Most recent update: additional updates to Virgin America/Alaska Airlines merger status; adds link to Vox article that explains the economic conditions that led to the current state of the US airline industry.
Can you fly with a banjo? In a word, yes. But you need to be smart about it. Here’s the lowdown, and answers to oft-asked questions about the zen of being a traveling picker.
The air travel world has changed significantly since the first edition of this article was posted. Due to mergers, there are roughly half as many major carriers, as brands like Northwest, Continental, Airtran and USAir were absorbed by Delta, United, Southwest and American, respectively (actually, USAir absorbed American, not the other way around, but decided to keep the American Airlines marque).
The net result in a number of cities is reduced travel options and, especially for merged lines that once served the same markets independently, a reduced number of daily departures, leading to fuller planes. That's good for the airlines, not so much for traveling pickers who want to carry instruments aboard. On the heels of the now-infamous United Airlines incident in which a customer was dragged out of his seat, Vox wrote a fascinating article exploring some of the issues related to this consolidation.
What else has changed? Well, especially for the surviving legacy carriers - which, due to labor agreements, tend to have significantly higher operating costs than newer airlines like Southwest and Jet Blue (both of which are pretty friendly to pickers, by the way) - the need to optimize revenues is intense. Since the first edition, we've seen most major US airlines start charging checked bag fees, prompting more travelers to bring luggage aboard. And recently, we’ve seen airlines becoming highly restrictive on THAT (see below in the section related to reserving and seat selection).
More of the surviving airlines are also giving boarding priority to high-value "frequent fliers" and shortening seat pitch (the distance between seats) in regular coach in order to make space for "economy plus" seating, for which they charge a premium. Most of these lines use higher boarding priority as an incentive to sign up for vanity credit cards.
Then there are the “ultra-low-cost” carriers that attract you with a cheap ticket and charge you out the wazoo for everything else.
FEDERAL POLICY REGARDING CARRIAGE OF INSTRUMENTS:
Another thing that’s changed since the first editions of this article is federal law related to musical instruments as carry-on luggage. After considerable delay, that rule was finalized on December 30, 2014. It reads in part:
"Carriers must allow passengers to stow their small musical instruments in an approved stowage area in the cabin if at the time the passenger boards the aircraft such stowage space is available. Under the rule, musical instruments as carry-on items are treated no differently from other carry-on items and the stowage space should be made available for all carry-on items on a “first come, first served” basis. Carriers are not required to give musical instruments priority over other carry-on baggage, therefore passengers traveling with musical instruments may want to buy the pre-boarding option offered by many carriers to ensure that space will be available for them to safely stow their instruments in the cabin."
The new rules give wiggle-room to the ultra-low cost carriers who charge for anything bigger than a purse or man-bag. That federal policy permits instruments as carry-ons does NOT mean that your instrument will fly free if you're traveling on one of these lines. Again, please see the airline-specific information below.
With that said, MOST American-flagged airlines permit banjos as carry-ons, subject to space availability – and that’s the key: space availability. The lower you are on the boarding pecking order, the higher the likelihood your banjo will fly in the hold.
Airlines, like many businesses, reward their best customers – people who fly with them a lot and use their vanity credit cards. If you’re traveling often enough and can stick with one airline in order to actually build Frequent Flyer points – especially if you choose to obtain an airline’s credit card – you’ll generally be placed significantly higher in the boarding queues. That’s probably the closest thing you have to a guarantee that your banjo will come into the cabin with you (assuming the bins themselves are big enough). Heck, if you're sufficiently flush, fly business class and it's virtually a lock that you will.
But for many traveling pickers, the deck isn't stacked that way. And even if you do have that kind of relationship with an airline, stuff still happens. Your scheduled flight might be canceled or delayed, resulting on your being re-routed into the only seat left on another flight, where your perks won't apply.
