In recent years, airlines have increased restrictions on carry-on bags as well as their level of enforcement. In spite of these restrictions, flutes, including some of the larger members of the flute family, can be successfully taken aboard flights.
For the past 15 years, I have traveled extensively, both nationally and internationally, with instruments ranging from concert flutes and piccolos to alto, bass, and contrabass flutes. I have done my best to stay up-to-date on the latest products available to make travel as simple for me and as safe for my instruments as possible.
Concert Flutes and Piccolos
These are the smallest and most portable of the flute family, easily fitting into a backpack or a variety of gig bags that fit in the space under the airline seat in front of you or in the overhead compartment. Flute and piccolo cases, as well as alto flute cases, also easily fit into luggage within the size restrictions for carry-ons. These options allow you to carry your instruments safely, minimize the number of carry-on bags, and reduce the possibility of leaving an instrument behind when exiting the plane.
Many styles and sizes of gig bags are available to safely carry a flute and piccolo, and some are large enough to hold an alto flute as well. Gig bags have handles and may also have a shoulder strap and/or backpack straps. There is generally room for music, accessories, and sometimes a folding music stand. Many gig bags have a zipper closure, although some use snaps, buckles, or velcro to keep instruments secure.
Cases for Multiple Instruments
Double cases are widely available for carrying a flute and a piccolo. These cases are the same length and depth as a regular flute case, but are slightly wider. The most common type is the French style case, made of wood and covered with leather.
Fitted case covers are widely available in standard sizes for either C-foot or B-foot cases. They have carrying handles and/or shoulder straps and are made by manufacturers such as Altieri and Cavallero.
If you travel regularly with two or more flutes, piccolos, and multiple headjoints, you might consider investing in a single case configured to hold all the instruments securely. French-style cases of various sizes can be custom ordered from Northwind Cases, and custom case covers can be ordered from Altieri.
Relatively new to the market is a uniquely designed leather covered tubular case. Made by Wiseman Cases and available in several sizes, the interior of these cases provides ample padding and protection for instruments, and may be custom configured for any combination of instruments and or headjoints.
Another sturdy tubular case designed to hold a flute and piccolo is made by Case-Closed. Each of the individual sections of a flute and assembled piccolo are suspended separately from custom length rods covered with soft durable material to avoid scratches. The piccolo is seat-belted in place on its peg with a velcro strap securing the top of headjoint against any movement. The interior of the case is well-padded and covered with the same material.
Solutions for Alto and Bass Flutes
There are a variety of ways to minimize the number of carry-on bags, meet airline size restrictions, and keep your instruments secure. If the case cover on your bass flute case has a zippered storage area along the length of the case, there is probably room to securely carry an alto flute or a concert flute case. Because storage pockets are usually not padded, take care not to bump the case. While an alto flute generally fits in a standard rolling carry-on suitcase, a bass flute is too long and will need to be carried separately.
A unique solution to carrying a bass, alto, concert flute, and piccolo has been designed by Wiseman Cases. The Quad Case is seven inches in diameter and carries all four instruments within a well padded case that is the same volume as a standard bass flute case. This leather covered case, made of aircraft plywood and aluminum, can be carried as a backpack or with a handle. It fits easily into overhead compartments on aircraft.
Cases for Contrabass Flutes
The increased popularity of contrabass flutes has inspired several case designs that make these large instruments much more portable for travel. We have come a long way from footlocker-size cases that had to be checked as luggage in the aircraft hold, causing anxious contrabass owners to nervously await the arrival of their precious instruments at baggage claim.
Altieri Instrument Bags has designed a soft-sided padded contrabass gig bag. When unzipped, this bag opens flat and holds each piece of the contrabass in a separate tubular compartment made of foam and fabric. The case has both a shoulder strap and backpack straps.
With the assistance of contrabass flute specialist Paige Long, Northwind Cases designed two custom French style cases to house all the pieces of a contrabass flute. Both of the designs meet size restrictions for carry-on luggage. These two cases can be carried easily onto a plane on a folding luggage cart.
Wiseman Cases has designed an oval tubular case slightly wider than their Quad Case that securely houses an entire contrabass flute. Using the same construction materials as their other cases, this case can be comfortably carried using the adjustable backpack straps. The case fits easily into overhead luggage bins, including the smaller compartments on commuter aircraft.
How to Choose the Right Bag
Think about how often and how far you will travel with your instruments. Airline travel usually requires walking long distances from airport security to the departure gate. Likewise, playing gigs in some venues may involve parking several blocks away from the concert hall. Weight is a consideration and many flutists prefer a shoulder strap, backpack, or luggage cart as opposed to carrying the weight in their hands.
My personal preference is to have backpack straps on a gig bag. This balances the weight of the bag on both shoulders rather than placing all the weight on one. It also lets me avoid the weight of carrying the bag by the handles. A backpack also leaves my hands free to carry a music stand when going to a gig, or to pull a rolling suitcase when traveling. In the past, when traveling with a bass flute with a shoulder strap, I have had challenges with it slipping off my shoulder while walking down airport concourses.
I know many people who use a rolling suitcase to transport their instruments or strap cases of larger instruments to a rolling luggage cart. Ergonomically, this is easier on the body, but if some of the terrain you have to travel across is bumpy or uneven, the jostling could cause the instruments to go out of adjustment.
With a myriad of choices to help protect and transport your precious instruments, you should be able to find an option that fits your needs.
Surviving Airport Security
Before going through airport security, make sure that you have removed any items that may not be allowed on the aircraft, such as screwdrivers and metal cleaning rods. Be prepared to open your case, if asked. In 15 years of airline travel with various sized flutes, I have only been asked to open my case on two or three occasions.
If you see the examiner looking quizzically at the monitor when your instrument is on the conveyor belt, just tell them that there is a flute or a musical instrument (or a wire music stand) in your bag. Most of the time that information is sufficient to answer the examiner’s concerns, and there will be no further delay. If the examiner asks to see inside the case, explain that the instrument is fragile and expensive. Ask politely whether you can open the case for them.
In 2008 the International Flute Orchestra traveled to Chile for a concert tour with four contrabass flutes as carry-on luggage. You can imagine the security inspector’s reaction as we tried to explain the odd shapes appearing on the x-ray monitor. Fortunately, one of the inspectors was a flute player who was satisfied with our explanations and waved us through.