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New rules for flying with musical instruments

September 29, 2015
Posted by
Drawing of a stick figure standing on top of a plane and holding a hammered dulcimer case

If you’ve ever tried to carry a musical instrument onto a plane, you might be familiar with the gut-wrenching anxiety that grows and grows as you wait to board the plane and then stops your heart for a breath right when you hand the gate attendant your boarding pass. Will he let you on, even though your case doesn’t actually fit in the little cage where you’re supposed to test the size of your carry-on? Or will he pry your beloved instrument out of your hands to be tossed around at the mercy of the baggage handlers?

You should be able to breathe a little easier now, thanks to some changes made this past March. The 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act included a section addressing this issue and attempting to make it easier for musicians to travel with their instruments. It went un-implemented for a few years, but the Department of Transportation has at long last issued the “final rule” that will actually put the new regulations into practice. So here’s what you need to know.

Carrying on an instrument

The text of the rule states that airlines must allow “a small musical instrument, such as a violin or a guitar” to be carried onto the plane, provided the instrument can be stowed in an approved baggage compartment, such as under the seat or in an overhead bin. Musical instruments are now officially exempt from the same size restrictions that apply to other carry-on items, but there are a couple of provisions to be aware of.

Although the instrument can be larger than a standard roll-aboard suitcase, it must still be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you or in an overhead bin. So this probably rules out your 34-string harp or your 4-octave chromatic hammered dulcimer, but you should be able to fit a lap harp or a 12/11 dulcimer, provided you are on a large plane with roomy bins. However, if you’re taking a little puddle-jumper on a 45-minute flight, don’t count on fitting much more than your coat in the overhead bins.

The other caveat is that there must be space available to stow the instrument at the time you board the plane. This means that if you board late and all the bins are full, you’re out of luck. The airline is not required to make other passengers remove their bags to make room for your harp. But if you get there first, they also can’t require you to remove your harp to make room for other baggage. This is true, to quote the text of the final rule, “even if the space taken by the musical instrument could accommodate one or more other carry-on items.”

Additional notes:

  • If you are flying coach and the bins are full, the airline is not required to offer you overhead space in first class.
  • Airlines are not allowed to charge any different fees for carrying on an instrument than they would for regular carry-on baggage.
  • If the airline allows one personal item and one carry-on item, the instrument is likely going to count as the carry-on item unless it’s small enough to fit completely under the seat in front of you. So you should probably plan on checking your luggage!

Buying a seat for an instrument

If your instrument is too large to be stowed, you may be able to buy a seat for it in the cabin. This is not a requirement of the new rule, but airlines are encouraged to allow this, provided the safety requirements are met (it has to be in a case, under the weight limit, sufficiently tied down, and not obscuring anyone’s view of safety signs). If they do allow it, they cannot charge any extra fees for it being an instrument instead of a person.

Checking an instrument as baggage

Airlines are required to accept instruments as checked baggage, provided they comply with the FAA’s size and weight limitations. They can’t impose extra fees for instruments, but any normal baggage fees (oversize fees, for example) will still apply. Size and weight restrictions may vary depending on the type of flight or model of plane, so it’s a good idea to check with the airline ahead of time.

If you are checking your instrument, you should pack it carefully, the same way you would if you were shipping it with UPS, for example. You’ll want plenty of padding, because you can probably expect it to get tossed around a bit and potentially dropped a couple of feet.

Final Tips

If you’re carrying on your instrument, do whatever you can to board early! Every airline has different boarding policies, so find out if you can get ahead by checking in early, getting to the gate early, or paying a fee for pre-boarding.

Try for a non-stop flight to reduce the number of times you have to hope for available overhead space.

Pack it like it’s going to be shipped, just in case. No matter what precautions you take, there’s always the chance you’ll get on the plane and find no bin space, or you’ll run into an airline employee who isn’t familiar with the new rules and refuses to bend. Worst case scenario, you might have to decide between getting off the plane or letting them gate-check your instrument, so be prepared for one of those options!

It also might be a good idea to print out the airline’s musical instrument policy and bring it with you. The law just went into effect in March, and while airlines should have revised their official policies by now, it may still take a while for all airline employees to get up to speed on the changes.


Statement from the Department of Transportation’s website

Frequently Asked Questions about the rule

The full text of the rule

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