Bobby Vega is a world-class collector and vintage bass freak of the first order. The gear is real. The stories are true. The dates are foggy. And the names of the innocent have been changed to protect their identities… and save Bobby’s ass!
I’VE BEEN TRAVELING ON AIRPLANES WITH MY bass for a long, long time. I used to go up to the counter, buy a ticket, check my bag, go to the gate, and walk onto the plane with my bass in a Fender case. I’d smile and say “good morning” and “how are you” to the stewardesses, they’d ask what band I played with, I’d tell them, and they’d say, “Wow, how exciting! You can put it in the overhead bin.” Then I’d say thank you, and off to the smoking section I’d go. Times have changed!
First, if you’re going to try to get your bass on the plane with you, you’ll need a gig bag, one that’ll fit through the TSA scanning machine and protect your bass, because if they won’t let you bring it onboard or there isn’t any room left on the plane, you’ll have to gate-check it. If you are lucky enough to get your bass on the plane, you’ll have to keep an eye out for the other passengers, because they just might smash your bass with their big-ass bags!
So, how do you better your chances of taking your bass onboard an airplane with you? Here are a few suggestions.
When you get in line to board the plane, keep your bass down by your side. My technique is to hold it on the opposite side of the ticket agent: If the agent is on my right, I carry my bass on my left, tucked behind my arm. If the bass is on your back, it looks big and just might be a red flag. Remember—try to be invisible. It’s a game.
On some airlines, you can get your boarding pass online 24 hours before your flight, which means you get to board first. Some airlines offer extra-room seating, which allows you to pre-board and go to the front of the TSA line; it costs about $100 more each way, but your chances of getting your bass in the cabin of the plane with you are very good.
Most airline employees don’t know who you are and don’t care about what band you’re in or how much you bass is worth. So remember to say “hello,” “please,” and “thank you”—those words go a long, long way and are a good place to start. Think of it as a video game: Checkpoint one is the ticket agent. Checkpoint two is walking past the flight attendant and onto the plane. Checkpoint three is putting your bass in the overhead bins without anyone smashing the shit out of it.
I once had to take three flights to get back home, and on the third connecting flight, I got past the ticket agent with my main bass, a 1961 two-tone sunburst Fender Jazz Bass, at my side in a leather gig bag. But as soon as I got on the plane, a flight attendant looked straight at me and said, “No, you’re not!”
I said, “ ‘No, you’re not’ what?”
“You’re not bringing that on my plane!” (Over his head, I saw the words, “Oh, hell no!”) He was already wound up, like Chris Tucker in a Jackie Chan movie—eyes bugging out of his head and veins popping out the side of his neck and forehead. “You’ll have to give me your guitar so I can gate-check it.”
I said, “May I please put it in the overhead bin?”
“I can’t gate-check my bass.”
“Then you’ll have to catch another flight.”
When this happens, you should know that the flight attendant is the boss. You could stand your ground, but it’s not worth it. Getting kicked off the flight and having the air marshal escort you off the plane? I’ve seen it, and trust me, it’s not worth it!
So I did. I got off that plane and caught another flight, because I didn’t want my bass to go into the belly of the airplane in my leather gig bag. For a long time, I didn’t try to bring my bass on an airplane again.
Now I have flight cases for my basses. There are so many available; the best one I’ve seen is the SKB iSeries waterproof bass case. This case rocks. It’s ATA-approved, and it’s tough—when I use it, people sometimes think I have a gun, because SKB originally made these cases for military firearms. The iSeries cases are made to fit Fender Jazz and Precision Basses, but you can squeeze other basses in there, too. For my acoustic basses, I have an older Calton case. The best things about the SKB and Calton cases are that they’re strong and you won’t be charged for oversize or overweight baggage.
One more tip: When you fly, keep your guitar cords with you. If you put them in your bass case, the TSA just might take them apart; they don’t know what they are, so they try to unscrew them, breaking the solder joints.
Always remember—anything can happen, and it does. Caca pasa!