Flying With Your Banjo by Pete Wernick
There’s no one "standard procedure". On the plus side, banjos are typically quite sturdy and even standard hardshell cases are strong enough to afford very good protection and, especially with a few precautions, to give you high odds of no problems sending it through baggage. However, there are horror stories, most involving neck fractures, particularly at the headstock. Such damage is caused by careless/rough handling in baggage.
Generally when checking a musical instrument you are required to sign a waiver agreeing that the instrument is packed inadequately (regardless of how well you’ve actually packed it!) and that the airline is not responsible for damage except to the case. However, if the instrument is then damaged and it’s clearly due to bad handling, there are cases of successful claims in spite of the signed waiver. Think of that as iffy, though. Bottom line is: How unthinkable is it for you to have the neck of your banjo broken? Some breaks are easily repairable, some would mean the neck would have to be replaced.
You’ll improve your odds against damage checking a banjo through baggage if you:
- Avoid connecting flights when possible (in favor of direct flights), as that will cut down on the amount the instrument is handled.
- Loosen the strings enough to take the tension off the neck (leave enough to keep them holding the bridge in place), as a neck under tension can break more easily.
- Put some padding such as wadded cloth or plastic bubble wrap underneath the peghead to cushion it. Also, a towel rolled up to an inch or two thickness can be squeezed around the outside of the shell, resting on the flange, to absorb side impact that would otherwise be absorbed mainly by the resonator.
- Put "Fragile" stickers all over the case, even the bottom.
- While checking it with a skycap, emphasize the need for careful handling, and add a tip. This will up the odds of good handling at least on the way to the plane.
- Use a flight case, which combines a solid outside shell with lots of padding inside. These give excellent protection, though they’re expensive and bulky. Something to consider if you fly frequently.
The alternative that trades some inconvenience for total safety is to carry the banjo on with you and put it in an overhead compartment. At airports where carry-ons have to fit through a certain sized opening, a normal banjo case will go through, but some airlines have strict size requirements for carryons, with length of the case a possible problem. If you check with them by phone you’ll probably be told it’s too big. But at the airport it might not be a problem. A standard case will fit easily enough in the overheads of 727’s 737’s etc. if you are one of the first to use the compartment. To be sure of available space would normally require early boarding. Carrying on the instrument means no special packing is necessary-- it’s as if you had it with you on a bus.
If you board too late to find space in an overhead, ask an attendant to help you store it in a closet. (Sometimes an attendant spots it and tells you it will have to go in a closet.) This may be no problem-- or if the attendant isn’t feeling helpful, or it’s a crowded flight, a problem. You then have two choices: 1. Insist, saying it’s fragile, delicate, important, etc. and not taking no for an answer (there’s almost always someplace it can go, though your insistence may cause noticeable grumpiness). Choice 2: Let them "gate check" it which means tagging it and adding it to the baggage being loaded underneath, after which it’s treated like baggage. If it’s gate checked, it’s then time to do precautions 2-4 above.