Musician & Worship Leader's Guide to the Musical Instrument "Carry On" Law for Air Travel

Posted on October 6, 2015

A couple weeks ago, I was headed out on a vacation to Hawaii. Prior to the trip, we'd made plans to visit friends who happen to have moved to the big island of Hawaii only months before. As it turned out, we put together a worship night and invited more local friends on the island to join us. So now, as the trip was about to embark I cautiously awaited that one fear every musician has before boarding a plane- what will happen to my guitar?

Fortunately, I had prepared ahead of time and got the research done on the new law, and some details on how the airplane policies intersect with that. For those that haven't heard, a new law was introduced as part of the recently passed "FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012". You can see the entire act published on Congress' website here. The pertinent portion of the act for us is "Sec. 403. Musical instruments" which describes the requirement upon airlines to provide adequate accommodations for passengers traveling with musical instruments.

The Actual Law

For our purposes, I am going to focus briefly on the sub-section here headlined as "Small instruments as carry-on baggage". Rather than just summarize it without context, I am going to quote the relevant text here first then comment.

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.1

If you read nothing more, at least know what the law says. It can help you on your next trip.

What Does This Mean To Me?

The law is crisp and simple. Airlines must allow you to carry-on your guitar (with no charge) if two conditions exist. First, your instrument must be small enough to fit. That is- your instrument should be small enough to be stowed in the compartments provided for carry-on luggage (under the seat in front of you or in the overhead storage). Second, there must be space available in those compartments. I've found that my two guitars (2008 McPherson MG-3.5 EIR/E, and 1992 Ovation Elite CE) and cases fit easily in regular overhead compartments. My estimation is that most acoustics will fit, unless you have a monstrous body axe or super power case that you know can't fit in regular bins (but check your own guitar case specs against your airline).

The real key for the second item (B) in the above law text is that there must be space available for your guitar. This seems like a bad-news clause, since we can imagine airlines claiming they want to first load other items before letting your guitar in the overheads. But the DOT does a slam dunk against that with a swift phrase in its ruling on implementation of the law when it says that the airlines music allow you to store your instrument "if... there is room for the instrument at the time the passenger in question attempts to board"2. Bingo! That is the key right there.

So how can you be sure there will be enough room when you board? The answer- board early! I know it seems obvious, but it basically comes down to first come, first served. If there is room when you get on, your guitar has rights to that room. My solution- since I was flying with US Air/American on my flights, I used their "Priority boarding" option when checking in online (with my regular cabin fare ticket). For those two airlines, at least, you can purchase a simple $25 early boarding option that lets you get Priority or Group 1 boarding on a flight. Purchasing that feature online means it must be available, which means you should get online ASAP to check-in (usually 24 hours before your flight). The longer you wait to check-in, the less chance there is of spending a $25 fee to give you a bit of peace of mind that you will get on the plane before the other traveling hordes. Of course, if you are a Platinum, Gold, Silver, Diamond, blah blah blah passenger, you already will have access to those premium seating priorities and don't need to spend the extra 25 clams. REMEMBER- check your airline to find out what their boarding policies are. The key is- be in or before the FIRST major group to board.

My Story

All that said, written law and "real life" often times don't seem as compatible as they sound. When I boarded my US Air flight from Phoenix, AZ to Kona, HI recently I had guitar in-hand. I had done the research, but I worried about what would happen as I got on the airline. I had purchased the priority boarding so I was in Group 1 to board. I stood up early and got in line at the head of group 1.

The Unhelpful Airline Employee

My wife and I scanned our tickets and were walking down the jetway when an airline employee said "oh, let me get you a ticket so you can gate check that guitar". I quickly replied, "no need, I am carrying it on." She looked surprised, and responded "oh, that won't fit". I replied, "It's ok, I've brought it on flights before. I will just take it on and see. The new federal law says that I have a right to carry-on the guitar and stow it if it can fit". Obviously frustrated with not getting my compliance she sent one more salvo, "so you are just going to take up space for other passengers baggage with that?" Her tone of condescension and shaming was hard to miss. "Yes," I said, "I am".

I got on the plane and the stewardesses and stewards were super nice and no one else said anything. There was tons of room and I placed my own other item in front of the guitar, along with my wife's allowed carry-ons so that the guitar and our items actually fit nicely and only took up a portion of an overhead (plenty other bags were in that overhead bin). Thankfully, the upset airline employee who had accosted me for taking my guitar on the plane didn't board the craft, as I didn't want to have to come under some mysterious "beverage shortage" as retribution for my insistence on accessing the plane with the guitar.

