Airlines & Musical Instruments Need to get on the Same Sheet of Music

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Musical Instruments on Airlines

Know Your Rights & Educate the Airlines

Air Woes

  • American Airlines apologizes for preventing musician from bringing violin on board 4/29/2016
  • United mistreats US violinist 6/5/2017
  • Latest Air Woe: Irish airline throws a violinist off their flight 6/22/2017
  • Air Woe: Norwegian Breaks its Own Rules, Again 6/22/2017
  • Does that dumb airline know what it has done? 7/13/2017
  • International cellist is grounded at Heathrow 7/13/2017
  • KLM finally own up to misunderstanding? 7/20/2017
  • Eminent violinist is refused boarding by Qantas 7/23/2017
  • Norwegian is not so friendly, after all 7/23/2017

Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said, “The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.” Not that musicians constitute the weakest profession in society, but their primary contribution to the world is to add beauty, magic and inspiration to an otherwise mundane world. Thus, it should be a goal of the globe to facilitate the flow of their instruments to bring joy to the people. Airlines, who move passengers from country to country, should make a customer priority to support music, more than just United’s musical advertising homage to Gershwin.


Musical Instruments on AirlinesUnfortunately, the above headlines suggest that the actual airline record is not that culturally correct. More so with international carriers than US carriers, but the need for education is universal.

In the US, at the instigation of the American Federation of Musicians, section 304 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was enacted regarding the carriage of musical instruments as carry-on or checked baggage on commercial passenger flights [49 USC § 41724].. Then the US DOT issued a set of regulations, 14 CFR Part 251,which are prime examples of why lawyers thrive in a world of rules—to answer frequently asked questions, the DOT wrote 5 pages of answers. Here is Q&A #1 reflecting the complicated nature of the application of the rule:

Question: If a musical instrument fits in the overhead bin, must it be carried regardless of size or weight (unless it exceeds a manufacturer limit) assuming space is available?

Answer: Yes. With regard to a manufacturer limit, the total weight of the instrument and any other item(s) that may be transported in the overhead bin cannot cause the bin to exceed its placarded maximum weight capacity. However, if the weight of the instrument is less than the placarded maximum weight capacity of the bin and the instrument was in the bin before the other items that cause the bin to exceed the maximum weight capacity, it is the later item(s) that should be removed.

Musical Instruments on Airlines overhead bin carry on

Because the airlines’ carry-on requirements are based on safety considerations, the DOT rules must be read with the individual airline conditions (weight, size, but not exclusions of musical instruments).

A4A has published a table with its Members’ carry-on restrictions:

Baggage Policies for Traveling with Musical Instruments on A4A Member Airlines 

Airline Carry-On Baggage Cabin Seat Baggage Checked Baggage
Alaska Airlines
Baggage Policy
Standard carry-on policy applies. Large musical instruments may be accepted as cabin seat baggage with purchase of full adult fare. Standard checked bag policy applies.
American Airlines
Instrument Policy
A musical instrument may be taken onboard as your one carry-on bag, regardless of its size, as long as it can be safely stowed in an approved carry-on stowage location and space is available when you board. Instruments that are too large to be stowed in an approved carry-on stowage location, or are too fragile to be checked may still be taken in the cabin and transported in a passenger seat if certain requirements are met, including purchase of a ticket for an additional seat. Musical instruments can be checked as baggage. Liability for damage to checked instruments is limited under certain conditions explained on the AA website and in the contract of carriage.
Hawaiian Airlines
Baggage Policy
Standard carry-on policy applies. Passengers may purchase a seat for their fragile and/or bulky items. Most musical instruments may be checked if certain requirements are met.
JetBlue Airways
Instrument Policy
A musical instrument is allowed in place of one carry-on item, provided it can be stowed properly under the seat or in an overhead bin at the time of boarding. Musical instruments of a size that prevents the instrument from being handled as normal carry-on baggage will be accepted in the cabin and are subject to certain requirements. A musical instrument will count as one piece of checked baggage and are subject to all applicable baggage fees.
Southwest Airlines
Instrument Policy
Musical instruments do not have to meet sizing requirements for carry-on items and will be accepted if they can be stowed safely under the seat or in an overhead bin at the time of boarding. In the event you are traveling with a musical instrument that cannot be stowed safely as carry-on luggage, or is fragile in nature, you may purchase a seat for the instrument and carry it in the cabin under certain conditions. Some musical instruments cannot be secured in a seat and must be transported as checked baggage, subject to applicable baggage fees.
United Airlines
Instrument Policy
A musical instrument may be carried on board as a carry-on item if it can be stowed safely overhead or in the seat in front of you at the time of boarding. A customer may purchase a ticket for a musical instrument which is too fragile or bulky to be handled as checked baggage. Upright basses and guitars will not be accepted as cabin-seat baggage. Checked instruments must meet certain requirements, including being packed in a hard-shell case.

purchase seat for instrument airline travel


Have questions that aren’t answered in this post? Check out the DOT’s FAQs!

