If you play an instrument and have ever tried to fly commercial with it, you know what a nightmare it can be, as I was recently reminded when traveling to perform with Cousin Billy. Everyone from the check-in agent, to the gate agent, flight attendant and pilot will tell you to check that thing through, in the baggage hold beneath the plane, where the kid-gloved baggage handlers and sub-zero temperatures will season that precious Martin D-45 to its optimal playing potential. Or you may buy an extra ticket for your special friend. Ahem.
A few of years ago, the Do Nothing 112th Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (the “Act”), of which Section 403 provides:
“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 ….”
While the very of passage of the Act clearly proves that President Obama does not play an instrument, the pertinent language of the bill is simple enough, right? Apparently not. When the bill passed, Congress mandated that by February 6, 2014, the FAA was to promulgate regulations to implement the new law. The FAA dithered and dallied until finally, on December 29, 2014, the Transportation Department issued the regulations that will put the Act into effect, which become effective 60 days following publication of the regs in the Federal Register, expected to happen next week.
So what does this mean for traveling musicians? The airline must accommodate your instrument in an overhead compartment if “there is space for such stowage at the time the passenger boards the aircraft.” For the best shot, you better be among the first people on the plane, before the overheads get jammed full of other people’s stuff. You’ll want a desirable seat assignment that will give you the earliest possible boarding priority. It’s a good idea to know the boarding policies of the major airlines – and how to game them – so here are the basics from SeatGuru.com.
Even though you are now entitled to place your instrument in the overhead compartment – first-come, first-served – “the instrument [must be able to] be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft cabin or under a passenger seat.” If it won’t fit overhead, and it’s too large for underneath the seat (or you don’t want to spend the additional cash for your special friend to sit next to you), you can check it as luggage where it will receive extra care from the kid-glove baggage handlers, but only so long as “the instrument does not exceed 165 pounds or the applicable weight restrictions for the aircraft.” Clearly, the size limitation for overhead storage will present problems for double-bassists and Sousaphonists, but for many musicians traveling with smaller instruments a less anxious flying experience awaits.
Some advice for musicians traveling with smaller instruments (guitars and smaller): Act like you know what you’re doing, move quickly, discreetly, confidently, with self-assurance and be super-nice and friendly – fortune favors the brave and polite! And consider carrying a copy of the Act to show to any intransigent airline folks.