5 Things You Need to Know About the New Rules for Flying With Musical Instruments

Posted by Blake Guthrie on May 8, 2015 09:00 AM
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flyingDon't get left out on the wing concerning the new rules for flying with a musical instrument. (Image via flickr.com)

Did you know the rules have changed concerning flying with musical instruments? Actually, there were no across-the-board rules before, just the whim of the airlines and their ever-changing policies. The US Dept. of Transportation changed all that in January when it announced the new rules that went into effect on March 6. Now, musicians finally have some federally mandated guidelines to go by when flying with an instrument.

You don't have to search far to find a musician who has a nightmare story about traveling with a beloved instrument. Even if you haven't experienced difficulties yourself, you probably know someone who has. Songs have even been written about the hassles of flying with a guitar. (Texas singer/songwriter James McMurtry's "Airline Agent" is one, and Dave Carroll's "United Breaks Guitars," a song he wrote after witnessing baggage handlers mishandling his $3,500 Taylor, went viral in 2009.) Most musicians avoid checking their instruments at all costs unless absolutely necessary. Now, the DOT ruling helps make the please-don't-make-me-check-my-instrument scenario more likely.

Here are the most important things to know about the new rules.

  1. Airlines can no longer refuse boarding to someone carrying on a musical instrument. According to the DOT ruling, all carriers must allow you to bring an instrument on board, provided it fits in the overhead bin or under the seats in accordance with FAA safety regulations.
  2. Once your instrument is safely stowed, the airline can't make you move it to accommodate the bags of other passengers who board after you.
  3. Priority isn't given to musical instruments, so if the stowage areas are full when you board, you must gate check the instrument, just like you would with any other carry-on luggage in the same situation.
  4. It's recommended you pay extra for priority boarding if an airline offers it (most do) so you're one of the first ones on the plane. This way you won't be jockeying with other passengers for limited storage space, and there's less of a chance you'll have to gate check your instrument.
  5. Musicians with larger instruments – such as a cello – that won't fit in cabin stowage areas can purchase a ticket for the instrument as "seat baggage." The airline isn't allowed to charge an additional fee on top of the normal ticket price for transporting your instrument this way. Make sure the ticketing agent knows about the new rules, because large instruments aren't allowed as seat baggage in seats where they will obstruct passengers' view of signage and emergency exits. The instrument must be in a hardshell case and properly secured. If the seat baggage option isn't available due to a sold-out flight or safety concerns, you'll have to check the instrument to the cargo hold.

Many carriers already had most of these policies in place, but now it's a requirement for all airlines operating in the US to follow these rules. It's a good idea to peruse the six-page document yourself so that you're armed with information when you get to the airport, because the ruling actually states that "frontline customer service agents and flight crew may not always be well-versed" in policies regarding traveling with an instrument. Here's hoping all your flights are as hassle-free as possible. Happy flying!


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Blake Guthrie is a freelance writer, journalist, and musician with a longtime disorder of singer/songwriter-itis. His articles have appeared in print and online publications such as the Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionHuffington Post, and USA Today. Concerning his disorder, Flagpole magazine in Athens, GA, once speculated that Guthrie was "either a psychopath or some kind of genius."

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