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Flying with ‘Tuba Brown:’ Lots of leg room, laughs — but no frequent flyer miles

Mark Brown learned all about the travails of flying with a musical instrument while his son, Spencer, was playing the tuba. Family Photo.

The story of the DePaul University music student who bought a separate airline seat for her cello—only to get kicked off the flight anyway — brought back a flood of memories in the Brown household.

For many years, my son, Spencer, was an orchestral musician who travelled by necessity with his tuba — flying back and forth to college, auditions, music lessons, camps and festivals.

This required buying two tickets — one for Spencer and one for “Tuba Brown,” as one of the airlines labeled it.

Tuba Brown also was required to have its own boarding pass, but alas, was never allowed to accumulate frequent flyer miles.

Unlike DePaul cellist Jingjing Hu, Spencer and his tuba were never kicked off a flight, even though he regularly flew 737s, the airline’s ostensible reason for barring her.

But Spencer encountered obstacles so frequently that every flight became a stressful adventure.

Flying with a cello is one thing. It’s a lightweight instrument that even in its travel case fits neatly in an airline seat.

Imagine the joys of flying with a heavy, bulky tuba, which most airlines require to be seated only in a bulkhead row.

Spencer Brown and “Tuba Brown.” Family Photo.
Spencer Brown and “Tuba Brown.” Family Photo.

On one occasion when there was no bulkhead seat available in coach, the airline required him to upgrade the tuba to first class.

Naturally, the tuba could not partake of the first class amenities, but the flight attendants were kind enough to bring the tuba’s meals to my wife and son back in coach.

If there’s one thing we learned during that time it’s that not even the airline personnel know their own rules for flying with large musical instruments.

A common greeting at the boarding gate was: “Where do you think you’re going with that? You can’t bring that on here!”

My son, who was usually making these flights alone while between the ages of 16 and 21, became an expert in FAA regulations and each airline’s individual policies.

More important, Spencer, who can be sharp-tongued (can’t imagine where he got that), learned that polite diplomacy was the best way to handle himself in an airport.

The adventure would usually start at the security checkpoint where the TSA agents would freak, most of them never having seen a tuba, let alone know the procedure for inspecting it.

If Spencer was lucky, the X-ray machine would be large enough to accommodate the tuba and prove to the TSA that it was just a tuba.

Often, however, the X-ray machine was too small, and a hand inspection was required. That’s a problem.

Most people see a tuba, think “oompah” and don’t understand that they’re looking at a delicate, expensive instrument capable of making beautiful music.

Spencer had the task of politely but firmly making sure the TSA agents didn’t break it.

Spencer Brown was featured playing the tuba with the Merit School of Music on the cover of WTTW-WFMT’s magazine.
Spencer Brown was featured playing the tuba with the Merit School of Music on the cover of WTTW-WFMT’s magazine.

On at least two occasions, TSA required him to play the tuba to prove he was a musician. One of those times at LAX, Spencer decided to make it a mini-concert by playing a selection of music he need to practice for an upcoming audition.

One good thing about flying with the tuba was that it usually allowed him to pre-board the flight.

One night in Burbank, California, he lined up to get on the plane only to have a guy who seemed to be an aging rock star cut in front of him. Spencer asserted his position at the front of the line. Members of the guy’s entourage ended up teasing the old guy because Spencer had never heard of Eddie Money.

Another time he was waiting when a woman pushed in front of him. Again, he told her he needed to get on the plane first to deal with the tuba. She relented. Spencer figured out later it was Nancy Pelosi.

After my son reached a certain level of musical accomplishment, he needed to travel with two tubas.

One would travel in its flight case in the baggage compartment (an extra charge for overweight luggage), the other in the cabin next to my son.

My son decided he didn’t want a career in music.

I miss the tuba airline stories almost as much as I miss hearing him play.