Musicians Have Special Rights On A Plane – But Only If They Prepare Properly To Exercise Them

American Airlines forced a musician to gate check his guitar, not allowing him to bring it on board his flight. They promptly lost the guitar.

Everyone – musician and airline alike – has known not to check a guitar at least since Sons of Maxwell released a song about their incident on United Airlines.

Musicians do have rights, but they also have the responsibility to be prepared to exercise those rights. Buy an extra seat for the instrument, or ensure you’re boarding early enough that there’s overhead bin space left for your instrument.

Since 2015 the Department of Transportation has required airlines to allow small instruments to be taken on board as carry on bags. The federal rule is even specific to guitars,

This rule requires that carriers must allow a passenger to carry into the cabin and stow a small musical instrument, such a violin or a guitar, in a suitable baggage compartment, such as the overhead bin or under the seats in accordance with FAA safety regulations.

However airlines aren’t required to bump items that other passengers have placed in an overhead bin to accommodate an instrument. DOT even specifically advises passengers to ensure that they board early, including paying a fee to do so, in order to secure overhead bin space for their instruments. If there is no space then the airline doesn’t have to accommodate the item.

Sometimes airlines do violate this rule. For instance last summer a United Express flight attendant declared she didn’t have to follow up.

More frequently – indeed, one of the most common complaints I see in social media across airlines – gate agents instruct passengers to check bags claiming overhead bins are full when plenty of space remains in the bins. They do not want passengers spending time hunting and searching for bin space, or taking time at the last moment to gate check bags, potentially delaying the flight by a few minutes (and reflecting poorly on them).

So if there’s overhead space available and a gate agent refused to allow use of it, I’d document that and file a consumer complaint with DOT because the airline would seem to be in violation of a federal rule (even if well-intentioned or inadvertently). But putting oneself in a position where bins might be full is inadvisable at best.

This passenger felt they should be able to place their instrument in the plane’s closet but closets fill up too and indeed many American Airlines domestic aircraft do not even have closets.

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, 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. Tip to all musicians: quit!

    Music has gone down the drain since the early 2010s. This is easily verifiable by listening to SIRIUS radio by decade. The last decade up through today, is junk.

    We have enough music produced from the 20th and early 21st century to last forever. We don’t need any more sh***y music clogging the airwaves or the overhead bins. Thank you and TRUMP 2024.

    (Just kidding on that last part, TRUMP IS GOING TO PRISON)

  2. So, does a guitar case get exempted from having to fit in the carryon luggage size test stand? They are typically more than the permitted 45 linear inches.

  3. 3.5% unemployment, inflation is dropping, rational student debt forgiveness, coherent foreign policy that is defending allies and not sending more troops abroad, biggest climate control bill in a generation… Gotta be an orange sock puppet to feel that is broken…

  4. Are gate checkins always available? Requesting that is better than taking a chance with counter checkin.

  5. Alan this is a travel blog. NOT a political blog. LEAVE. You are not what is making America great

  6. I started my airline career in reservations. A lady with a symphony orchestra always carried her very valuable cello on board and always bought a seat for it. How does one sell a seat to a non-person? It was simple as it was just listed as her last name…I’ll use “Cello Smith”. When she gave me her name, I asked her if her cello had a mileage account. It didn’t. It does now! From that point on, she just booked “Cello Smith” along with her ticket and “Cello” got “her” airline miles! The PNR noted that the seat was for a valuable cello. There were no rules 20+ years ago that said the “passenger” had to have a pulse!

  7. A violin IS a small instrument. A guitar is not. It exceeds the size of most overhead compartments and if it fits, takes away space from all the other passengers who have FAA regulation-sized carry ons. It is also larger than carry on dimesions of 14 x 9 x 21. Stop trying to make this a thing. Buy a seat for your large instrument. Or a first class ticket so you can use the forward closet. You also failed to show the rest of the paragraph regarding instruments: “Section 403 of the Act and this final rule provide that carriers are required to allow passengers to stow their musical instruments in an approved stowage area in the cabin ONLY if at the time the passenger boards the aircraft such stowage space is available. With the exception of certain disability assistance devices, overhead bins or under seat stowage space is available to all passengers and crew members for their carry-on baggage on a “first come, first served” basis. Accordingly, 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.”

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