Other things can happen, too. Example: several years ago, I paid a premium for "priority boarding" - a $30 upcharge - for a transcontinental flight, reasoning that the early board would significantly improve my odds of getting bin space for the banjo. And it would have - if my first flight, which was on a smaller plane I knew I'd have to gate check on - had arrived on time. Thanks to a ground crew screw-up at my originating airport, I made it onto the transcon flight about two minutes before the door closed. The bins were already crammed and the banjo ended up in the hold. The airline wouldn't credit or refund the upgrade fee, either (United, if you’re curious).
While I'm aware of at least one frequent-flyin' banjo player who considers some of the following suggestions to be overkill (and for him, they probably would be, because he travels one airline enough to get all the perks and generally flies long legs between major airports on full-line aircraft), the following guidance on flying with your instrument is offered with a nod to the real world, the way most of us fly.
CAN MY BANJO BE CONSIDERED CARRY-ON LUGGAGE?
Most US-flagged air carriers permit banjos as carry-ons, provided there’s space AND presuming that you’re actually flying on a ticket (and airline!) that includes carry-on luggage in what you've paid. Canadian travelers report no significant carry-on issues, and international travel originating in North America usually produces reasonable results with banjos as carry-ons.
Be forewarned, however, that there’s no guarantee with ANY airline, especially those that are flagged outside of North America.
Two additional caveats. First, although the policies in the US generally support bringing instruments aboard, the decision about allowing them belongs to the ground crew and the flight crew. Policies be damned, they can still make a decision you don’t like. And being allowed to carry on a banjo presumes that the overhead bins or coat closets can accommodate them – which, as noted above, is less likely than it once was.
By the way, note that if you bring your banjo aboard, that's considered your carry-on. Your computer or purse or man-bag is the "personal item" that needs to go under the seat in front of you. See below for a listing of aircraft types that can and cannot handle a banjo in the overhead bins.
The safest approach is to prepare for travel assuming the banjo will have to be checked at some point, and then do everything in your power to avoid doing so. Tips on that follow.
WHAT KIND OF CASE SHOULD I USE?
The answer to this one is simple: the best case you can afford. There are several cases on the market that are justifiably considered ‘flight’ cases –the Calton (some recent North American Caltons are of dubious value, but that’s a topic discussed elsewhere), and the Price. Both are made of fiberglass, are well-padded and are so sturdily built that they can pretty much handle being run over by a baggage cart tractor. The carbon-fiber Hoffee is a terrific case with the added virtue of being light. There are also some Asian-built fiberglass and carbon fiber cases that may be worth considering.
Fiberglass cases are heavy. Load a glass case with a resonator banjo and you’re easily looking at 30+ pounds of additional weight to lug around an airport. And both high-quality glass and carbon cases are expensive - more than the cost of many banjos.
Does it really make sense to carry a $500 banjo in a $900 case? Not to me, it doesn't. If you're traveling with a "lifetime banjo," they're worth every penny - but for most pickers, a good-quality 3-ply plywood/Tolex case such as a TKL or Guardian would probably be a minimum for safe travel.
If you want to get serious about things, consider the SIZE of the case. A smaller case has two advantages: first, it’s more likely to fit into the bins on a smaller plane, and second, it’s less likely to draw the wary eye of a gate agent or flight attendant. That’s one of the knocks on the Price (though I always use it if flying with my best banjo): in addition to being heavy, they’re bulky.
Some traveling pickers swear by gig bags, arguing that they take less space than a hard case and that the inherently less-protective nature of the gig bag means that flight crews are more likely to take pity on them and find a place to stash the instrument in a coat closet or somewhere else on the plane if the bins are full. It’s your call on that one – but I’d argue that on today’s super-crammed flights, gig bags don’t provide as much protection from the knucklehead trying to jam his rollaboard into a bin on top of your banjo, or from the ravages of the baggage hold if it ends up there despite your best efforts. Bottom line is that a hard case still offers better protection.
