The last thing you want is to damage your trombone. Follow these 9 steps and you will be able to safely fly with your trombone.
For the last decade I have been regularly flying around the USA with my trombone as sponsored BAC Artist. As of the end of 2020 I have an 85% success rate bringing my trombone on the plane and storing it in an overhead compartment, under the seat infront of me or in the flight attendant's closet. Believe it or not, a standard Yamaha tenor trombone hard case fits under some airplane seats! More on that later... I've never had my horn damaged, I've had some close calls though. I'll describe in detail all the tricks and techniques I use to keep my horn safe.
Dress business casual. The goal is to blend in while still garnering some respect. Men, this means your shirt should have a collar and your pants are slacks, avoid jeans. Wear a belt and a watch (if you have one). Women, maybe wear a blouse and dress slacks, or a twinset and a skirt. This is particularly important if you are in your late teens or twenties, you are fighting an uphill battle. If you are in you thirties maybe wear a nice suit. This will decrease your chance of having issues. If you look important, confident and like you do this all the time the flight attendants will hopefully leave you alone. Men, groom your facial hair and make sure to have a fresh haircut. Trust me this stuff goes a long way.
If everything goes well this step will not have been necessary. You should always plan to have to check you trombone when you are flying. Here is what you should do:
Don't fly Spirit. Frontier is a stretch. You will never get a trombone on a Spirit flight. If the airline is charging for different sized carry-ons, it's not going to happen. They will have a box to check the size of your carry-on. If it is part of the airlines business model to get money for oversized carry-ons, they will check every single carry-on. If you are flying Spirit, just save the money and check your trombone when you arrive at the airport.
When you first get to the airport the first dicey interaction is if you have to check a bag. If you have to check a bag, leave your trombone with a friend while you are approaching the desk. This is if you are not traveling alone and your friend is not checking a bag.
If you are traveling alone, try to hide your trombone from the counter. This means either have it behind your big suitcase while you approach the counter, or have it on your back. Once you are at the counter, lie it down on the ground right against the counter. The people working there are very busy and hopefully won't notice.
If they do notice, this is the first time they will start asking you to check your trombone. Keep in mind that sometimes the person working this counter will also be the person checking the tickets as you board the plane, so be polite. A simple refusal should suffice at this point though. I normally say, "Oh, I usually just put it in the overhead compartment." For the record, I've never had to check my trombone at this point.
Going through security with a trombone is a piece of cake. The TSA does not care... as long as you don't have any creams or liquids in the case! It would be a huge pain in the butt to unpack your perfectly packed trombone at the security station, all because you left your dinky spray bottle in the case.
Sit a decent distance away from the airline employees at the gate. You don't want to be sitting as far away as possible, and you don't want to be sitting with your trombone in plain sight. The flight attendants are looking for large bags even at the gate. Especially if the dreaded "We have a full flight, we are looking for volunteers to check their bag" call goes out. That is the worst case senario. Long story short, keep your trombone under the seat and behind your feet while waiting at the gate!
Try to be one of the first people to board the plane. Do this politely and don't draw attention to yourself, but make sure you are not the last in line. You will need an empty overhead compartment after all.
Ok, it is the big moment... You are waiting in line to show your ticket and board the plane. The key is when it is your turn, make eye contact with the flight attendant, smile, and say hi. At the same time keep your trombone behind you. Flight attendants are extremely personable people who are trained in customer service. Only very friendly people become flight attendants, airlines do not want disagreeable people to be flight attendants (believe it or not).
I normally have my trombone standing up behind my leg on the other side of my body so the attendant can't see it. If you are making eye contact and engaging the flight attendant it would be rude of them to look at your crotch to see what is behind you. If you are dressed nicely, well-groomed, and looking like a friendly passenger, this should be a piece of cake.
I once boarded a plane with a hiking backpack full of 10 days worth of clothes and a trombone heading to Seattle. I wanted to save the money on checking a bag. I was able to board the plane with the giant bag and trombone case, all with a smile. Use eye contact to your advantage.
On the other hand, if they are making everyone put their carry-on in a little box to make sure it is the correct size, you're sunk. Sorry!
Ok, your dashing good looks and smile didn't work. They have asked you to leave your horn by the baby carriages at the bottom of the ramp. If you're feeling brave there is still one last move you can make... I know this is naughty, but you can take the tag off and bring your trombone on the plane. I've done it before and it works!
There are a few factors to take into account:
If the answer is yes to these three questions, you can go for it. The worst thing that can happen is there isn't any room on the plane and you ask the flight attendant if you can gate check your trombone. It's a different flight attendant, they don't know that you were already issued an orange tag.
One time there wasn't enough room on the plane and the flight attendant offered to store my trombone in the flight attendant's closet. People, SMILES GET YOU FARTHER THAN ARGUMENTS! Trust me, there is no point in arguing with the flight attendants - if they give you a tag, just take the tag and say thank you. They always have the last say and they already made up their mind, it's done.
Once you are on the plane, the top priority is getting your trombone in an overhead compartment. If you are in the later half of the boarders, just grab the first empty compartment you see. Don't make the mistake of walking all the way to you seat only to not be able to find an empty overhead compartment to put your trombone in. If I come around the corner and see half the overhead compartments are already full, I just find the first completely empty compartment and put my trombone in there. I don't need to sit under my trombone.
Your trombone case does not fit in an overhead compartment: Yikes! this is a dicey situation. You find an empty overhead compartment and it will not close with your trombone in it. Some trombone cases do fit under the seat infront of you. It is best if no one else in your row is seated yet. It takes some finagling, but it should fit. Then, there is one last problem. The bell flare is sticking out where you put your feet. This is not ok and the flight attendants will not allow it... if they notice it. I suggest using using a blanket or your jacket to put over your lap and obscure their view of the bell bulge. This only works in middle or window seats. I've done it before. Then just pop in some headphones and enjoy the flight! You did it! If you're in the area sign up for private trombone lessons in Boulder.
I hope this has been helpful. With proper preparation, you should be able to take your trombone anywhere in the world without it being damaged.