Holiday Travel: Bring the Gift of Music

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Flying for the holidays? Planning to bring your instrument to help spread some holiday cheer? Don’t let an airline employee on the naughty list ruin your merriment. Before you dash away to the airport, check out The Recording Academy’s handy guide to the new federal rules for flying with a musical instrument so that you know your rights and responsibilities. You can even print a copy of the federal rules to take with you.

The  U.S. Department of Transportation has issued new regulations for flying with musical instruments, in accordance with the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Public Law No: 112-95).

The Recording Academy and other stakeholders began the campaign several years ago to have Congress address this issue (see “They Tried To Make Me Check My Tuba, I Said No, No No”). Following our efforts during the 2011 GRAMMYs on the Hill Advocacy Day, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Lobbying efforts continued to have the FAA issue rules to implement the law in 2014, until the DOT issued the rules on December 30, 2014.

These rules are now in place, effective March 6, 2015, for travelers using any domestic carrier, and provide for the safe transport of musical instruments by air. So what does that mean for you?

The new regulations offer three primary accommodations for travelers with instruments:

  1. Small instruments as carry-on baggage.
    This means that your instrument — such as a guitar, violin, or trumpet — should be packed securely in a carrying case and be small enough to stow in the overhead compartment or under your seat like any other carry-on baggage.  As long as the instrument fits, the airline must accept it and the airline cannot charge additional fees simply because you have a musical instrument.
  2. Large instruments as in-cabin cargo.
    For an instrument that may be too large to stow in the overhead bin but too valuable or delicate to check with the rest of the baggage, travelers may purchase a second seat to stow the instrument as in-cabin cargo. This is an acceptable option as long as the instrument is in a carrying case and can be safely secured to a standard airline seat.  However, if an airline does not already have a program that provides for the purchase of a separate ticket for cargo, the airline does not have to specifically accommodate a musical instrument.
  3. Large instruments as checked luggage. 
    If an instrument is too large to carry on or occupy its own seat, an airline must accept the instrument as checked baggage as long as it complies with federal size and weight guidelines. Specifically, the sum of the length, width, and height of the instrument (including the case) cannot exceed 150 inches and the weight of the instrument cannot exceed 165 pounds. If the instrument exceeds these measurements, the airline may still accept it but the airline is not required to do so and the instrument may be subject to additional fees.

While the new regulations are a welcome development for musicians traveling with their instruments, there are some important tips to keep in mind to help you take advantage of them. Most involve planning ahead to ensure a smooth trip.

First, it’s always best to make travel plans as far in advance as possible.

Familiarize yourself with the airlines’ travel and carry-on policies. Remember that the size of overhead bins vary with different kinds of aircraft. Know the dimensions of your own instrument so you can make the best decision on how to transport it. Let the airline know that you will be traveling with an instrument and which of the three ways you plan to transport the piece.

Second, overhead storage space is at a premium and is available to all passengers on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The airlines are only required to treat a musical instrument like any other piece of carry-on luggage.  So while an airline cannot discriminate against your musical instrument, it has no obligation to prioritize it either.  If you plan to carry on your instrument, make sure you arrive at the gate early for flights with zone boarding. Even better, enroll in your airline’s frequent flier or loyalty program so that you can take advantage of any options for early check-in and priority boarding privileges.

Third, if you are buying a seat for your instrument you must book the seat directly beside you.

Let the airline know that you are traveling with an instrument in the second seat; make sure you know the exact dimensions (height, width, weight) of your instrument and share that information with the airline as well. Then confirm your seat assignments to be sure you have two seats together.  While airlines may not charge more than the seat price for an over-sized instrument, there may be a fee for obtaining pre-flight seat assignments. Also, don’t bring bungee cords or your own paraphernalia to strap your instrument into the seat. The flight crew will have appropriate equipment to safely secure the instrument.

Next, if you plan to check your instrument with regular baggage, make sure you know its dimensions and have it is securely packed. Arrive early to provide plenty of time for baggage check-in.  Musical instruments checked as baggage can be charged the same fees as other checked baggage, but they may not be charged more.

If you encounter a dispute at the boarding gate over how you plan to transport your instrument, remain calm and ask for a customer service supervisor. Do not challenge or become hostile with the flight crew.


Before you travel, print out this copy of the Final Rule regarding Carriage Of Musical Instruments. Keep it with you when you travel for easy reference if you encounter an airline employee who is unfamiliar with the new rules.  Remember to always be polite and respectful.

For serious disputes, file a complaint with both the Department of Transportation ( and also with the airline.

Happy flying!

Posted on December 17, 2015 in Music Blog, Music Business, Nonprofit Resources, Recording Studio

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