Why Is It Nearly Impossible for Musicians to Fly With Their Gear?

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He was a total stranger. Yet four years ago, I agreed to courier an oversize instrument halfway across the world for an Israeli musician named Ignat Karmalito. I did it because of nightmare stories I’d heard so frequently about musicians struggling to get instruments on commercial airline flights safely. The instruments would end up being damaged, even destroyed. I wasn’t about to let that happen to Ignat. Besides, I was going to Israel anyway — how much trouble could it be?

The instrument in question was a hammered dulcimer, custom-made in a gorgeous (but fragile) soft-wood casing for Ignat’s band Digital Samsara. Its thin nylon strap hurt like hell, digging into my shoulder all the way through JFK. It barely fit through the X-ray scanner at security. Weirdly, the TSA officers didn’t seem to note this huge instrument. The screeners at El Al Airlines, though, scrutinized me and my cargo. They took me aside to a special screening area, questioned me almost to the point of badgering, and even looked through my phone at my email exchanges with Ignat. I had to battle with them to get the instrument through as a carry-on because — like so many musicians have before and since — I insisted that it was too delicate to be checked. But the flight crew was kind and accommodating, giving the instrument a plush ride in the first-class coat closet.

I lugged the instrument through Ben Gurion Airport, staring out at the Israeli desert sunrise, and met Ignat. Despite our stranger status, we hugged. He and his band were overjoyed, while I was relieved to have this weight off my shoulder, literally and figuratively. What a pain-in-the-ass thing to have to put up with just to do your job.