Tuesday, July 19, 2016

How to Fly with a Tuba

It's been over 2 years since my last blog post. A few things factored into that - mostly grad school (I'm Dr. Matz now, yippee!). Thanks to those of you that have asked me if I was ever going to start writing again. After thinking about it for some time, I thought that it would be fun to shed some light on some of the more practical aspects of playing the tuba.

Something I've been asked many times is how I fly with my tuba. I've flown over a dozen times with my tuba in the cabin with me, so this post is based solely on my experiences and what has (and hasn't) worked for me. Every tuba player has their preferred method of travelling - one person even told me that he refuses to fly if he can drive there in under 10 hours! I'm personally willing to pay money for someone else to cart my lazy butt around, and quickly. So, if you're curious about how you can fly with your tuba without checking it, this post is for you.

To do this, your tuba needs to be in a gig bag, since a hard case cannot fit in a seat. Your end result should look like this:
Pro: doesn't snore
Con: people wonder if it's a dead body

Why buy an extra seat for an instrument?

More often than not, I purchase an extra seat for my tuba. Why would I do this?
- I usually cannot risk the tuba being damaged upon arrival (ex. audition).
- I do not have to wait to pick it up from baggage claim.
- I generally do not have an extra $1000+ to drop on a flight case (a flight case is a hard case intended for flying, usually much sturdier than the typical hard case).
- Depending on the tuba and case, getting it under 50 lbs may not be feasible, and the amount you will have to pay in overweight/oversize fees might be more than what an extra plane ticket would cost.
-Enforcement of oversize/overweight fees is inconsistent. I have had trips where I was not charged on my outbound flight, but then was hit with a big bill on my returning flight or vice versa.

I won't endorse any airlines here, but there are airlines that frequently offer tickets to large cities for $75-90 each way. Since I fly to D.C. a lot, these fares pop up all the time. For me, it's worth the money to buy an extra seat for my tuba, especially when the fares are that low and you might have to pay $25 to check a bag anyway.

How do I purchase an extra seat for my tuba?

Here, I'll walk you through the process of buying tickets online. You can, of course, still call the airline directly to buy. I prefer to buy online because it's faster and I don't risk speaking to an employee who is not up to date on baggage and extra seat policies, which have changed in recent years.

Once you find a flight that you'd like to purchase, buy two tickets. When you're prompted to fill out the passenger information, fill out one ticket for yourself with your correct first and last name, birthday, etc. When you get to the second ticket, fill it out with the same information that you did for yourself, but change the first name on the ticket to "Extraseat" (one word). Make sure the information is exactly the same between the two tickets - even the gender! So my second ticket would be for Extraseat Matz, who has the same birthday as I do and is also female. This might seem strange, but this is the correct way to do it.

An important note here: If someone else buys your plane tickets, that does not change the above process. The only thing that changes is the billing information. I once saw a cellist denied access from a flight because her mother was listed on the second ticket, even though the second ticket was for the cello (her mother purchased the tickets). Don't let this happen to you!

Federal law states that an extra seat for an instrument must be a window seat and that the owner must sit next to it. Some airlines allow you to choose seats in advance when you purchase tickets. So, if you are allowed to choose seats while buying the tickets, choose a window seat for the passenger named "Extraseat," and put yourself in a seat right next to it. Since the tuba will be in the window seat, you cannot sit in an exit row. If this is not possible for the given flight, you might have to change your flight. You could also try calling the airline to see if switching someone to another seat is possible. Just make sure to explain your situation and the federal law to the employee clearly.

What do I do once I get to the airport?

The most important thing: act like you know what you're doing. You will be told that you "have to check that" multiple times. You will probably have to say, "I bought an extra seat for it" to at least a few folks. It's not a super common situation, so remember to be patient with everyone. Being nice will make everyone's day better! :)

Check-in the way you'd normally check in, whether it's via mobile app or at the counter. If you check-in at a counter (perhaps to check other bags), just explain to the attendant that the extra seat is for your instrument. If you need to, explain that federal law now allows musicians to purchase an extra seat for their instrument as long as it fits in a seat (and a tuba in a gig bag does with a seat belt extender).

The second most important thing: get to the airport earlier than you normally would. I could cite a couple dozen reasons why, but I'm sure it's self-explanatory. I typically like to arrive to the airport an hour and a half to two hours before my flight leaves since I typically use huge airports like Atlanta and Orlando.

What happens at security?

Unless there is an oversize luggage scanner at security, a TSA employee will have to "hand-check" your tuba. This means an employee will take the tuba out of its case, give it a look over, and swab to test for various substances. This part of the journey can be nerve-wracking because someone else, probably not a musician, is handling your baby. Offer to show them how to hold the case and instrument properly. Most of the time, TSA employees have allowed me to take the tuba out of the gig bag myself. If they don't, just keep a close eye from the sideline and give polite but firm reminders if you see them doing something that is not great for the instrument.

Again, I cannot stress how important it is to be nice to airport employees. You and your tuba will get better treatment for it, and let's be honest, we've all had terrible days at work or school where one friendly face made it much better!

What do I do once I get to the gate?

If you were able to choose seats during purchasing, just board like you normally would. When you hand over two boarding passes, explain that one is for your instrument. The employee will likely see "Extraseat" on the ticket and then understand what's going on.

If you were unable to choose seats when you bought your tickets, you will have to request pre-boarding. You can pay for this online in advance, but I generally just go to the counter at the gate before the flight, explain my situation and the federal law (tuba has to be in a window seat and I have to be next to it), and they let me go on with the pre-boarding crowd. If you need to sit in a specific row, they will tell you. I always offer to sit in the very back so I'm out of everyone's way and so that elderly and/or disabled people can have the front row. I also prefer getting off the plane last so I'm not holding anyone up and so I don't accidentally smack anyone with my horn.
Side note: I had one employee tell me that federal law said that I had to sit in the front row, but I haven't been able to verify this statement and I have had many flights where I was not in the front row.

What do I do once I'm on the plane?

As soon as you see the first flight attendant, ask for a seat belt extender. You will use the seat belt extender to strap in your tuba once you get to your seats. The tuba must wear a seat belt and it must sit in the seat; it cannot sit on the floor. It might encroach on your space, but hey, at least the tuba doesn't snore! If the flight is rather empty, you could possibly strap in the tuba and then go take a nap in an empty row (yes, this has actually happened to me - the flight attendants were kind enough to offer it to me).

And this is not required, but don't be shy about drinks and snacks. I always ask for two drinks and two snacks. :) Hey, I paid for it!

And there you have it! Flying with a tuba is easy once you get used to it. Have fun answering (or dodging) all of the questions and comments you will inevitably get while walking through the airport with a enormous, strange-looking piece of luggage.