But I do strongly recommend obtaining a fabric case cover for your hard case, for several reasons. First, many have (or can be retrofitted with) backpack straps, making it a lot easier to lug the banjo through airports. Second, a case cover makes it look like you’re carrying a gig bag, potentially earning sympathy from flight crews. And third, many less-exotic hardshell cases have fairly cheap hardware that’s easy to snag and flip open. A case cover ensures the latches stay closed.
Because airline and security personnel can open your case at any time, you can’t lock the case – they’ll merely destroy the lock. So if money is short and you’re using a cheaper case without a cover, give serious thought to wrapping a belt around the outside of the case, through the handle, in order to keep the case closed should the latches flip open. Don’t be surprised to see the Tolex covering (the black stuff) seriously scuffed up during travel. Liquid electrical tape does a good job of repairing these dings.
HOW SHOULD I PACK MY BANJO?
The safest approach is to pack your banjo assuming that you’ll be forced to surrender it on check-in and not see it again until you arrive at your destination. In most cases won’t have to, but it’s not a bad way to think about things.
There are essentially two ways banjos get damaged in transit. The first is a crush problem – such as when the case gets run over by a baggage cart or caught in conveyor equipment, damaging both the case and its contents. The stronger the case, the more likely it is that the instrument will survive such an event.
The second way is a fall – such as when the case falls from a baggage conveyor or cart. The most common types of damage in these situations is damage to the resonator (specifically, tearing out the sidewall lugs) and/or ‘whiplash’ on the neck, causing it to break at the peghead. Airlines have also managed to break banjo necks at the heel. In a fall situation, the case is likely to be damaged too - but not always, which is why it's important to inspect the instrument on arrival if you haven’t had control of it for the entire trip (see below).
The best solution to crush is a flight case, if you can justify the cost. Damage from falls can occur regardless of case quality, so the key is to make sure that your banjo is as immovable in the case as possible so that the shock-absorbing material lining the case shell can do its job. This means filling all possible voids between the instrument and the case. Pay special attention to filling the voids above and below the peghead - curiously, most of even the best case builders tend not to provide adequate peghead support for this purpose. Hoffee is the exception; these cases have well-designed, built-in peghead supports and detents. And fill in any voids around the instrument itself. U-Haul stores sell polyethylene foam sheets for packing china; I’ve found that they work nicely to pad voids between a banjo and the case.
RESERVING/SEAT SELECTION, CHECK-IN AND ARRIVING AT THE AIRPORT
The way you reserve is increasingly important. Your goal is to 1) select a seat with the best likelihood of bin space, and 2) be among the first people to board the aircraft in your seat zone, improving the odds you'll find space for your instrument in an overhead bin. Seat selection can be a huge factor.
Here’s the challenge: in their efforts to squeeze every nickel out of customers, airlines are increasingly looking for ways to add extra fees to the cost of the basic ticket. Some airlines (notably Spirit and Allegiant) are blatant about this. But others are starting to follow suit – specifically, Delta and United. Both now offer “basic economy” tickets, of which traveling pickers should be extremely wary. Details on these are below, in the section related to specific airlines.
I stay away from these, and book flights that allow me to look for two different types of seats. If I’m feeling sufficiently flush to buy an ‘economy plus’ upgrade, I usually do so. In addition to more leg room, there’s that much more bin space, and these seats usually have a higher boarding priority.
If that’s not an option, I look for seats NEAR, but not AT, the rear of the plane. The bins closest to the rear of the plane are often taken up by flight crew carry-ons and other official gear such as first aid equipment, so I look about five rows or more from the back. And I always try to book a seat that has the highest odds of leaving the middle seat empty – again, partially for comfort, but partially to increase the odds of having bin space for the banjo. And given that I always travel with a computer bag in addition to the banjo (that’s the “personal item;” the banjo is the “carry on bag”) it’s nice if I can put the ‘puter under the unoccupied middle seat.
Sitting towards the rear is advantageous for another reason. Some airlines still board by row number, back-to-front. The earlier you board when your section is called, the higher your odds of success.
