Flight Attendant Declares She Doesn’t Have To Follow Federal Law, Ban Carry On Musical Instruments

Rachelle Hunt of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra tried to bring her violin onto United Airlines flight UA4349 operated by CommutAir from Knoxville to Washington Dulles. However a flight attendant on the ERJ-145 aircraft declared this wasn’t permitted.

One of the most frustrating things traveling on small regional jets, and larger Bombardier CRJ regional aircraft, is that lack of overhead bin space – and cabin crew who assume even smaller items that fit will not.

In this case, the violin fits. Federal law says that instruments which will fit in available bin space or under the seat can be brought on board an aircraft. Yet the flight attendant declared the passenger kept “on saying federal law” but at United “we don’t go with the federal law” – that their own baggage policies which she was wrong about trump Congress and the DOT.

The passenger, a Star Alliance Gold member, boarded in group 1. There was plenty of bin space available for her violin. The crewmember insisted she check her violin, but fortunately the flight’s captain intervened and she was allowed to bring the instrument on board as an “exception.”

United’s policy to allow musical instruments as carryons provided they fit either in the overhead bin or seat in front of the passenger is consistent with DOT regulations at 49 U.S.C. §41724 which implement section 403 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

And this matters because, look, everyone knows not to check a musical instrument on United.

I’ve reached out to United for comment on how their express carrier flight attendant’s mis-understanding of the airline’s rules trumps federal law, and will update if they respond.

Update: A CommutAir spokesperson responds,

This isn’t the experience we want for passengers traveling on CommutAir. Our carry-on bag policy complies with FAA regulations which permit musical instruments to be stored in our overhead bins as a personal item. We regret this misunderstanding and are carefully reviewing all guidance issued to our employees specific to musical instruments to avoid this from happening again in the future.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary Leff: “I’ve reached out to United for comment on how their express carrier flight attendant’s mis-understanding of the airline’s rules trumps federal law, and will update if they respond.”

    Reality: Look at the sentence carefully. Trumps. When Trump says it, you have to do it or else!!!!

  2. Authoritarian cabin crew on power trips are the most dangerous part of flying. These people should be fired summarily. No excuse for ever letting such a person on a plane again while in uniform. Zero tolerance.

  3. Why would anyone fly United with a musical instrument? Everyone knows UNITED BREAKS GUITARS.

  4. I fly for C5 … Excellent job on whoever the captain was for taking good care of the situation. If it fits and it’s safe … it flies.

  5. At least the f/a didn’t call the cops on her….that seems to be their preferred method of handling customer service issues.
    11 years since I’ve been on a United (or express) airplane.

  6. US based cabin crews are mostly nasty old women and angry queens throwing bags of pretzels at the savages and peons sitting in crowded middle seats between the fat guy and the crying baby

  7. My father was a well-known concert cellist back in the day, 40s, and 50s. He had a letter from a top person at each of a few airlines he flew in US and abroad. The letter stated that he would be allowed to place his cello in any empty seat, which apparently there was always at least one.

    Later, he could still bring on the cello but he had to buy a seat ticket for it. I remember he wasn’t the least bit happy about that, but would not put the cello in the baggage area. One of my favorite stories was that one day, when he was buying a ticket at the airport, the man at the ticket counter insisted that the cello have a name before he could print the ticket. My father said the cello had no name. The agent insisted it had to have a name. So my father named it Joe Cello. Ticket was printed.

  8. Violinist here — I always bring my violin on board. There is no other possible side to this story. Except that most violinists, if you tell them to check their instrument, are going to lose it — which is understandable.
    Most flight attendants just don’t know. At small aircraft they constantly have to bully people to check their oversize bags with wheels, and everyone has a story why they don’t want to check their bag.

    In the case of musicians however, US law mandates they must be let on board with their instrument provided there is still overhead space available. Violin cases fit in the overheads of EVERY plane flown by United and United Express.
    Word of advice to musicians, if gate agents give you a gate check tag, take it, say thank you, and then walk onto the plane anyway — never argue at the gate…

  9. WHO flys that awful airline? Dunno how they stay in bidness. Callingm the the US Aeroflot or the Greyhound of the skies isn’t fair to Aeroflot or Greyhound.

  10. Typical United employees. “I am above the law, I can make up my own rules. I don’t like violins so, unless you wanna get assaulted and dragged off the plane…you better check it in”

    Will these employees ever be held accountable?

