We often receive questions about the safest way to transport a cello or a bass when airline travel is involved. It is a difficult question, and one with which I have a fair amount of experience. When I was a young cellist (which, strangely, is longer and longer ago every year!), I traveled by air to attend summer programs at Interlochen Arts Camp and the Aspen Music Festival. At the time, I had an instrument about which I cared deeply and I didn’t want it to be damaged during travel. My parents calculated what it would cost to buy an extra plane ticket to these summer events and future auditions and decided it would be cheaper to buy a dedicated flight case. We settled on the model by Kolstein and we were pleased with the way it protected the cello. If I remember correctly, it cost about $2,500 at the time (I believe the current price is actually lower). After using it many times with incident, I came home to find that the bow had come loose in the case and had punched a hole through the rib of the cello. This is not necessarily an indictment of the case, but simply a cautionary tale regarding what can happen even when you take precautions.
Hard cases built for everyday use are usually not up to the task of being placed with baggage under the plane. When there is no other options except using your current hard case, it is wise to take as many additional precautions as possible. Have a luthier remove the soundpost from the instrument, take down the bridge, and wrap the tailpiece carefully to keep it from contacting the top of the instrument. All of this requires a qualified luthier to be available at your destination to reverse this work. While setting a bridge back up is within the ability of most string players, setting a soundpost correctly is something that requires specialized skill and practice.
The unfortunate truth is that traveling by air with a cello or bass is never risk-free. With a cello, the possibility exists to buy a seat for your instrument (checking carefully with the airline’s guidelines). I don’t know of any airlines that allow basses in the cabin of the plane. Story after story surfaces about rough handling and damage. Because of all of this, I find myself providing loaner instruments to traveling cellists and bassists while they visit the Indianapolis area. If at all possible, finding a local instrument to use at your destination is preferable. For many top professionals, their close relationship with their primary instrument precludes them from using this option. For many of us, saving the significant hassle of transporting our own instrument more than compensates from using an unfamiliar instrument for a time.
I’m happy to offer advice and discuss options with anyone planning to travel with their instrument. Safe travels!