The exception to all of the above is Southwest, about which there's more information below.
If at all possible, check-in online (which gives you an opportunity to tweak your seat selection with most airlines).
Whether you check in online or at the airport, if you're checking other bags, keep the banjo as unobtrusive as possible when you arrive at the airport. Odds are that you won’t have an issue at check in; the vast majority of agents don’t care if they spot a banjo, but there are still a few who may be problematic. NOTE: see discussion (below) on the low-cost airlines.
TSA and Security:
Assuming that you’re not forced to surrender your banjo to the maw of the baggage handling system on check-in, you can bring your banjo through security screening. The case will fit through scanners.
Do remember to do a fast examination of the contents of your case before traveling. TSA does not like to see things such as large wire cutters and screwdrivers showing up on the screens (small ones are okay). And don't forget that the TSA people are looking for liquid explosives, so make sure that you don't have a bottle of instrument polish or any other liquid or gel substance in the case.
Don’t joke about banjos being hazardous materials with the TSA people. They aren’t known for their senses of humor.
Do yourself a favor, just in case you have bad luck and have to surrender the banjo upon check-in: write up directions regarding how to remove the resonator for inspection. I have a piece of paper showing the front of a banjo with specific instructions to TSA people (along with a polite “Thank you for keeping us safe!” message and clear instructions on removing the resonator. It has a photo of the pot of a banjo and arrows pointing to the four thumbscrews that hold the resonator on. I weave this through the strings.
Banjos have been damaged or destroyed by security personnel who couldn’t figure out how to get the resonator off. Remember, TSA has every right to check the contents of the case.
Boarding tactics matter a lot. The goal is to get to your seat before a significant number of passengers seated nearby get to theirs.
Some airlines board by zones; others board by rows. You want to be as close to the gate as possible when your zone/row is called. Position yourself accordingly, but be careful not to obstruct traffic or call attention to the fact that you’ve got a banjo case.
Let us now speak of Southwest Airlines, which regularly draws high marks from Banjo Hangout members who fly. Southwest doesn’t assign seats; instead, you’re given a zone letter – A, B, C – and a number (roughly 1-60). The gate agent sequentially calls passengers to line up according to their letter and number next to pedestals in the waiting area. Once on the plane, any open seat you want is yours.
The closer to A1 you are, the better. Southwest gives the best priority to people paying top dollar, but also allows passengers to check in online and upgrade their boarding priority for a remarkably reasonable fee. It's absolutely worth it. You can check in online 24 hours in advance with Southwest, but be forewarned that they do NOT send you an email alerting you to this. If you're a member of their Frequent Flyer program, though, they WILL send you an e-mail about three days out that allows you to pay the upgrade fee ($25, round trip) which virtually guarantees an A-group boarding number (you have an excellent chance of finding bin space as long as you're no deeper than halfway through the B group).
United uses a modification of this approach. You still reserve a specific seat, but you're assigned a zone number on check-in. On full-line aircraft at major airports, United sets up specific boarding-zone lines. Zones 1 and 2 generally have no issue with finding space, but if you’re in zone 3 or higher you may compete for it. Check the zone number on your boarding pass and get in that line as early as possible, even if that means standing for 20 minutes or so. Which brings us to:
WHAT AIRLINES ARE GOOD FOR TRAVELING PICKERS?
Alaska/Horizon: Not bad. Note that if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, where the line is (naturally) centered, they do a lot of short-haul stuff using Canadair Q-400 turboprops. Odds of being required to gate check are fairly high but at least they’re cool about it, in my experience. More west-coast flight options are likely now that the merger with Virgin America has been finalized. For the nonce, however, branding of the two airlines will remain separate.
