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Traveling by Air with Your Instrument: Some Guidelines

0 Eric Beers
airplane Editor's Abstract

Most musicians develop a knot in the pit of their stomachs when contemplating bringing their instrument onto an airline. We all know that violins and violas fit in the overhead compartments; that reed knives are not weapons; that the AFM and the TSA have reached a policy agreement about allowing instruments on board; that there shouldn’t be any problems! Yet all of us continue to hear horror stories about airline personnel at the gate insisting that the instrument be checked as baggage.

Eric Beers, a member of the AFM’s SSD staff, has extensively researched the dilemma musicians must confront when traveling by air with their instruments. He offers some very practical guidelines for you to consider before you purchase your ticket.

Ann Drinan

The post 9/11 world has brought about many changes in air travel. Such changes were to be expected; however, with these modifications have come conditions that are sometimes unpredictable, inconsistent, and often quite frustrating. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) has worked with the appropriate entities to improve conditions for all musicians when traveling with their instruments.

The initial problems musicians encountered were with security personnel who routinely denied passengers with instruments access through security checkpoints. Meetings between the AFM and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) produced a policy change that virtually eliminated these problems. Unfortunately, individual airlines are not subject to TSA policy, and problems continue with airline personnel.

All airlines have maximum carry-on dimensions that determine what may be carried on board, and most problems arise with instruments that slightly exceed these maximums (e.g., violins, violas, and guitars). Our efforts have concentrated on policy changes to allow those instruments on board that exceed the carry-on maximum, provided they can be stored in an overhead compartment. Unfortunately we have not achieved industry-wide change. In light of this, I offer the following suggestions when considering air travel:

  • 1. Investigate the various airlines’ policies before purchasing a ticket and choose an airline whose policy best meets your travel needs. To this end, there are links to all major airline policies on the AFM website (www.afm.org), and a summary of these policies follows this article. Because many attendants are unfamiliar with their own policy, you’re encouraged to print a copy from the airline’s website and carry it with you. If you can calmly explain that your instrument is within their mandated guidelines and show them what those guidelines are, you will have better luck.
  • 2. It is best to choose an airline that determines maximum carry-on dimensions in linear inches. Linear inches is simply the sum of your case dimensions. If, for example, your case dimensions are 20″ x 10″ x 10″, the linear measurement would be 40 linear inches. In this instance you would not need to worry if your case were possibly too long, because a linear maximum is the only consideration.
  • 3. Carry a tape measure with you. It may not get to this point, but a fabric/sewing tape measure takes up no space and can come in very handy if you are challenged about your case dimensions.
  • 4. If given an option to choose your seat, opt for one in the back of the plane. Being one of the first to board, you will have considerably more storage options, and are less likely to encounter frantic attendants doing whatever is necessary to get the plane backed away from the gate.
  • 5. Limit your number of carry-on items. Although you may be allowed more, ideally you should have nothing more than your instrument.
  • 6. An overwhelming majority of the complaints we receive continue to be about Delta Airlines. The AFM has attempted to bring our concerns to the attention of Delta representatives. However, their assurances of addressing these issues have produced no improvements. Given these facts, I strongly suggest choosing an airline other than Delta.

Problems with instruments that are checked as baggage have mostly been confined to those traveling with double basses. For these instruments, it is very important to know the dimensions and weight of your packed instrument. Many airlines rigorously enforce their checked baggage size and weight maximums, so it is crucial to choose an airline with a policy that permits checking your instrument. Also, to avoid having your instrument refused due to lack of space, plan on arriving two hours prior to your departure time. Finally, most basses are considered over-size and over-weight, and you may incur charges for each of these conditions.

Unfortunately you can do everything right and still encounter difficulties, whether checking your instrument or carrying it on board. While the suggestions offered here will cover most circumstances, it’s important to have a plan in place should you be refused the option of traveling with your instrument.

Click here to see a chart, indicating the carry-on bag dimensions and baggage restrictions for the major airlines.

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