Tips for Traveling by Air
Musicians have long encountered difficulty and uncertainty when traveling with musical instruments by air. Immediately following the events of September 11, 2001, a national coalition of concerned organizations including the League of American Orchestras and the American Federation of Musicians, began influencing policy and crafting tips for making reservations, packing instruments, and calmly dealing with last-minute problems. Orchestras and individual musicians are reminded to plan carefully for the safe transportation of musical instruments when traveling by plane, taking into account required security measures and changes in airline policies.
There are steps you can take to increase the chances of successfully carrying instruments in-cabin or as checked baggage. We have outlined a guide below, and similar information is included in the FAQ and tips provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
CHOOSING AN AIRLINE AND MAKING YOUR RESERVATION:
- Know airline policies.
- New rules implemented by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on March 6, 2015, require airlines operating within the U.S. to accommodate musical instruments as carry-on items as long as there is room available in the overhead bin or under-seat area at the time of boarding and the instrument is safely stowed.
- While not all airlines permit passengers to purchase a seat for larger instruments, the DOT has encouraged them to do so.
- Airlines must allow musicians to check musical instruments in the baggage hold upon request, as long as the sum of the length, width, and height of the exterior case dimensions does not exceed 150 inches, its weight does not exceed 165 pounds, and the aircraft’s cargo hold is sufficiently large to accommodate such items. Larger instruments may be allowed as checked baggage, but may be subject to “oversize” fees.
When selecting an air carrier, call to confirm that you are travelling with a musical instrument and to inquire whether the size of the aircraft might limit your ability to fly with an instrument - and be sure to have on hand the exterior dimensions of your instrument’s case. Airlines make their policies available online - carry a copy.
This link, provided by Airlines for America (A4A), is an overview of some, but not all, policies established by major airlines. Be sure to click the links in the chart to view the full airline policies for further detail. If you are traveling on one of the airlines listed on this page, print a copy of the web page and take it with you.
- When making your reservation, consider options for early boarding. Depending on individual airline policies, paying extra for early boarding or requesting a seat assignment at the back of the plane may allow more time to stow your instrument, and more space options. Paying for early boarding may be well worth the cost if it means space will be available for your instrument. For certain airlines, passengers seated in the rear of the aircraft are boarded immediately after first class and special needs passengers, so it’s worthwhile to find out how the airline you will fly determines its boarding order.
- Notify reservation agents of oversized items. For space and safety reasons, many airlines have limits on the number of oversized items allowed in-cabin. And flight crews have to ensure that oversized items do not block passenger views of safety signs. Even if you paid an additional fee or booked a seat for your instrument, ask the reservation agent to record that you are traveling with an oversized musical instrument.
- Print a copy of the new federal rules for travel with instruments and take it with you. Having a copy of the rules can be helpful in case difficulty is encountered while traveling.
PACKING AND CARRYING YOUR INSTRUMENT:
- Remove all extraneous items from the case. All tools and other items should be checked or carried separately to simplify the screening process. What are completely familiar items to you - cleaning fluids and tools, valve oil, end pins, reed knives, mutes, tuners, metronomes - may seem mysterious to screening personnel.
- Limit the number of carry-on items. Most airlines will consider your musical instrument to be your “one carry-on item.”
- Arrive early. You may hear that check-in and screening takes only minutes – THIS MAY NOT BE TRUE FOR MUSICIANS. Arriving early will allow for the time you may need to work with security and flight crews to make sure your instrument gets safely on board. Bear in mind that problems may take some time to correct. Therefore, it is imperative that you arrive AT THE GATE at least one hour before boarding time.
SECURITY SCREENING PROCEDURES:
In 2002, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) secured a commitment from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to facilitate musicians traveling with their instruments. According to a letter from the TSA to the AFM, these steps are in place:
On December 20, 2002, TSA instructed aircraft operators that effective immediately, they are to allow musical instruments as carry-on baggage in addition to the limit of one bag and one personal item per person as carry-on baggage on an aircraft. Additionally, these revised procedures were communicated to our TSA screeners at the passenger screening checkpoints throughout the country. Should your membership experience problems at the security screening checkpoints, please advise them to request to speak to a screening supervisor for resolution.
Be aware that, while TSA will allow a musical instrument as an additional item through security, most airlines will consider the instrument to be your "one carry on item."
In August of 2006, the TSA adopted new procedures that permit passengers to be present for and assist with the screening of large musical instruments as checked baggage. According to the TSA:
The screening will be conducted by the TSA in a designated area near the ticket counter and the instrument will then be returned by TSA to the aircraft operator for processing as checked baggage. Passengers may request this service at the ticket counter as they are checking in.
The links below include a page from the TSA outlining these policies:
DEALING CALMLY WITH LAST-MINUTE PROBLEMS:
It is crucial that as a traveling musician you recognize several important facts.
- The most important responsibility of airport and transportation officials is security.
- The most important responsibility of gate attendants and flight attendants is safety.
- The most important responsibility of the captain is safety AND security.
Your instrument represents an unusual item that could very well be unexpected. Gate and flight crews that have a very short period of time to seat passengers in an aircraft try their best to deal with the unexpected concisely and quickly. However, you have the right to travel with your instrument onboard if the airline permits it. Therefore, it is recommended that you remain calm and polite. In many cases, the problem may be resolved. Consider this:
- If you are stopped by a flight attendant, calmly and quickly explain the precautions you have taken to prepare your instrument to safely travel in-cabin.
- Be accommodating by suggesting placing the instrument in the rear of the aircraft, or securing the instrument with cords or ties offered by airline personnel.
- If necessary, immediately ask to deplane so that you can resolve this matter with a customer service representative, conflict resolution officer, or airline supervisor.
- DO NOT block the way of boarding passengers.
Finally, prepare yourself for the possibility that you may not be able to travel with your instrument in-cabin – even if you have followed all possible procedures. What will you do? Are you willing to send your instrument by air courier? Is it packed well enough to withstand transportation in the cargo hold?
If your experience flying runs counter to the policies posted by the airlines, you are strongly encouraged to submit a complaint to both the airline and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Start first with a complaint to the airline, which will produce the quickest response. Next, submit a copy of your complaint to the DOT so that they have a record of the difficulty musicians encounter when flying. DOT does not usually respond directly to passengers filing complaints, but the agency monitors complaints for patterns or egregious cases that warrant actions to hold airlines to laws and regulations.
The DOT says the following about opportunities to receive compensation for lost or damaged instruments. Be sure to check with individuals airlines for more information:
“If your instrument should be lost, damaged or delayed, there is a limit on the airline’s liability. At this writing the limits are $3,400 per passenger for domestic trips, and 1,131 “Special Drawing Rights” for international trips (including the domestic portion of an international itinerary). A “Special Drawing Right” is an international currency surrogate that floats on a daily basis. At this writing 1,131 SDRs is equal to US $1,686.50. You can visit www.imf.org to see its current value.
Some airlines disclaim liability altogether for loss of or damage to musical instruments on domestic trips. On international trips (including domestic portions of international journeys), airlines are usually prohibited by treaty from disclaiming liability for baggage that they actually carry. Passengers traveling with musical instruments whose value is higher than the limits listed above should ask their airline if it offers “excess valuation,” which permits a passenger to pay a fee to raise these limits. Some airlines might not offer excess valuation for musical instruments. You may also want to consider personal insurance that covers the instrument when traveling.”