Allegiant: I have no personal experience with Allegiant; this line came to my attention due to a comment from a BHO member on a previous thread version. Allegiant is one of the ultra-low-cost carriers. While most of the other airlines on this list (other than Spirit and, to an extent, Frontier) permit one reasonably sized piece of baggage as a carry-on and includes carriage of that bag in your ticket fee, Allegiant and Spirit don’t. They charge for any bag larger than the “personal item.” In essence, they lure you in with a cheap ticket, then charge you for everything else that makes traveling tolerable. Direct from the airline, here’s their policy:
A musical instrument may be brought on as a carry on if it fits in a bag within the stipulated carry on limitations; therefore, the bag must weigh less than 25 lbs and not exceed exterior dimensions of 9"x14"x22". The following conditions apply to acceptance for carriage in the aircraft cabin for bass, violas, cellos, guitars, and other musical instruments . . . whose size prevents such instruments or equipment from being handled as normal carry-on baggage: 1) the instrument or equipment must be contained in a case; 2) a reservation for an additional seat must be made for the instrument or equipment at the applicable fare; 3) the instrument or equipment must be secured in the first window seat behind a bulkhead.
Although the dimensions cited above are reasonably consistent with the legacy carriers that DO permit the odd dimensions of a banjo case in the bins, it’s important to remember that on airlines like Allegiant, baggage fees are a critical part of the revenue model, and they’re unlikely to charge you less when they don’t have to. In other words, if you fly Allegiant, the odds are excellent that you’re either going to have to check your banjo in the hold – for a fee – or buy it a very expensive seat. So much for your cheap ticket, eh? It'll be interesting to see if Allegiant (and Spirit, below) make any changes to this policy in light of the new D.O.T. regs. I have no interest in personally finding out - but if you fly either of these lines and can offer first-hand insight, let me know for future editions of this article.
American: I haven’t flown on a plane with the American brand for about five years, but American has been absorbed by USAir. The company has been pretty good about instruments as carry-ons for quite some time, and use of the above tactics should bring your reasonable success. One caveat – particularly in the northeast, they do a lot of short-hop stuff on older turboprops with very small bins. Depending on where you’re going (especially in the northeast), you may find legs using aircraft that require a gate check.
Delta: Delta is an airline upon which careful attention to the type of ticket you purchase is essential. They offer a “basic economy” ticket – their cheapest fare. The downside? You won’t be assigned a seat until you check in, and may not get a seat number until you’re at the boarding gate. You’ll board in the last zone called. All this means that the likelihood that you’ll be able to carry your banjo aboard with you is somewhere between slim and none. Although Delta was the last major airline to allow instruments into the cabin – and obviously wasn’t pleased about doing so – you should be okay provided that you pay for a regular coach (or better) ticket and arrange a decent seat.
Frontier: I have no personal experience with this airline, either. It does market itself as a low-cost carrier, and it WILL charge you for carry-on luggage if you purchase rock-bottom cheapest fares. You can, however, purchase tickets that do include carry-on fees, and the good news, according to Frontier’s website, is that instruments such as guitars and banjos “may exceed the carry-on baggage dimensions as long as it fits into the overhead bin.”
JetBlue: Never had a problem, and they’re pretty cool. I strongly recommend their “blue plus” ticket option, which includes one “free” checked bag (it actually works out cheaper than paying a bag fee on check-in). Bonus: you can listen to "Bluegrass Junction" on Sirius/XM when you fly with them, too. Wish they flew more places.
Southwest: The more I fly with this airline, the better I like it. Check in online, buy a boarding position upgrade if one's offered (they're not that expensive) and you've got the best odds of bin space for your banjo of any major airline (unless you're flying business class on one of the legacy carriers). Bonus: you can still check your regular luggage for no extra charge. The cabin crews are friendly, too. Could that have something to do with the fact that Southwest actually understands how to treat customers?
Spirit: Spirit is another ultra-low-cost airline that lures you in with cheap tickets and then rolls you for everything else. Their policies are similar to Allegiant’s (above) – with the added goodness that they make you sign a liability release after you pay to put your banjo in the hold (assuming you don’t want to buy a seat for it). I'll pass, thank you.
