn’t there be more transportation choices, other than driving a personal vehicle or flying in an airplane run by The Airlines, which seem to have a bug up their asses about our desire to take some stuff with us when we go from Place A to Place B?

Thinking of all the professional musicians who make guest appearances in concerts all over the world, I thought there has to be a simple solution. When you see a bassoonist playing his bassoon, do you think, well, he must be a local, because how else would he get the bassoon to where he needs to play? (Maybe he walked it there.)

So I went onto some message boards and found some other bassoonists who had some advice for traveling musicians. The advice boiled down to sneaking the bassoon onto the plane, even though it exceeds size limits and we live in a post-9/11 world.

Here are some actual quotes from the bullet points from one website:

“As the gate attendant takes your boarding pass, look him or her in the eye and smile, and say something friendly and polite if appropriate.”

“Don’t look down at your instrument.”

“Hold the instrument in the hand farthest away, with your body casually blocking their view of it.”

“As you head down the jetway or onto the tarmac, discreetly remove and pocket the gate-check tag, or, since it’s usually attached to the case’s handle, just make sure the tag is inside your hand.”

“This is not a time to deliver a lecture about the instrument’s value or fragility, or otherwise to suggest that you deserve special treatment.”

“Don’t make a stink.”

This can’t be right. None of the advice seemed to make any sense. It sounds like my daughter is supposed to feel guilty because she’s flying to New York with a double reed instrument.

There’s nothing dangerous about the bassoon, nothing beyond maybe a Terror Level Periwinkle Blue. You could whack somebody silly with it, but there are better weapons. A Michener book would cause more pain. The thing about the bassoon is it’s large. It breaks down into smaller tubes, but when packed correctly in a regulation case, it’s still pretty large and heavy as all get-out. (The bassoon is actually the smallest of the three instruments my daughter plays. Last summer, when she played the cello, we had to rearrange the furniture in the living room to find a spot for it. She also plays the piano. I guess I should be grateful we aren’t traveling with either of those two instruments. But now I know why piccolo and flute players have that smug little grin on their faces all the time. You could smuggle a piccolo in a body cavity if you had to.)

Finding little solace on Web message boards, I looked for a Musical Instruments and Other Fragile Items clause in the airline website. There is one and this is what it says:

"If the musical instrument is large and you'd like to carry it on, you may need to purchase a seat for the instrument, provided there is availability. The instrument or equipment must be secured in a window seat and cannot be secured in the first row or emergency exit rows."

If we buy it a seat and it gets the window, I want his pretzel snack and instant coffee. Does he get his own carry-on bag and under-the-seat luggage for reeds? Will he want to share my crossword puzzle for the trip? Does he know any good word games? As fun as it sounds - especially the possibility of dressing him up - I decided it would be expensive and silly to buy a plane ticket for a bassoon.

I decided to go straight to the top: A customer-service phone-answerer at the airline.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” she said. She took down the dimensions of the bassoon case and said, “Yeah, it is too large for a carry-on, but it’ll fit. You should be fine.” She did not see the seriousness of having to last-minute check a flimsy, unlocked case containing a multi-thousand dollar musical instrument and my daughter’s future. She also did not agree to my suggestion that she put “You should be fine” in writing.

I was so looking forward to waving a piece of paper around at airport security. I think that’s “making a stink.”

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