Flying With Musical Instruments: Know Your Rights

If you’re like me and will be traveling with a musical instrument this holiday season, you’ll be happy to know that by law, you have the right to bring your instrument onto the plane as carry-on baggage so long as the instrument can be safely stowed. The clause is part of Public Law 112-95, which was signed by the President and went into effect on February 14, 2012. Below is the section dedicated to musical instruments, copied verbatim (emphasis mine) from pages 74 and 75 of the law, which can be found on the Federal Aviation Administration”s (FAA) website right here.

PUBLIC LAW 112–95—FEB. 14, 2012

41724. Musical instruments

‘‘(a) IN GENERAL.—

‘‘(1) SMALL INSTRUMENTS AS CARRY-ON BAGGAGE.—An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage, if—

‘‘(A) the instrument can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft cabin or under a passenger seat, in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator; and

‘‘(B) there is space for such stowage at the time the passenger boards the aircraft.

‘‘(2) LARGER INSTRUMENTS AS CARRY-ON BAGGAGE.—An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a musical instrument that is too large to meet the requirements of paragraph (1) in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to the cost of the additional ticket described in subparagraph (E), if—

‘‘(A) the instrument is contained in a case or covered so as to avoid injury to other passengers;

‘‘(B) the weight of the instrument, including the case or covering, does not exceed 165 pounds or the applicable weight restrictions for the aircraft;

‘‘(C) the instrument can be stowed in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator;

‘‘(D) neither the instrument nor the case contains any object not otherwise permitted to be carried in an aircraft cabin because of a law or regulation of the United States; and

‘‘(E) the passenger wishing to carry the instrument in the aircraft cabin has purchased an additional seat to accommodate the instrument.

‘‘(3) LARGE INSTRUMENTS AS CHECKED BAGGAGE.—An air carrier shall transport as baggage a musical instrument that is the property of a passenger traveling in air transportation that may not be carried in the aircraft cabin if—

‘‘(A) the sum of the length, width, and height measured in inches of the outside linear dimensions of the instrument (including the case) does not exceed 150 inches or the applicable size restrictions for the aircraft;

‘‘(B) the weight of the instrument does not exceed 165 pounds or the applicable weight restrictions for the aircraft; and

‘‘(C) the instrument can be stowed in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator.

‘‘(b) REGULATIONS.—Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this section, the Secretary shall issue final regulations to carry out subsection (a).
‘‘(c) EFFECTIVE DATE.—The requirements of this section shall become effective on the date of issuance of the final regulations under subsection (b).’’

What This Means

Your instrument will be treated exactly like comparable carry-on baggage. It does not get preferential treatment over another passenger’s roller bag just because it’s more fragile, but it’s no longer subject to any additional fees, as some airlines used to charge. If you have a larger instrument, that might fit safely in a seat, you may buy a ticket for it and may not be charged any additional fees as long as it meets the airline’s requirements. If you check your large instrument in a flight case, you are no longer subject to any additional fees as other checked baggage as long as it meets all checked baggage requirements.

Common sense still applies. If your instrument does not fit or somehow creates a safety risk to other passengers, you’ll have to check it. Be sure to plan ahead of time for the worst case scenario.

Best Practices for Flying with Musical Instruments

We have another article on this site called Airline Travel With Musical Instruments written by well-traveled multi-instrumentalist Nick Rosaci. He offers some great advice, and I highly recommend you read it as well.

Don’t Argue

In my experience, the most resistance I get from traveling with my guitar is from the gate agent, who will hand me a gate check tag and instruct me to drop of my guitar at the end of the jetway as he or she swipes my boarding pass. I never argue with the gate agent. This person is simply doing what they’re told to do and trying to make the flight attendants job easier by sending less carry-on baggage onto the plane.

Sometimes I get on a plane behind other passengers carrying a guitar. The gate agent hands them a gate check tag and the passenger immediately goes into a rant about how he has the right to carry his guitar onto the plane! How dare you tell him otherwise!

This really accomplishes nothing other than making people upset. If you argue, there’s no way that person is going to help you, and if you enter the plane upset, the flight attendants are going to pick up on it and be less likely to help you. They have to deal with enough crabby passengers, don’t be another.

Be Nice to The Flight Attendant

Instead, I make my way onto the plane with my guitar, smile at the first flight attendant I see, and ask them how they’re doing. “Is this your last flight of the day?” or “Heading home?” or any other question that tells them I’m not a completely self-centered jerk that wants them to solve my baggage problem. Then I motion to my guitar and politely ask if they think we can find it a safe place onboard.

In the summer, the first class coat closet is usually empty and they might be able to stow it there. Sometimes there’s also space behind the last row of seats in first class. Otherwise you’ll be looking for a spot in the overhead bins. That’s where it pays to be polite to other passengers, who might be able to help you by adjusting their bags to make room for yours. Again, a smile can go a long way when you’re boarding an airplane.

Board Early

If at all possible, be one of the first to board the plane. Overhead bins are first come, first served, and once your instrument is safely stowed, they cannot remove it from the plane without your permission (which you don’t have to grant).

If you travel on the same airline frequently, look into their premium membership programs. These always come with early boarding, and typically a little extra kindness from the airline staff. If you don’t fly that often, maybe one of your relatives belongs to one of these programs and can book your ticket, which sometimes transfers the benefits to you. And if all else fails, many airlines sell upgrades to your ticket, including early boarding. This is a way for the airline to make some extra money, but hey, it’s also a way for you to get your instrument on the plane safely.

