Flying with Instruments: A New Era?

Congress passed a law three years ago to address the problems musicians have encountered flying with their instruments, but the regulations, which will cause the airlines to implement the law, were only published in January, 2015.  And then the airlines had 60 days to get things in order to implement the new regulations. Thanks to the efforts of the American Federation of Musicians, the League of American Orchestras, Chamber Music America, the Recording Academy, Performing Arts Alliance, and many other performing arts organizations, the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued very specific guidelines as to how airlines are to handle musical instruments. The guidelines went into effect on March 6. But unfortunately problems will not go away overnight.

The spring issue of Symphony magazine has an article (beginning on page 30), written by Susan Elliott of, that describes some of the many horror stories musicians have experienced, and offers hope for the future. Horror stories:

  • Most of us have seen the YouTube video “United Breaks Guitars,” created by David Carroll, decrying how United Airlines broke his Taylor guitar.
  • Indianapolis Symphony concertmaster and member of Time for Three, Zachary De Pue, gave an impromptu concert on the tarmac when United Airlines ordered him to check his 250-year-old violin. (They let him take it aboard on the next flight.)
  • The neck of Wu Man’s pipa was broken when a flight attendant made her put it in the “coat room” at the front of the airplane. To their credit, United Airlines did the right thing and not only paid to replace it, they flew Wu Man to China twice to consult with the maker. My orchestra, the Hartford Symphony, was honored to have Wu Man perform her first public concert with her new pipa. Here’s a link to a New York Times article about her pipa and its reincarnation.

I’m sure many of you have similar horror stories, most with endings like David Carroll’s, rather than Wu Man’s.

The regulations that came into effect on March 6 should change things. But it won’t be a cake-walk.

The DOT now has three classes of instruments:

  • small instruments, as carry-on baggage
  • large instruments, as carry-on baggage
  • large instruments, as checked baggage

As carry-on baggage, board early and put it where it fits. The airlines cannot complain if it takes the space of two roller suitcases. (Repeat: get on early, even if it costs more.)

Check out the dimensions of the plane before you book a flight — will your case fit under your seat? Are the overhead bins big enough to accommodate your case? Do the research.

The new regulations do not require every airline to permit a passenger to purchase a second seat for a larger instrument, such as a cello, but do require them to follow through, if you’ve purchased such a ticket and the instrument fits in the seat and meets all safety requirements. They also encourage airlines to adopt a policy permitting musicians to purchase a seat for an instrument.

For larger instruments that must be checked, the airline must accept the instrument as baggage if the sum of the length, width, and height does not exceed 150 inches (including the case), and the weight does not exceed 165 pounds. Larger or heavier instruments may be subject to an “oversize” fee.

According to Heather Noonan, the League’s VP for Advocacy,

“Properly packing instruments for travel, asking airlines in advance about any space restrictions of the particular aircraft being flown, boarding flights early, and communicating with flight personnel at every step can smooth the way for successful travel.”

Be aware that the airlines have no requiement to reimburse a musician for a damaged instrument. Check the airline’s flight contract for the limits of their liability for damage to or loss of property before you fly.

Finally, if you do run into problems, complain to the airline but also complain to the DOT, which is ready and willing to track all such problems with musicians traveling with instruments.According to DOT General Council Katie Thomson,

“We are relying on musicians for good information about whether the airlines are complying or not… We look for a pattern and practice of violations. If we determine an airline has one, then we pursue an enforcement action and can seek both penalties and corrective action from the airline.”

I strongly recommend that you read Susan Elliott’s article if you’re planning to fly with your instrument in the near future.

Click here for more information from the TSA.

Click here for more information from the DOT.



About the author

Ann Drinan
Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, has been a member of the Hartford Symphony viola section for over 30 years. She is a former Chair of the Orchestra Committee, former member of the HSO Board, and has served on many HSO committees. She is also the Executive Director of CONCORA (CT Choral Artists), a professional chorus based in Hartford and New Britain, founded by Artistic Director Richard Coffey. Ann was a member of the Advisory Board of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), and was the HSO ROPA delegate for 14 years, serving as both Vice President and President of ROPA. In addition to playing the viola and running CONCORA, Ann is a professional writer and editor, and has worked as a consultant and technical writer for software companies in a wide variety of industries for over 3 decades. (She worked for the Yale Computer Science Department in the late 70s, and thus has been on the Internet, then called the DARPAnet, since 1977!) She is married to Algis Kaupas, a sound recordist, and lives a block from Long Island Sound in Branford CT. Together they create websites for musicians:

Ann holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

Read Ann Drinan's blog here.

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