  11. #1-United doesn’t enforce the federal mask mandate, so why would they enforce a federal musical instrument law?

    #2-United is based in Chicago, so a tough, inflexible response would not be out of character.

  12. Derek you are an idiot! This post has nothing to do with Trump he is no longer the president. Get a grip! This has to do with a little person who has a lot of power and that is the danger here. Maybe when United has to pay 5-6 figures to replace a valuable instrument will they realize the error of their ways.

  13. Gary, you are again showing your ignorance of the FARs in favor of sensationalism and misinformation. If United’s operational specification (op spec) had said no to musical instruments, that would indeed, by the FARs, “trump Congress and the DOT”. Op Specs are considered to be an extension of the FARs, and the more restrictive rule would apply.

  14. @mahasamatman – you’re reading something that’s not here. If the overhead bin supports an instrument and space is available it can go in the bin. Bins on all United aircraft are considered to support such instruments. The flight attendant posited a difference between policy and federal law, and that policy trumps. You aren’t referring to policy.

  15. The federal regulation doesn’t guarantee musical instruments can be stored in the cabin but guarantees that airlines are not restricted from storing instruments in the cabin. The cabin crew member is right that the airline can set its own policy and have its own rules. Being a federally regulated transporter, I do see passenger bans and no fly lists as illegal, abusive, and in violation of human rights because there is a huge barrier to entry in creating an airline and preventing the free movement of citizens through interstate transport is unacceptable if done for political purposes/speech/free expression.

    The cabin crew member is showing herself to be typical of most U.S. flight attendants in not understanding that there is a soft policy on musical instruments akin to common law. It’s common for airlines to allow musical instruments to be brought on board if they are disproportionately expensive and there is room for it to be accommodated. We are lucky the flight attendant didn’t call the police because the passenger asserted herself and disagreed with the flight attendant. Flight attendants often abuse their authority over flight safety to shutdown anyone who complains about poor service or who does not immediately obey an non safety related request. Flight attendants are not supposed to be judge, jury, and executioner (what judges are with contempt of court chargers that violate separation of powers and is a huge abuse). Very often pilots are rubber stamps for flight attendants. I’m happy that wasn’t the case here.

    It’s a matter of judgement, discretion, and being reasonable. Most flight attendants in the U.S. have none or are not.

  16. mahasamatman – you obviously didnt pass civics/US government class in high school. A law passed by Congress trumps EVERYTHING except the US Constitution. Last time I checked it contained no references to allowing airlines to fail to follow US law.

  17. Jackson Waterson – actually federal law does require airline allow it onboard as long it fits in OH bin or 2)it can be secured to a seat.

  18. You law experts (including Gary) are providing no evidence. Federal laws are public — please provide a link.

    I would like to learn the truth, but this entire post and comment section reeks of made-up misinformation.

  19. @John: Love this story!

    “The agent insisted it had to have a name. So my father named it Joe Cello. Ticket was printed.”

  20. Hey Gary – Thanks so much for reminding me of the Taylor guitar song. It’s soooo much fun!!

  21. @Steven M.
    Thanks for your comment! I thought it would be a relevant story because it was true and a very early example of traveling with a large instrument on a plane. Are you a musician and have run into this situation??

  22. Jake – how about you do a simple Google search? It returns quite a few links. Would’ve been less work and less typing than attacking posters for “made up information.”

  23. @flyerco
    Jake cannot read. Jake probably types with grammarly. So you need to find a youtube video where some man reads the federal law so he can understand.

  24. @John: Love this story!

    “The agent insisted it had to have a name. So my father named it Joe Cello. Ticket was printed.’

    When flying United Airlines and you are mandated to give your musical instrument a name, I recommend choosing the moniker “United Sucks.” Then your violin or guitar would have a printed boarding pass worthy of receiving recognition in a future View from the Wing article. When connecting to another flight, as your instrument has a human-type name, you could order a complimentary wheelchair for gentle delivery of Mr. or Mrs. United Sucks to your adjacent, reserved, and paid for seat.

  25. @Ken A…..Too funny. My favorite part of your plan is ordering the wheelchair. what a hoot!!!

  26. Seems to me if I was a musician I would make sure I have a printed copy of the relevant Federal and airline regulations on the matter on hand.

  27. Hin – doesn’t help when employee believes company policy can trump the law. (As was case here)

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