There are official rules that the United States Department of Transportation set for flying with musical instruments across all US Airlines. These standardized policies were written with the musicians in mind, from the casual guitarist to the touring professional, and allow them to bring their music with them without incurring any unreasonable expenses or hassle.
A lot of musicians dread bringing their prized instruments with them on the plane, but with these new provisions, it seems that things are going to get better.
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You can read the rules in detail here, but to get a gist of it:
- Airlines should now allow smaller instruments like guitars and violins to be stowed on board as a carry-on, as long as there is room for the instrument in the overhead storage or under the seat. Unfortunately, storage is provided on a first-come-first-served-basis, though, so if it doesn’t fit the designated places, your instrument has to go.
- On the other hand, once your instrument has been stored safely on board, you cannot be asked to remove your instrument from the plane once it has already been safely stored on board.
- You cannot be charged any fees for bringing an instrument on board as carry-on baggage other than any standard carry-on fee charged by the carrier.
- Passengers who have instruments that are too large to be carried on board as standard carry-on baggage (for example, double basses) may store their instrument in a separately purchased seat.
Preparing your instrument for flight
Since storage for carry-on baggage is first come, first serve, a good rule of thumb for preparing your instrument for flight is to do so under the assumption that it’ll be gate-checked. This way, you’re covered even if there’s not enough room on board.
- Make sure your instrument is in a hard case. Not a soft case, and not a polyfoam case. While polyfoam cases are great for their portability and generally provide adequate protection for day-to-day handling, they’re not well suited for the abuse the luggage may receive before, during, and after a flight. At the very least, your instrument should be inside a sturdy wooden case, although you can never go wrong with a flight-safe case with TSA latches. Gator and SKB are two great companies who make such cases, and while they do tend to be more expensive than the standard hard case, it is definitely a sound investment for frequent flyers.
- Your instrument should fit snug in its case. If there’s any noticeable wiggle room, it’s a good idea to stuff the open space with rags, towels, or T-shirts. Not so much as to add too much extra pressure that could cause harm, but enough to prevent the instrument from moving around.
- Remove any accessories and tools from the case and pack them elsewhere for the flight. This includes, but is not limited to, things like string winders, cutters, multi-tools, hex wrenches, tuners, pedals, and cleaning supplies. While these items may seem harmless and commonplace for musicians, they may be unfamiliar and foreign to airport security personnel. You want to avoid giving anyone a reason to need to search your case as this often provides an opportunity for rough handling and accidental dropping of instruments.
- You do not need to loosen the strings of your instrument for flight. In spite of a fairly common travel myth, stringed instruments are designed to withstand string tension. As long as your bass guitar isn’t strapped to the wing of the airliner, your instrument is being transported in a pressurized, reasonably climate-controlled environment. If this were not the case, people would be unable to travel with their pets.
Boarding with your instrument
Once you have your instrument safely packed, here are some things to ensure that you can board successfully:
- Always be polite when it comes to dealing with the airports staff. They tend to be more accommodating with someone who’s treating them properly.
- Gate agents and attendants may not be aware of the official policy regarding musical instruments, so it is important that you have a copy of the official rules printed and ready on hand in case questions are raised.
- Paying extra for priority boarding is worth it if it can ensure that you find a space for your instrument on the overhead luggage racks.
- There are planes that have additional closets on board specifically for extra storage; however, this depends on the size of the aircraft. Still, there is no harm in asking a flight attendant if you can store your instrument there for the duration of the flight.
The US Department of Transportation ruling is a huge step in making travel easier for musicians. New rules are just extra precautions, and you can now confidently and comfortably take your music anywhere without having to worry about the safety of your instrument. Go make music!