Traveling by air with instruments is an important part of how many musicians make a living. Security clampdowns since 2001 have made traveling by air or across international borders with instruments more difficult, complicated, and frustrating, but recent regulatory changes may mean more consistent and predictable policies. The following are some guidelines and suggestions to get you and your instrument where you need to go.
- What is the status of federal law?
- I need to fly with my instrument. What should I do?
- If I carry my instrument on board, can I still bring another carry-on?
- What if I run into problems anyway?
What’s the status of federal law?
Passenger air travel is governed by multiple federal agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Avaition Administration (FAA).
The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) successfully negotiated with the TSA to make it easier for musicians traveling with instruments. Unfortunately, the TSA’s rules apply to their security screenings only, and not to individual carriers’ baggage policies.
As a result, AFM and other groups worked to include language in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 mandating that the FAA draft formal regulations creating uniform standards that all airlines must follow. These regulations stipulate three things:
1) Airlines must permit passengers “to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage” if the instrument can be safely stowed in overhead bins and if there is room at the time the passenger boards
2) For instruments that don’t fit in overhead bins (such as cellos), airlines must allow passengers to carry the instrument on board with the purchase of an extra ticket.
3) For larger instruments (still within applicable weight and size requirements), airlines must transport the instruments as checked baggage.
The act was signed into law in Feb 2012, and the FAA was given 2 years to prepare formal regulations. This would create a consistent unambiguous standard that musicians could reply upon. In the meantime, musicians still experienced significant difficulties with individual carriers, and policies remain inconsistent from airline to airline, sometimes depending on the whims of gate agents. In February 2014, after the FAA missed their deadline, a bipartisan group of of Senators and Representatives has asked the FAA to take immediate action to prioritize this rulemaking. Senator Jack Reed followed up with another letter in July 2014. Finally in December 30, 2014, the FAA announced its final rules. The rules go into effect on March 6, 2015.
I have to fly with my instrument. What should I do?
First of all, make sure you know your packed instrument’s total size and weight. Whenever possible, check various airlines’ limitations for carry-on and checked baggage before booking your ticket. (Many American-based carriers stipulate linear size of carry-ons — i.e., the total sum of height plus length plus width.) Certain musicians, such as cellists, may consider purchasing a second passenger seat for their instruments.
If you have the option of choosing your own seat, choose a seat that will allow you to board on the early side, as this will give you more storage options for carry-ons. Most commonly, this means choosing a seat towards the rear of the aircraft, but as airlines boarding procedures vary, it’s worth consulting a site like seatguru.com for boarding procedures.
Assume that the security and airline personnel know absolutely nothing about your craft or instrument. For that reason, consider putting non-essential items that may mystify TSA and airline agents (reed knives, valve oils, end pins, mutes, electronic tuners, etc.) in your checked luggage to avoid confusion and screening slowdowns with your carry-on.
In addition, make sure you print out a copy of the TSA guidelines and your airline’s guidelines and bring them with you to the airport. Remember, your everyday equipment is very unusual to non-musicians. Keep in mind as well that individual TSA agents and airline staff are not always familiar with their own department or carrier’s policies regarding musical instruments; it may help if you calmly explain and demonstrate to them that your instrument falls within their allowed parameters. (Consider packing a small sewing or fabric tape measure with you so that you can prove on the spot that your instrument case meets airline size mandates.)
Lastly, allow yourself even more time than usual to get through security screening. The TSA recommends that musicians add an extra half hour to their departure timetable. Be sure to stay with your instrument as it is being screened and re-packed. The TSA also suggests including in your instrument case a short note in an easily seen spot that contains clear and concise handling and repacking instructions for “someone with no musical background.” According to the TSA website, “Security officers will handle musical instruments very carefully and will allow you to be as involved as possible in any physical screening.”
If I carry my instrument on board, can I still bring another carry-on?
This is an area in which the TSA and individual airlines may have different policies. The TSA stipulates that passengers can carry one musical instrument in addition to one other carry-on and one personal item. However, individual airlines may not allow a second carry-on; check with your airline directly. If you can manage it, consider having your instrument as your only carry-on item.
What if I run into problems anyway?
Unfortunately, the situation has been unreliable enough that, in spite of all your best proactive efforts, you may still encounter problems. We’re hoping this will change as the regulations are implemented and personnel are trained in the new rules, but for now It’s advisable to have a back-up, worst case scenario plan to get your instrument where it needs to go on time. For example, consider shipping your instrument via an air courier like UPS or FedEx, renting or borrowing at your destination, or taking a train or car instead of flying.
If you experience issues with a TSA agent or airline staff such as gate crew or flight attendants, remember to stay calm and polite. Anger or indignation, however justifiable, will not get a positive or helpful response.
Updated 1/07/15 KE
Airliner image by Wo st 01/Wikipedia used under a CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.