Know Your Aircraft

The above law only works if the airplane is actually large enough to fit your instrument. Shorter flights often use regional jets, such as the Embraer 145 which is only 3 seats across plus a small aisle, require all passengers to gate check their carry-on baggage. Only coats and personal items are allowed onboard. My guitar would never fit on one of these jets so I try to avoid routes that use them. If that’s unavoidable, I make sure my guitar is packed well to avoid damage when checked at the gate.

You can usually find out the type of aircraft used when choosing your itinerary. Take a moment to look up that aircraft and you’ll have an idea of what to expect.

Safe travels!

Published by

Cameron Mizell

New York guitarist Cameron Mizell is involved in a wide variety of musical projects. He has released many of his own albums independently, including his latest, Tributary. Cameron's experiences as a musician and former record label employee give him a unique perspective on the musician industry, which he enjoys sharing on MusicianWages. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

13 thoughts on “Flying With Musical Instruments: Know Your Rights”

  1. I’ve had great luck flying Southwest.

    Their whole fleet is 737s, which means guitars fit overhead even in reasonably sized hard cases. (I’m partial to the soft-case-material-over-rigid-styrofoam cases by Tric, SKB, etc).

    You can pay a little extra to get early boarding–$12 when you buy your ticket, or $40 the day of. Given that their flights are usually cheaper anyway, it’s money well spent.

    If you’re flying with a bandmate–or you see another guitarist/bassist in an earlier boarding group–you should try to board with them. Two guitar cases (or guitar and bass cases) nestle really nicely in the overhead bins of decently sized planes.

    And as with so many things, it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.

    Great article Cameron, thanks!

  2. Oh, and two other quick things:

    I mentioned the soft-bag-over-rigid-styrofoam cases. Some TSA agents will argue that a hard case must be checked (not true, but cluelessness + authority is a dangerous combination to mess with).

    It’s much easier to make a convincing argument when the case is sort of a soft case (this happened once). And if you get hosed and the flight crew can’t or won’t allow the guitar on board (also happened once––Delta), at least the case gives you protection against bumps and thermal shocks.

    The other thing: As a musician, the TSA (but not your airline) has to allow you to carry on your instrument IN ADDITION to your carryon and personal item.

    I’m having trouble finding this in the law, but I watched a guy take his guitar, messenger bag, and pedal board through TSA. They weren’t keen on it, but he showed them a piece of paper, and they acquiesced. Then he took the pedal board straight to the gate agent and gate checked it. Safer for his gear, and he didn’t have to wait around at baggage claim.

    If anyone has better luck than me on finding this provision of the law, please share it here in the comments––we’ll all be better off for it.

  3. I have flown delta, American, & southwest w/snare in soft case, stick bag & carry on w/no problems..? I even carried a Roland td6 in my carry on, although tsa and overseas security always pulled me aside with puzzle looks.. I quickly learned to be polite and instruct them on electronics before they went thru scanners..

  4. Thanks for another helpful article, Cameron! Your blog is a great resource for working musicians.

    I have flown with a guitar before and for me it’s always so stressful worrying about whether I’ll be able to sneak/plead/assert it on board. Another option to consider is renting an instrument at your destination. I did this last time I had had to fly to a gig. It was so much more pleasant to not worry about my guitar getting broken. I love my guitar, and wasn’t sure I would like the rental, but actually, I got a very nice acoustic electric that sounded great at an extremely reasonable price ($40 I think). The fact that I didn’t have to worry about my own instrument getting broken in flight was priceless!! The only catch I ran into was the rental place wanted to put a hold on my credit card for ($800?) in case it was not returned/damaged, so that was a little inconvenient, but overall, I would rent again.

    1. Thanks Elyse!

      I know what you mean. I try to borrow or rent when possible. Thankfully I have friends with good instruments in major music towns and have been able to borrow guitars for gigs. This last year, though, I went on vacation for a week and wanted to take my acoustic to do some writing while relaxing in the mountains. Despite my best efforts I was among the last to board on both flights, but by being polite and not showing my stress about the situation, the flight attendants (Delta, I believe) were very helpful and helped me find safe space to stow my guitar on board.

  5. This is all great advice, Cameron.

    Especially not arguing with the gate agent. Just take the tag and stuff it in your pocket at first. Go down the jet bridge and first talk to the flight attendant who welcomes you. Nine times out of ten they’ve been happy to help me find a place for my cymbals.

    Know your aircraft is an important one as well. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a lot, and I know which planes have over head bins that will fit my gear and which ones won’t, as well as some other places to stick them on certain aircraft. If you know your aircraft ahead of time you can start to devise your plan!

  6. This is extremely good advice – it is always a stressful situation for a traveling musician. I work in professional video, and I’ve run into the same problems with carrying cameras on board, etc – especially back in the day when cameras were larger than they are now. So, musicians aren’t alone in this situation. The best thing to do is be kind to the attendants – always a great idea even if you aren’t carrying an instrument!

  7. Thanks for this wonderful article Cameron. But i think these laws are only applicable for the US, Right?
    Laws for UK are slight different from these set of principles!

  8. What if you are flying from the U.S. to another country? Does the law still apply, seeing as the flight originated in the U.S. It is not a U.S. airline, though.

  9. This is great info. I travel with a 24″ hardshell suitcase full of several recorders and crumhorns. I know, weird obsolete instruments. But in total, valued at several thousand dollars. I’d love to hear about insuring the instruments. What happens if Delta loses or destroys my bag? Should I buy airline insurance for my bag? Should I rely on my homeowner’s insurance? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>