United: Ugh. These guys may not be quite as blatant as Spirit and Allegiant, but they’ve raised nickel-and-diming their customers to an art form, and they fly a LOT of connecting routes with smaller regional jets that can force a gate check. On the full-line flights, “Economy Plus” upgrades are worth the money if you can afford it. However, I'd avoid United’s new “Basic Economy” ticket like the plague. You’ll get last dibs on seating assignment and they’ll charge you for a carry-on. When it comes to actually getting to the places you want to go, United is also one of the airlines that actively incentivizes credit card acquisition with boarding priority, so if you fly often enough, it's probably worth doing that. The card also waives bag fees for the first checked bag. See the previous discussion on boarding tactics – with this airline, unless you're one of the favored, they’re incredibly important.
Virgin America: Ah, what might have been – though it showed promising growth at the start, Virgin America has finalized its acquisition by Alaska Airlines. In the short term, the branding of Virgin and Alaska will remain distinct, but the Virgin America brand will disappear by 2019. Alaska’s policies aren’t too onerous anyway, and it's one of the top-rated airlines with regard to customer service..
The above are airlines that offer service coast to coast in the U.S. There are some smaller branded regional airlines that may have different approaches. Also, note that many of the shorter legs flown today are actually operated by affiliated but separate airlines flying under the livery and brand of a major carrier (example: most short-haul United flights are actually operated by one of eleven different regional companies). Generally, the policies of these smaller carriers match those of the flag airline, though that point is usually moot given the types of aircraft they use. And here’s what you need to know about that:
WHAT KINDS OF PLANES CAN MANAGE BANJOS AS CARRY-ON?
By all means, find out what type of aircraft is scheduled for each leg of your journey. You can determine this on your airline’s website. The type of plane has a direct impact on your odds of being able to bring your banjo into the cabin.
Based on my experience, here’s how it breaks down with regard to commonly used planes in North America and whether the bins will handle a banjo in a more or less standard case:
B717 (and MD-80 variants), 737*, 747, 757 - yes. Hat tip to frequently-flying BHO member BDCA: some new cabin configurations of late-model 737s have bins that can only BARELY fit a banjo case, without room for much else. This, coupled with thinner seat backs (enabling United to shoehorn in a few more rows of seats) means more people competing for less carry-on space. Such aircraft may very well prove to increase odds of gate checking. So far, this appears limited to United - but if it works for them, odds are that others will follow.
767, 777 – It depends on the configuration of the plane. Generally, the answer is yes – as long as you’re not sitting in the center seats. The bins over the center seats in some configurations are amply deep enough but too short in length to accommodate a case. Outer bins are generally long enough – but not always. Fortunately, these planes generally have ample coat lockers and crews will generally stash your case in one of these.
787 – haven’t flown on one yet. They reportedly have larger bins.
All models – yes. CAVEAT: Airbuses, particularly the A-319 and its variants (including the 320), are particularly likely to have crew paraphernalia in the bins at the back of the plane.
Canadair Regional Jets:
CRJ 100, 200, 600 – no
CRJ 700 – yes, barely. The overhead bins in these aircraft CAN accommodate a banjo case, provided that it’s not oversized and the plane isn’t full. You may get lucky, but plan on gate checking.
CRJ 900: these have a somewhat different bin configuration that WILL accept a banjo provided that no one else has gotten there first.
Embrair Regional Jets:
Any Embraer with a model number LOWER than 170 – no. Any model number 170 and up – yes.
Turboprops are less common than they once were, but you may still encounter them – particularly if flying short hops to and from smaller destinations through major hubs such as Philadelphia, Newark, Denver, Salt Lake City or San Francisco. Most turboprops do not have adequate bin space (or closet space) for a banjo, even in a gig bag. But some configurations of the DeHavilland DHC-8 (“Dash 8”) can fit a banjo case, and the newer Canadair Q400 NextGen turboprops have adequate dimensions provided that the plane isn’t full.
WHAT IF I CAN’T CARRY MY BANJO ONTO THE PLANE?
