The Department of Transportation Issues Instrument Carry-on Ruling

Effective next month, passengers can bring small musical instruments into the cabin as carry-on luggage.
Image placeholder title

It finally happened.

The Department of Transportation issued their long-awaited ruling standardizing the policy of all U.S. airlines for musicians traveling with their instruments as carry-on luggage. Mostly.

Effective next month, all U.S. airline carriers will be required to allow passengers to bring small musical instruments into the cabin as carry-on luggage, and the airlines can no longer charge any fee beyond a standard carry-on.

According to the rule, musical instruments should be stored like other carry-on bags, on a first-come, first-served basis. In short, overhead baggage doesn't have to be moved to make room for an instrument, but once the instrument has been stowed in the overhead bin, the owner doesn't have to move it for anyone else.

The take-away here is that you'll want to do everything possible to make sure you board first while overhead space is still available. Many airlines offer the option of priority boarding for a fee, while checking in early for your flight online on carriers such as Southwest can score you free "Group A" boarding that practically guarantees your "small instrument" will get on the aircraft before all the overhead bins are taken.

In the January 2015 issue of Bass Player, Berklee College of Music Bass Department Chair, Steve Bailey, suggests that, when all other options have been exhausted, calmly and politely ask to speak to the pilot. Says Bailey, "Most pilots are musicians, wanted to be musicians and / or have kids who are musicians and, for the most part, they "get it." Several times I've been told 'You can't take that on' or 'You have to gate-check that' and every time the pilot has saved me. Pilots rock!"

"During the past year, the department has been engaged in dialogue with musicians, as well as representatives of airlines and industry associations, to address the difficulties musicians face when traveling by air with musical instruments," the DOT said in its ruling. "Several members of various musician organizations described problems that musicians encounter when traveling by air with their musical instruments."

The ruling only effects passengers traveling with "small instruments" that fit in an overhead compartment. Musicians traveling with larger instruments will still be required to pay for an extra seat or, much more likely, check their instrument, then make a wish and a prayer to St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers.

Should you find yourself traveling by air with an upright bass, it's useful to know that most carriers have a 100lb weight restriction (lower for international flights), other travelers have found that Southwest and Jet Blue have been the most bass-friendly and, if asked, you might want to tell them it's a cello.

In a song whose lyrics are relatable to many traveling upright bass players, Jay Leonhart sings "If you wanna cause a problem, if you wanna cause some pain, simply go down to your local airport and try to put a bass aboard a plane." You can laugh or commiserate with the rest of the song:

The new rule goes into effect next month, and it is expected to benefit 127,000 professional musicians, along with about 5.8 million school-age children who play.

Read the U.S. Department of Transportation's statement here.