For some, air travel with musical instruments seems like a daunting task, especially for those with cases that can be hard to predict fitting with the rest of the carry-on luggage onboard an airplane. Trombones and horns, for example, have long been contested by different airlines as either personal items or checked baggage, depending on the size and shape of case used for travel.
We recommend first measuring the full dimensions of your case, including length, width, and height/depth. Then, if your flight information is available, determine what kind of airplane(s) you will be flying in on your journey. If you are traveling a short distance, such as San Francisco to Los Angeles or Baltimore to New York, chances are you will be flying in a small regional jet or turboprop airplane, both of which have considerably smaller overhead compartments than larger airplanes used for cross-country and international flights. Bigger airplanes will have larger overhead spaces that can accommodate rolling suitcases, as well as many instruments within reason. Flying directly to your destination on a large airplane often alleviates the stress of dealing with smaller storage space on connecting regional airplanes.
In recent years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) have published official regulations for traveling with musical instruments on airplanes. According to a final rule of Section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, reasonably-sized musical instruments should be able to be transported safely in the cabin with their owner as carry-on baggage, because of their classification as fragile, high value items. In other words, as long as the instrument case fits reasonably within an overhead compartment, it should be stored there for the duration of the flight without issue – as long as there is available space for it.
Despite the implementation of federal regulations, many airlines for whatever reason still have their own interpretations about what can and cannot be carried onto their airplanes, and we have found that rules even vary between personnel working for the same airline. For this reason, we recommend that every tour participant carrying instruments onto the plane carry a copy of the final rule regarding Section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. You can find the most recent version here.The entire legal document is also available here.
Of course, most flutes, clarinets, oboes, and other similarly-sized cases can be carried on as a personal item, or even stored in a backpack with no issue. However, many larger instruments such as saxophones, bass clarinets, bassoons, trombones, and horns have been scrutinized because of different-sized cases used for them. For these instruments as well as violins and violas, we recommend using the most compact, sturdy case available, and it should still be able to fully protect the instrument against accidental damage. Furthermore, to ensure that your instrument receives adequate space in an overhead compartment, we recommend opting for priority boarding so that you and your ensemble are among the first to board.
Some of the largest orchestral instruments, such as cellos, upright basses, harps, tubas, contrabassoons, and drums simply cannot fit in the overhead bins for obvious reasons, and there are several options available for ensuring they are part of your concert tour. Since most basses, tubas, and large drums can be acquired in many areas around the world, we recommend talking with us to arrange for quality rental instruments to be acquired locally at your tour destination. In many cases, it is cheaper to rent than to transport. However, we understand that cellos and less common instruments such as contrabassoons are very unique to their owners, and that some groups would rather use their own. In this case, we recommend acquiring specialized, protective travel cases for packing these instruments as checked baggage, and talking with us about how to prepare them for transport.
As a last resort, it is possible to purchase actual seats for some large instruments, provided that there is room on the airplane. The instrument must be secured safely in the seat without disturbing other passengers, and the seat must purchased well enough in advance at the normal retail price with your own ticket. Please contact us for more information on this option.
We ask that directors submit to us an equipment list consisting of every instrument to be used on the tour, including information such as the kind of instrument, its weight, dimensions, serial number, make, model, monetary value, and owner. We can then communicate with the airline and make recommendations for checking or carrying on each instrument. Additionally, we recommend that every instrument, especially those of higher value, is properly insured with an applicable insurance policy.
Overall, we hope that this is helpful in preparing to travel with your instruments, and we would love to hear from you with any questions of your own. We look forward to seeing you on tour, and bon voyage!
For more information on traveling with instruments from the US Department of Transportation, view this helpful guide.