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Rights Groups Press Congress for Airline Musical-Instrument Carry-On Legislation

Posted in News on May 9, 2011
Photo: from "United Breaks Guitars" by Dave Carroll

Tales of delicate instruments being pulverized by careless baggage attendants are well known throughout the music business. To avoid such mishaps, for years musicians have asked airlines to let them carry aboard certain instruments, even offering to purchase an adjoining seat when necessary (particularly for larger instruments such as a cello or upright bass). In the absence of a universally recognized standard, however, musicians continue to deal with wildly conflicting storage policies as they travel from one airport to the next.

Accordingly, musicians-rights agencies continue to press Congress for legislation guaranteeing the safeguard of musical instruments on commercial aircraft. In a letter recently addressed to Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), BMI, as well as the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and other music organizations, reiterated its support for the Section 713 carry-on provisions set forth in Senate bill S. 223. These provisions would enable travelers to carry on board any gear that could be easily stored in an overhead bin or under a seat (such as a guitar-sized instrument or smaller), rather than be subjected to possible cargo-hold damage or airport mishandling.

Fred Cannon, BMI Senior Vice President, Government Relations, notes, “While this legislation is not directly related to royalties, we are aware how important this issue is to our actively performing members’ ability to earn a living and we have made congressional leaders aware of our support for this legislation.”

According to the letter, Senate bill S. 223, which also favors allowing owners of larger instruments to buy a separate ticket for some oversized instruments, “is exactly what musicians need in order to adequately prepare for the safe transport of their instruments. A uniform national policy for all airlines regarding musical instruments as carry-on luggage on airplanes will establish a consistent standard and provide a codified law for musicians to present when airline employees refuse to allow their instruments on board.”

By contrast, the carry-on provision in the House version of the bill (H.R. 658) states that instruments should be stowed “in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo set forth by the Administrator.” BMI and other musicians-rights groups argue that the House provision merely upholds current policy while potentially allowing the FAA to add further restrictions down the road.

Differences over the Senate and House carry-on provisions, part of a major FAA reauthorization bill three years in the making, will be addressed in conference committee, perhaps before the end of May.

Ax to Grind
Rachael Lander, member of the UK-based Raven Quartet and owner of a 19th-century cello, is one such musician who would never consider being separated from her instrument in flight. But as she recently told the BBC, “Even with a ticket, we have security issues because the cello has a metal pin in it, and once we’re on the airplane it has to be strapped in upside down by air traffic people in neon jackets.” Adds Lander, “It would just be easier if there was one blanket rule — and we knew what that rule was.”

OPERA America, the New York City-based opera-support group, says that the inconsistent application of carry-on policies by airline personnel often forces musicians to make last-minute flight cancellations and subsequently miss engagements due to “fear that their instruments will be damaged if they are checked,” thereby directly impacting their ability to make a living.

A select few airlines have sought to boost their standing among musicians by establishing more gear-friendly carry-on policies. Earlier this year, UK carrier Easyjet announced that it would allow any instrument that would fit comfortably in the overhead containment space to be taken on board, and would make special arrangements to store larger instruments in the cabin as well.