Airline travel can make people want to pull out their hair even under the best of circumstances, but it can be nothing less than traumatizing for musicians afraid of damaging a valuable instrument. Now, thanks to new rules set to take effect March 6, string musicians can feel more secure and protected when traveling with musical instruments.
The new rules—developed by the Department of Transportation, airline industry trade groups, and several musician-advocacy organizations, including the American Federation of Musicians and the American League of Orchestras—should eliminate much of the confusing and inconsistent policies that musicians face when flying with an instrument. Now, instead of musicians trying to grok each airline’s policy for musical instruments, all commercial airlines are now required to meet the same guidelines and to train employees in the current policies.
The December 30 announcement came through the Department of Transportation’s website, nearly one year after the original deadline to implement the musical instrument section of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization Act of 2012.
The rules in Section 403 require equal treatment of musical instruments as carry-on baggage. This move now permits musicians with small instruments, such as violins and violas, the same “first-come, first-served” rights to the overhead bin space that apply to everyone else. Passengers are encouraged to take advantage of early boarding options, which typically cost extra, to ensure they have enough overhead space to safely stow an instrument.
While airlines are also prohibited from charging special fees for carry-on instruments, they can charge additional fees that travelers might encounter with similar carry-on items, such as exceeding the permitted number of carry-ons.
Players flying with larger instruments, like cellos and double basses, can now know what to expect, though the rules for them are more complicated and potentially costly. Due to their size and value, and a few high-profile stories about cellists traveling with valuable antique instruments, cellos have often been at the forefront of the discussion about the rights of paying customers to bring an instrument into the airplane’s cabin. Now, a passenger may purchase a seat to accommodate larger carry-on instruments, like a cello, if the airplane can safely accommodate the instrument. Airlines are not required to allow “seat baggage,” but are encouraged to modify policies to permit them if safety requirements are met. The rules also recommend that passengers intending to buy a seat for an instrument inform the airline at the time of purchase to make sure that the plane can accommodate the large carry-on.
In addition, the rules specify that the airlines may not charge more than the price of a ticket for an additional seat, like adding a specific musical instrument fee, but may charge for standard ancillary service fees, such as advanced seat assignment.
Some cellists, like Zoë Keating, avoid the issue altogether by traveling with a durable flight case and checking it as baggage. “Since becoming a mom, I check Mr. Cello as luggage in a Bam flight case,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Wrangling a small child and a cello into an airline cabin is just too expensive—and insane.”
Many airlines will need to modify current policies to accommodate double basses under the act’s new rules and requirements. Double basses in their travel cases are considered too large for the cabin and must be checked as baggage, though they often exceed the previous size and weight limits for baggage. While the airlines now must permit them as checked baggage, they are permitted to charge the same over-size and over-weight fees they do for other over-size and over-weight baggage.
Larger ensembles, such as orchestras, are also addressed in the ruling. Many may find it easier to travel using a chartered flight, which may have more flexible baggage policies. Airlines are also now required to train aircrews, gate agents, counter agents, and baggage personnel in the policies and procedures needed to comply with the new rules.
If you intend to travel with your instrument, make sure to book early; check with the airline if you’re traveling with larger instrument like a cello, viola da gamba, or double bass; and seriously consider paying extra for early boarding to make sure there is overhead space for your fiddle.
Happy travels and good luck making your connection!