In part 3 of Basses, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, we discussed all of the hassles that go into the modern double bass-laden air travel experience. While flying with a bass has never exactly been a joy, each passing year makes it more and more of a not fun experience.
This tale of mine happened during a particularly bad day of pre-9/11 travel, at the tail end of an unsuccessful audition (the perfect time for the following events to occur). While this story may seem extreme to non-bassists, it is simply par for the course for most air travel-hardened bassists.
Most of my colleagues have a story remarkably similar to this. If you’re one of the lucky few bass layers who have escaped the airline industry unscathed, just keep flying—you’ll soon have your own tale of woe!
I knew something was wrong as I stood in the baggage claim area of Chicago’s Midway Airport (the one with the cheapo flights that most poor music students take to auditions). I had just returned from an unsuccessful Seattle Symphony audition, my weathered ATA “vacation pass” (that’s what ATA called their boarding passes a few years ago), covered in drawings of palm trees, stuffed into my pocket.
I was waiting at the oversize baggage area for ATA, just as I always did every time I flew with a bass. This was at the tail end of an era in which I flew pretty regularly with a bass, whether going to festivals, auditions, or even home for vacation. Although I hated flying, I had definitely become a pro at maneuvering a bass around an airport, and one of the things I had learned was that basses always came out of a side door being pushed by a baggage dude.
No one would be silly enough to feed a bass trunk through the regular baggage chute. After all, the thing was huge and weighed a ton. Putting it though a narrow baggage chute , up on the conveyor belt and down onto the slanted metal carousel that Midway uses for its baggage would be, well……….crazy.
I learned a valuable lesson about ATA baggage handlers that day. They’re crazy!
As I stood patiently next to the oversize baggage door, waiting for the flashing light and the accompanying baggage dude pushing my bass case, I heard a commotion over at the regular baggage carousel.
I looked over.
To my horror, a long white neck was emerging from the baggage conveyer belt. Like the Titanic in reverse, I saw my precious bass, bridge side down (!) and neck first, ascending the narrow ramp, approaching the precipitous drop-off down onto the rotating metal carousel.
Does anyone out there remember that game ‘Cliff Hangers’ from The Price is Right? The one with the little mountain climber who got closer…closer….closer to the edge until (BAM!) he fell to the ground? That’s what my bass looked like.
Another stereotypical image from T.V.—picture a wine glass on a tray tipping over at a busy party. The host notices it and….slow motion…makes a dive for it….the glass nears the floor…its liquid spilling out, ready to stain…the look of horror on the host’s face as he dives for it…
Now plaster my face over the host’s face and replace that wine glass with my bass. I remember turning and making a helpless dash toward that metal carousel.
The bass neck rose out of the depths of the baggage chute like some great white beast, rising higher and higher until the bridge finally cleared the lip of the belt.
The case actually got air as it toppled off of the conveyor belt, striking the metal carousel as surprised baggage picker-uppers scattered to get out of the way. It landed on the ground with a resounding crash at an impossible angle, rolled a half-turn, and came to rest on the ground.
Everything became eerily quiet to me as I blocked out all ambient airport noise, approaching my case with dread. I pulled out my Allen wrench (this was back in the days when one could carry things like Allen wrenches on a plane without a second glance) and began to undo the closers. I pulled the bass (zipped up in its soft case) out of the trunk and began to unzip it and have a look.
My neck block was totally shattered, the fingerboard against the belly of the bass, wood splinters everywhere. The photo below is an actual photo of my bass after this accident, taken in the repair shop where I had the work done.
And I had an audition two days later.
I marched over to the ATA customer service desk and proceeded to have a very unhelpful encounter with the employees there, resulting in me filling out a bunch of forms.
Six months later, I got a $100 voucher…for my next flight with ATA! As if.
It took four months and cost over $5000 for this to get repaired. All par for the course in the life of a traveling bassist.
Again, although this was an ultra-annoying and costly experience for me, I am sure that the majority of bass players who check in on the blog here have stories that easily top this. Feel free to chime in with your own experiences, and we can all share in our airline misery together.
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