Flying With Your Musical Instrument, Part 2; The musician-friendly airlines

Which is the best airline when flying with your musical instrument? 

That’s the million dollar question that everyone asks. 

We hear so many horror stories (like this one) about people’s musical instruments getting severely damaged on a flight and we do not want to suffer damage to our valuable instruments. 

The big secret to having a successful flight with your musical instrument is to be prepared and know what to expect way before you even book your travel.

In Part 1 of this series, there were tips, strategies and resources for being prepared before boarding the plane. Some new products were introduced, as well as suggestions for sturdy cases that can help protect your musical instrument. Click here to review that article.

In Part 2, we will look more closely at a few of the main U.S. Airlines, look at the main points to the Department of Transportation’s current guidelines for flying with a musical instrument and you will get a resource created by other musicians that rate all the airlines all over the world in terms of their policies towards musicians bringing instruments on aircraft.

Common Advice When Flying With Your Musical Instrument

  • Before traveling, it is important to know the carry-on luggage dimensions. For most airlines, they are approximately 22″ x 14″ x 9″ or 56 x 35 x 23cm.
  • Be sure to measure your instrument case, and as an extra tip, bring a tape measure with you to the airport to prove your measurements
  • It is also important to research each airline’s Contract of Carriage and search for the section on musical instruments.
  • In general, the bigger the plane, the bigger the overhead bins and the more likely you can fit your instrument.
  • Be sure to purchase priority or early boarding to ensure that you have the opportunity to get your instrument in the overheads while they are still relatively empty. If your instrument can fit in the overheads, storage is on a first-come-first-serve basis.
  • Many airlines will not assume liability if your instrument is in a soft case.
  • Many airlines will not assume any liability at all for fragile items such as musical instruments.

In 2014, the Department of Transportation issued new guidelines (effective in March 2015) for carrying musical instruments on airplanes as carry-on baggage or checked baggage.

They do point out in this document that “frontline customer service agents and flight crew may not always be well-versed in those policies and may not communicate those policies accurately and effectively to musicians.”

As an extra precaution, you can print out the new guidelines and bring them with you as you are boarding the plane.  It is important to be calm, patient and assertive as you deal with the airline workers.

Some key points from the DOT Guidelines:

  • Many times, it is stressed that musicians can bring a small instrument, “such as a violin or guitar” on the plane as long as it can fit in the overheads or under the seat. (Keep in mind, a guitar case can measure  approximately 19 x 6.5 x 45 inches. Some tenor saxophone cases are smaller than that.)
  • “If the carriage of a musical instrument is consistent with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)- approved carry-on baggage or checked baggage program of the direct air carrier operating a public charter flight and there is room for the instrument at the time the passenger in question attempts to board, the public charter operator must accept the instrument as carry-on or checked baggage as appropriate.”
  • “Carriers are not required to remove other passengers’ or crew members’ carry-on baggage that is already stowed in order to make space for a musical instrument.”
  • “Carriers are not allowed to require a passenger to remove his or her musical instrument that is already safely stowed (e.g., in the overhead bin) to make room for carry-on baggage of other passengers who boarded the aircraft later than the passenger with the musical instrument. This is true even if the space taken by the musical instrument could accommodate one or more other carry-on items.”
  • Carriers must treat musical instruments as carry-on baggage equally with other non-musical instrument carry-on baggage.

***A terrific resource that lists all the U.S. and International airlines and their policies for transporting musical instruments is provided by the International Federation of Musicians here.

This resource rates each airline in terms of whether they follow the current U.S. regulations. (Their research was based upon a web search of every airline.) You can read more about their rating system here.

In examining the ratings, green doesn’t always represent the best. As you will read below, United has had its share of troubles with musicians, and it received a green rating. Southwest, also receiving a green rating doesn’t provide plane bridge-to-bridge delivery of gate-checked items. (See below for my experience with this.)

After speaking with a few representatives from different airlines, in my opinion, Delta seemed most favorable to musicians due to the size of the overheads, the plane bridge to bridge transport of gate-checked instruments, and friendliness of the Reservations representatives. 

Delta

The carry-on dimensions are the same as listed above. (Most airlines’ dimensions are approximately the same.)

After speaking with one of the representatives, I was told the following:

  1. If okay with the flight attendant, you can store your instrument in the coat closet in front of the plane.
  2. If your instrument is larger than the carry-on dimensions above, you can gate check. The attendant puts on a pink tag: gate checked items are put on last and taken off first. Pink tagged items are brought to the plane bridge at your destination.
  3. You can buy a seat for your instrument (this is called seat cabin luggage). They can’t take that seat away from you (the representative said that would be like like stealing from the passenger.)
  4. If it’s a mainline aircraft, the overhead bins are larger. If it’s a connection carrier operated by someone else, the overheads will be smaller. (This is true for many other airlines as well.)

