The ideal--and less ideal--ways to protect your instrument on an airplane
Flying with gear is always a stressful task that shouldn't take as much planning as it winds up having to. I've flown around the world with guitars and amps and been amazed at the amount of work it's sometimes taken and the amount of prayer that's always given. Much has been written about how to navigate the TSA’s rules and regulations for the safety of your instrument. In fact, there’s a petition sponsored by the American Federation of Musicians to add language to a bill currently in congress that would streamline all airlines’ instrument carry-on policies. Until that becomes a reality, however, the fate of your instruments is in the hands of individual airline employees and baggage handlers. Because of this, there are a few extra precautions you should take to guard your belongings when traveling by air.
The Ideal Options
For starters, buying an extra seat on the plane is the safest way to go, but that simply isn’t reality for most musicians. If you can’t, try to use the instrument as a carry on item. Use a well-padded gig bag and ask the flight attendant if they will store it with the crew’s luggage. This has worked out pretty well for me in the past, but it's a gamble. If they don't have room in the overhead compartments or won't give up any closet space they can force you to either leave it or gate-check it. And a soft gig bag under a plane spells disaster.
Checking an instrument is not the end of the world. If you find yourself flying often, I highly suggest buying an ATA (Air Travel Approved) case. Yes, they are expensive, but more than likely so was your instrument that you hold near and dear to your heart, and getting it from A to B is a high priority. It's a one-time expense that will ease some of the stress of traveling. These cases are typically 3/8" thick plywood with a Formica laminate on top, aluminum edging, and oversized ball corners with a foam interior that should be cut to fit your instrument snug tight. A bit of warning, though, is you will pay an overage charge for size and quite possibly weight for any ATA case.
The Other Options
Expensive ways aside, you can also employ a few little tricks to pack your guitar well in the hardshell case that came with your instrument. As a precaution, I always detune the strings to take the extra tension off of the neck before it gets packed. The right amount of pressure hitting a headstock that has full string tension—especially angled ones—will be enough to decapitate your guitar. Once, you’ve detuned, go buy some bubble wrap from an office supply store. Wrap around the headstock and place the guitar in the case. Depending on how deep the pocket is where the headstock lays, you may want to put a little more there before the guitar goes in. Be very careful not to put too much—you don't want the bubble wrap to be pushing that end of the guitar up out of the case.
You can also cut a long strip of bubble wrap and lay it the full length of the strings to take up any extra space there may be between the guitar’s top and the lid of the guitar case. On cases that aren’t the tightest fit, I've cut a second long strip and placed it between the sides of the guitar and the walls of the case. The idea is to eliminate any and all areas where the guitar can rattle around.
After you get the guitar situated snugly in its case, tape the latches down. There's no need to wrap the whole case with tape—a piece the same length of the latch will do nicely to keep them from coming open at inopportune times. You definitely don't want latches opening and getting broken off, or even worse, the case lid coming open. TSA will pull the tape off for security checks, but they should put it back before approving it and placing it on the conveyor belt. If they don't, tell them to. It's always a good idea to watch security go through anything you check in with an airline.
Nothing I've described is a surefire way of protecting your belongings from being tossed around by a baggage handler, but at least you're as prepared as you possibly can be for them. Remember, “Murphy” is out there... try to eliminate him wherever possible.