On the flight home, we had two legs to the trip. From Kona to LA was great. I got another priority boarding pass and was golden with finding lots of space for the guitar. But I couldn't get priority boarding for the second leg of the flight because it was a a connector flight with a different airline (who's reservation system didn't allow me to pre-purchase priority boarding). Even worse the jet was a small Canadair commuter jet. I feared the worse. I had flown those before and I knew that the overhead bins were too small for the guitar. I had resigned myself to gate-checking the guitar, praying for protection.
Musician & Worship Leader's Guide to the Musical Instrument "Carry On" Law for Air Travel

The Angel with Wings

As I waited at the end of the jetway, the USAir Express stewardess (run by Mesa Airlines, I believe) asked me if she could help with anything. I pointed to my guitar. I was about to ask if I could talk to the person who would carry my guitar to the luggage compartment. I wanted to be assured that he/she understood the value of the guitar as I really needed them to be careful with it.

But she said "let me help you get that on the plane". "Bring it in here", she said. She cleared out a small forward compartment that contained the crew's luggage and some drink supplies and had me place my guitar in the back of it. Then she piled the items back in the compartment in front of the guitar. I couldn't believe it. "Will that work?" she asked, not realizing I was almost ready to cry with thankful, joyous tears. She had gone out of her way to make sure the guitar was safe and I was a happy customer. And to do that, she placed my guitar in their employee storage compartment in the cabin. I was elated!

Your Takeaways

  • Check-in Early - the goal is to be one of the early boarders. Don't forget.
  • Purchase "priority boarding" where available - if you don't have some preferred status with the airline, and they allow you to buy a cheap boarding upgrade, consider the small fee as insurance to keeping your axe safe from baggage handlers that are used to throwing your checked items. Ya, remember that. Get in line for boarding early - whether you have priority boarding or not, get in the appropriate line ASAP. 
  • Assert your rights - When being questioned by the airline employees, politely assert your rights to carry-on your instrument. I am Mr. non-confrontational, but for my guitar safety I set aside my homegrown Canadian politeness and take on my American "assert-my-rights" attitude. Don't be mean, but be ready.
  • Be nice and Thankful - the airlines can be amazingly helpful as well as rule-bound. I have found that the majority of folks want to do the right thing and help their customers out. My story includes people who were not being helpful, and ones that were. When folks help you and treat you with respect, it feels great. But even when they don't, be nice. And when they help and do right, be thankful.

In addition to the section discussed above, let me clarify a couple addition points.

It's Already Enforced Law

Whenever a law is passed, there is an intermediary time between passage and "implementation" that can thwart the regular people (like you and I) from taking full benefit of the law. I can imagine some uninformed TSA or gate agent saying that it's a signed law, but no rules are available for it. Not so. This law was introduced 02/11/2011, passed the house in 04/01/2011, resolved final differences on 02/06/2012 and was signed into law by the President on 02/14/2012. This isn't a proposal or something only passed by congress or the senate. It is completed, finalized law of the land in the United States. Further, this law has not only been issued but it is now being enforced by the feds as outlined in a final rule of implementation by the US Dept of Trans (which you can read here).

Filing An Official Complaint

IF you have problems with getting airlines to comply with the new law, you can complain to the airline customer service dept directly (which may or may not help you), or report them to the Dept of Transportation directly by registering a formal complaint here. I haven't had to do this, but it is nice to know that the feds are actually going to listen to you if the airlines are being unreasonable or incompliant.

Larger Instruments

Second, there is also a section dealing with larger instruments than can fit in the overhead or stowage compartment of the passenger cabin. All still part of the section 403, the sub-sections "Large musical instruments as carry-on baggage" and "Large musical instruments as carry-on baggage" both may help you with how to handle those larger instruments that the airlines are still now bound by law to allow you to bring on (or check) at no additional cost. There are limits related to size and weight that may apply to extreme cases, so be sure to look into that if it applies to you.

Who is Kim?

Kim is a regular guy, who has been captivated by the unbelievable love of God. His passion to see the reality of God's presence and Kingdom demonstrated in real lives is what fuels most of what he does. The foundation of his identity is based on his belief that he is loved through and through by the Living Creator of the Universe (His name is Jesus). Kim believes his value comes from being a child of God, not from what he can do, or what he has accomplished. In the journey, Kim has been amazingly blessed to be with his sweetheart of 25 years of marriage, Carol, and to have the wonderful opportunity to grow up with his 3 sons - Jordan, Jared and Cody.

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