Mastery of these two sets of limits does not assure that the musician and her/his instrument reaches the plane. Again thanks to AFM, TSA has issued new (2003) guidance as to agents’ inspection of these valuable possessions.

TSA instrument carry on guidance

As a result, US airlines’ carrying of instruments is noteworthy but not perfect, so within the United States there are rules, but when traveling with an instrument, you would still be well advised:

  1. BEFORE YOU GO, to review the DOT rules.
  2. BEFORE YOU GO, to read the airlines’ conditions.
  3. BEFORE YOU GO, to explain your intentions when making a reservation.
  4. WHEN YOU TRAVEL, to get to the airport early.
  5. WHEN YOU TRAVEL, to bring copies of the Part 251 rules and the company’s posted rules.
  6. WHEN YOU TRAVEL, be prepared to PATIENTLY talk to the passenger service agents through why you are allowed to carry on your instrument.

[remember they are (i) probably not knowledgeable about the complex rules, (ii) stressed to get the plane loaded on time]

If all does not go well,

  1. BEFORE YOU GO, perhaps the most important advice, if the airline offers priority boarding, even at a charge, BUY IT.
    • The DOT rules make it clear that the storage of your instrument is a “first come, first served” basis.
    • If the overhead compartment (there are no assigned overhead bins; so, that is going to be an arguable point) is full, the flight attendant may ask you to check your prize possession.instrument case check baggage airline
  2. DOT advice on traveling with musical instruments 
  3. Frequent flyers’ hints

[Note: airlines can, may and do charge for checking baggage; so, passengers are more likely to try to maximize their carry-on’s. See #7 above.]

instrument airline law[Note: when your instrument is too large to be placed in the overhead but can be accommodated in a second seat, (i) make it clear when reserving the 2nd seat that it is for an instrument (ii) explain to the reservation agent, the passenger service agent and the flight attendant that your “case” is safe, cannot harm other passengers and protects a very valuable instrument. If, as recently has happened, the flight is overbooked and the gate agent requests to remove your case, EXPLAIN that you have paid full fare for the seat, have a right to it and have increased the airline’s revenues by not paying the lower charge for stowing it in the baggage compartment!]

For international airlines,  there are no universal rules.The European Parliament passed proposed modified European regulation 2027/97, at the request of International Federation of Musicians (FIM) but not yet concurred by the European Council and thus not yet enforceable law. FIM has scored the track record of the major airlines and published green, orange and red grades for the carriers’ assessed.

There is no global airline passenger authority. ICAO, a UN organization involving almost all of the countries of the world, issues safety recommendations to countries; so, it cannot mandate the solution.

The airlines have a global association, IATA, which serves as a forum for discussing universal passenger problems. The AFM and FIM should ask to make presentations about the issues relating to the carriage of instruments.

Perhaps, the most powerful leverage is the AFL. AFM can appeal to their brothers and sisters in labor. Reservation agents, flight attendants and passenger servant representatives are unionized. A meeting between these groups with similar interests would create a very useful forum for discussing the interaction between air carriers and musicians.

This issue was brought to our attention by Jesus Manuel Berard, Music Director and Conductor, Prince George’s Philharmonic Orchestra. As a realist, he recognized the power of consumer action. The work of the AFM and FIM has had positive impacts. The FIM webpage, linked above, likely is responsible for musicians taking their business away from the RED airlines and towards the GREEN carriers. The buying power of musicians can create the greatest catalyst for change. Losing dollars to competitors is a heavy motivator for change—not just PR, but management effectively training the field personnel how to recapture those diverted fares.

Knowing your rights, educating the airlines, working with your fellow union members and exercising your economic power is a well-orchestrated script to assure that instruments receive the proper treatment.


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2 Comments on "Airlines & Musical Instruments Need to get on the Same Sheet of Music"

  1. Bravo, Sandy—well done! Thank you! I’ve shared this article with as many people as I could, it’s so important and helpful.

  2. Super article here. Thanks to shear it

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