Gate check it. This means that you carry the banjo through security and attempt to board with it. If you’re on a plane that’s too full or is incapable of handling a banjo in the bins, you then get a gate-check tag from the ramp agent and leave it either at the bottom of the jetway (or another designated spot) just before boarding, or in an area designated for this purpose (you’ll recognize the area because there will be large roll-aboards, strollers, etc. parked in the same location). Baggage crews will then transfer the instrument directly into the hold. Your banjo will be returned at the end of the flight the same way.
Bad things can still happen to a banjo in the interim, but the instrument gets handled by the baggage maulers only twice, as opposed to the numerous terrible things that can happen to it if you send it through the entire baggage handling system. Note: if you must gate check and have the opportunity to interact directly with one of the baggage handlers, it’s not a bad idea to tip him/her five or ten bucks to take special precautions with your instrument.
In recent mainline (non-commuter) flights on some airlines, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: an offer to check through bags to destination, but NOT accept gate checks. You’d be wise to politely refuse. On one such flight, finding no bin space, I was able to gate check it anyway – cabin crews can do things gate crews won’t. And if forced to check it through, by all means REFUSE to sign or accept any documentation waiving the airline of responsibility for damage. They’ll often try to make you do so. I politely refuse, tell the gate agent that I’ll carry it aboard, If I’m unable to find bin space I’ll allow the cabin crew to arrange the gate check.
The way you approach the crews (both gate and flight) can make a huge difference in your odds of success. If I know the bin configuration can’t handle the case, I ASK for a gate check tag rather than behaving like an ignorant jerk. If gate crew tells me it won’t fit and I think it will, I’ll thank them for their concern but say that in my experience it will (as long as I know that to be true). And I NEVER argue with flight crews; being polite and cooperative is always better than behaving like a self-entitled jerk.
Let’s extend this idea to our fellow passengers. Flying is stressful enough as it is, and even though it’s the airlines’ policies that have made carrying on such a challenge, we’re all occasionally required to join a whole bunch of strangers in a confined metal tube and hurtle through space.
I think it’s wise to be cognizant of the fact that the overhead bins are NOT designed for the odd dimensions of a banjo or guitar case. They’re really designed for geometrically precise rollaboards. A banjo or guitar case essentially takes up the space of two rollaboards (though stuff like small duffles can certainly be placed on top of them, or between the neck part of the case and the bin door, so it’s not entirely wasted space).
To that end: if I’ve successfully managed to get the banjo into a bin, I’m happy with that and will only put my computer bag (my “personal item”) in a bin if there’s plenty of space (this is another reason I often look for “economy plus” seating, by the way). I’ll check the suitcase without a second thought, even if there’s a fee. If the plane is big enough, and you see a guitarist or another banjo player boarding (even if he/she is seated elsewhere), it’s not a bad idea to arrange something of a tag team so one instrument case can go atop the other.
ONCE YOU’VE ARRIVED:
If you’ve been forced to check your banjo, even if it’s only a gate check, open your case on arrival and examine your banjo thoroughly. That includes removing the resonator. If there’s anything amiss, you need to file a report immediately with the baggage office, before leaving the airport.
This will undoubtedly begin a long and very frustrating process. The claims people at the airlines are expected to deny claims of damage to expensive items, and there are international conventions on the value of checked baggage to support these denials. You CAN be successful – but you need to gradually work your way ‘up the line’ until you’re talking to the right people.
Keep scrupulous notes of all conversations and emails you have with airline personnel. Be polite, but be firm and, above all, persistent – the airlines clearly want to get you sufficiently frustrated that you’ll simply give up. Don’t go nuclear all at once, but after a while – perhaps several months – you may find it handy to contact their public relations department, their investor relations department, and the office of the president. I’ve used this approach successfully.
It might not be a foolish tactic to mention that you’re an active member of a website that represents more than 80,000 banjo players, many of whom travel, and that bad reviews of an airline get around fast.