Earlier this year, the United States Department of Transportation finally set official rules into effect that standardized policy for flying with musical instruments across all US airlines. These new rules were written bearing any musician in mind, from the casual strummer to the touring professional, and are designed to allow you to bring your music with you without incurring any unreasonable expenses or hassles. Since the process of flying with an instrument has previously been a dreaded uncertainty amongst traveling musicians, we figured we would do our part to clear the air (no pun intended).
The new rules
The official document can be found here, but to summarize:
- Airlines must now allow a smaller instrument, such as a violin or guitar, to be stowed on board as carry-on baggage, so long as there's room for said instrument in the overhead storage racks or under your seat at the time of boarding. Storage is provided on a "first come, first serve" basis.
- You cannot be asked to remove your instrument from the plane once it has already been safely stored on board.
- You cannot be charged any fees for bringing an instrument on board as carry-on baggage other than any standard carry-on fee charged by the carrier.
- Passengers who have instruments that are too large to be carried on board as standard carry-on baggage (for example, double basses) may store their instrument in a separately purchased seat.
Preparing your instrument for flight
Since storage for carry-on baggage is first come, first serve, a good rule of thumb for preparing your instrument for flight is to do so under the assumption that it'll be gate checked. This way, you're covered even if there's not enough room on board.
- Make sure your instrument is in a hard case. Not a soft case, and not a polyfoam case. While polyfoam cases are great for their portability and generally provide adequate protection for day-to-day handling, they're not well suited for the abuse luggage may receive before, during, and after a flight. At the very least, your instrument should be inside a sturdy wooden case, although you can never go wrong with a flight-safe case with TSA latches. Gator and SKB are two great companies who make such cases, and while they do tend to be more expensive than the standard hard case, it is definitely a sound investment for frequent flyers.
- Your instrument should fit snug in its case. If there's any noticeable wiggle room, it's a good idea to stuff the open space with rags, towels, or T-shirts. Not so much as to add too much extra pressure that could cause harm, but enough to prevent the instrument from moving around.
- Remove any accessories and tools from the case and pack them elsewhere for the flight. This includes, but is not limited to, things like string winders, cutters, multi-tools, hex wrenches, tuners, pedals, and cleaning supplies. While these items may seem harmless and commonplace for musicians, they may be unfamiliar and foreign to airport security personnel. You want to avoid giving anyone a reason to need to search your case, as this often provides an opportunity for rough handling and accidental dropping of instruments.
- You do not need loosen the strings of your instrument for flight. In spite of a fairly common travel myth, stringed instruments are designed to withstand string tension. As long as your bass guitar isn't strapped to the wing of the airliner, your instrument is being transported in a pressurized, reasonably climate-controlled environment. If this were not the case, people would be unable to travel with their pets.
Boarding with your instrument
Now that you have safely packed your instrument for travel, here are a few tips for ensuring successful boarding:
- Remember to be polite and always keep your cool when dealing with airport staff, as they tend to feel more inclined to accommodate someone who's treating them with respect.
- Since many gate agents and flight attendants may be unaware of the official policy regarding musical instruments, it's important that you have a copy of the official rules printed and ready.
- It's advised that you pay extra for priority boarding so that you can make sure to find a space for your instrument before the overhead luggage racks fill up.
- Some planes may have an additional closet on board for extra storage. This varies depending on the size of the aircraft, but there's certainly no harm in asking a flight attendant if your instrument can be stowed there for the duration of the flight.
The recent US Department of Transportation ruling is a huge step in making travel a lot easier for musicians. Supplementing these rules with a few extra precautions means that you can now confidently and comfortably take your music abroad without having to worry about the safety of your instrument. Bon voyage!
As a performing musician, John Tyler Kent has played with a wide variety of artists for all kinds of audiences, from small clubs across the country to international music festivals. In addition to his work as a performer, Tyler has working experience in marketing, production, and composition.