Tips for Traveling by Air

Immediately following the events of September 11, 2001, a national coalition of concerned organizations including the League of American Orchestras and the American Federation of Musicians, began crafting tips for making reservations, packing instruments, and calmly dealing with last-minute problems. Orchestras and individual musicians are reminded to plan carefully for the safe transportation of musical instruments when traveling by plane.  Security measures and airline policies can change rapidly and impact the ability of musicians to transport instruments by air. There are steps you can take to increase the chances of successfully carrying instruments in-cabin.

CHOOSING AN AIRLINE AND MAKING YOUR RESERVATION:

  1. Know the airline policy.  Please be advised that individual airlines have the last word on what is allowed in-cabin and on the plane! Each airline may adopt unique restrictions regarding carry-on items. When selecting an air carrier, call to confirm whether the dimensions of your instrument meet the airline’s requirements for carry-on items, and note the name of the agent you have called. Airlines make their policies available online - carry a copy.

This link, provided by Airlines for America, is an overview of some, but not all, policies established by major airlines.  Be sure to click the links in the chart to view the full airline policies for further detail.

Summary of Airline Policies for Musical Instruments

  1. When making your reservation, request a seat assignment at the back of the plane. During the boarding process, passengers seated in the rear of the aircraft are boarded immediately after first class and special needs passengers. As one of the first on-board, you will have more time to stow your instrument, and more space options.
  2. Notify reservation agents of oversized items. Many airlines have limits on the number of oversized items allowed in-cabin. And flight crews have to ensure that oversized items do not block passenger views of safety signs. Even if you paid an additional fee or booked a seat for your instrument, ask the reservation agent to record that you are traveling with an oversized musical instrument.

PACKING AND CARRYING YOUR INSTRUMENT:

  1. Remove all extraneous items from the case. All tools and other items should be checked or carried separately to simplify the screening process. What are completely familiar items to you - cleaning fluids and tools, valve oil, end pins, reed knives, mutes, tuners, metronomes - may seem mysterious to screening personnel.
  2. Limit the number of carry-on items. For domestic flights, in addition to your instrument, you may have one carry-on and one, small personal item.
  3. Arrive early. You may hear that check-in and screening takes only minutes – THIS MAY NOT BE TRUE FOR MUSICIANS. Arriving early will allow for the time you may need to work with security and flight crews to make sure your instrument gets safely on board. Bear in mind that problems may take some time to correct. Therefore, it is imperative that you arrive AT THE GATE at least one hour before boarding time.

SECURITY SCREENING PROCEDURES:

In 2002, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) secured a commitment from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to facilitate musicians traveling with their instruments. According to a letter from the TSA to the AFM, these steps are in place:

On December 20, 2002, TSA instructed aircraft operators that effective immediately, they are to allow musical instruments as carry-on baggage in addition to the limit of one bag and one personal item per person as carry-on baggage on an aircraft. Additionally, these revised procedures were communicated to our TSA screeners at the passenger screening checkpoints throughout the country. Should your membership experience problems at the security screening checkpoints, please advise them to request to speak to a screening supervisor for resolution.

In August of 2006, the TSA adopted new procedures that permit passengers to be present for and assist with the screening of large musical instruments as checked baggage. According to the TSA:

The screening will be conducted by the TSA in a designated area near the ticket counter and the instrument will then be returned by TSA to the aircraft operator for processing as checked baggage. Passengers may request this service at the ticket counter as they are checking in.

The links below include a page from the TSA outlining these policies:

TSA Guide to Transporting Musical Instruments
U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Updates

DEALING CALMLY WITH LAST-MINUTE PROBLEMS:

It is crucial that as a traveling musician you recognize several important facts.

  1. The most important responsibility of airport and transportation officials is security.
  2. The most important responsibility of gate attendants and flight attendants is safety.
  3. The most important responsibility of the captain is safety AND security.

Your instrument represents an unusual item that could very well be unexpected. Gate and flight crews that have a very short period of time to seat passengers in an aircraft try their best to deal with the unexpected concisely and quickly. However, you have the right to travel with your instrument onboard if the airline permits it. Therefore, it is recommended that you remain calm and polite. In many cases, the problem may be resolved. Consider this:

  1. If you are stopped by a flight attendant, calmly and quickly explain the precautions you have taken to prepare your instrument to safely travel in-cabin.
  2. Be accommodating by suggesting placing the instrument in the rear of the aircraft, or securing the instrument with cords or ties (bring your own).
  3. If necessary, immediately ask to deplane so that you can resolve this matter with airline supervisors. Remember, you have fifteen minutes at most to resolve this issue before the plane backs away from the gate.
  4. DO NOT block the way of boarding passengers.

Finally, prepare yourself for the possibility that you may not be able to travel with your instrument in-cabin – even if you have followed all possible procedures. What will you do? Are you willing to send your instrument by air courier? Is it packed well enough to withstand transportation in the cargo hold?

Filing Complaints

If your experience flying runs counter to the policies posted by the airlines, you are strongly encouraged to submit a complaint to both the airline and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Start first with a complaint to the airline, which will produce the quickest response.  Next, submit a copy of your complaint to the DOT so that they have a record of the difficulty musicians encounter when flying. 

Submitting Complaints to Airlines

Submitting Complaints to U.S. Department of Transportation

Questions or comments? Please contact Heather Noonan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Najean Lee at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . The content of the League’s Advocacy & Government webpages is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal advice on any subject matter. This website should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an attorney licensed or authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.