JetBlue

I have personally flown on JetBlue for over 10 years.  I have found their customer service excellent.

The biggest issue is that their overhead bins are not long at all; in fact, they are half the length of other carriers’ overheads. It seems that there are dividers in the middle of each bin. Their dimensions are listed as:

Plane type: A320/A321 – 42”L x 24”W x 10”H (some overhead bins may be smaller)
Plane type: E190 – 62”L x 14”W x 10”H (some overhead bins may be smaller) 

This is a problem when trying to fit a tenor saxophone or even a guitar in the overheads.

As a result, I have been gate-checking my horn every time. I have not suffered any damage in all the years I have been flying with them. 

Keep in mind, JetBlue accepts no liability for damage to musical instruments as per our Contract of Carriage.

Southwest Airlines

I have recently flown on Southwest with my tenor saxophone and did not have the best experience. This was due to a lack of communication and understanding between the flight crew from my departure location to the arrival destination.

Since I usually fly JetBlue, and had gate-checked my tenor saxophone on many occasions (and never suffered damage to my instrument), I assumed all airlines would offer the same hand delivery of gate-checked items to the plane bridge.

I called Southwest’s Reservation line, and after speaking with a few representatives and a supervisor was told that if I needed to gate check, my instrument would not go down the conveyor belt with all the other luggage.

Well, that wasn’t what happened. 

On my flight to Dallas, Texas, I did get hand-delivery from the Los Angeles plane bridge, and then from the cargo area to the baggage claim supervisor’s desk in Dallas. This was only after I was very assertive about how fragile my instrument was and after I explained my phone conversation with one of their representatives.

The problem was on the return flight home. Not only was I misinformed about where to pick up my instrument, but I was told by the baggage claim clerk that she saw it riding on the conveyor belt.

Thankfully,  there was minimal damage. I did complain to every Supervisor I saw, and eventually received a phone call from Customer Relations.

Here is an important note to keep in mind: as a Southwest Supervisor told me – if your item is gate-checked and the plane is totally full with baggage, your item may not fly on the plane with you, but will instead be placed on the next flight out. You will not be told about this until you arrive at your destination. He explained that since Southwest allows for more baggage to be transported, this scenario could happen. Obviously, I find this deeply troubling. 

So keep in mind,  unlike, Delta and JetBlue, if you have to gate-check your musical instrument, it will NOT be hand-delivered to the plane bridge at your destination.

I do want to make one distinction. I have noticed that the length of the overhead bins on the Southwest planes I have flown on (Boeing 737’s) were twice as long as JetBlue. Now they weren’t as deep, which would mean my tenor would take up a whole bin with only a little room left for large purses or other soft baggage. But if I bought priority boarding, I would be allowed (by regulations) to take up that space as long as I got my instrument on the plane.

American Airlines

Has very similar policies to Delta, but has had some incidences unfavorable to musicians.

They suggest that you contact Reservations to find out the type of aircraft that will fly to your destination. Overhead bin space varies as to the type of aircraft.

United Airlines

United has not had the best reputation amongst musicians.

United implicitly states that musical instruments must be stored in a hard shell case.

If you have to check your instrument, excess charges can apply if you have more than 2 checked items.

United Airlines does not provide insurance for checked or unchecked baggage. United will accept baggage with a declared value up to $5,000 USD/CAD provided the item is properly described, properly packaged and undamaged.

Surprisingly, United has received a green rating from the International Federation of Musicians. (This is probably due to United’s contract of carriage which follows U.S. regulations.)

The Bottom Line

Know before you go and be prepared!

Make sure your instrument is insured. See Part 1 of this series for some musical instrument insurance companies.

Measure your instrument case dimensions and write them down. Even bring the tape measure with you to the airport as proof.

Do your research by checking the International Federation of Musicians online resource listed above.

Call the airline before you book your flight and document who you speak to, the date and time.

Purchase priority boarding if possible.

Make sure your hard case is sturdy enough for travel. (Be prepared to gate-check your instrument.)

Make sure your instrument is packed securely, with no wiggle room in the case and no loose objects.

What has your experience been flying with your musical instrument?

I would love to know – please Comment below.

Did you Like this article? 

Please Like it and Share on your social media outlets with any musicians you know.

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Comments

  1. Joe Bastian says:

    I’ve had no issues with Air Canada. As long as the case fits in the overhead bins. Mine is a Selmer case and came with the horn. It cradles the horn perfectly and relatively compact. Prior to this my Yamaha case was bigger and had to be checked in. I had it wrapped in a plastic film (available in most airports). It worked well and my horn came through intact.
    Joe

    • Thanks Joe for telling me about your experience with Air Canada. The more people share about each airline they fly, it will benefit all musicians needing to know which airlines are safe to travel.

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