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Get in tune with your airline’s instrument policy

Only a few people know that Delta Air Lines paid Amanda Sage $200 as compensation for returning her checked bag with a giant rip in it. Or that American Airlines delivered a new footlocker to John Wetmore when the one he checked in as baggage showed up with a big hole punched in it.

But, thanks to a YouTube video that’s gone viral, millions of people around the world now know that in March 2008, United Airlines baggage handlers broke Dave Carroll’s guitar. And instead of just admitting it and paying for the repairs, the airline kept telling the musician to go away.

He didn’t. If you’ve been in outer space, away from a TV, or ignoring e-mails from friends urging you to watch the video starring Carroll and the Canadian pop-rock group, Sons of Maxell, here’s the story: While traveling from Canada to Nebraska, the band needed to change planes in Chicago. Waiting to deplane, first one passenger, and then a band member, looked out the window and saw baggage handlers throwing instrument cases around down on the ground.

Sure enough, when the band reached Omaha, Carroll opened his case to find a busted guitar. After a year of back and forth, the airline refused to compensate Carroll for the damage. So the guitarist made a music video about his experience and posted it online.

The rest is now music and social media history. The plucky video has drawn the attention of millions of music fans and travelers. Newspapers, blogs and TV shows have picked up the story. And United Airlines has changed its tune. In an e-mail, United Airlines spokesperson Robin Urbanski says the airline contacted Carroll “in an effort to make things right” and is now in agreement “that this should have been fixed much sooner.”

The airline plans to use Carroll’s “United Breaks Guitars” video for training and has, per Carroll’s request, used the funds it offered Carroll to make a donation to charity. United, Urbanski says, is contributing $3,000 (what they estimate is the value of the guitar) in Carroll’s name to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.

Has anything changed?
Has all this hoopla changed anything in terms of travel? Carroll thinks so: “I know in the short term, with United Airlines and across the industry, there’s a new sensitivity to people traveling with instruments. I’m getting e-mail from musicians thanking me for helping them — and their guitars.”

One musician told Carroll of an airline that balked at paying to fix an instrument mangled in transit until “United Breaks Guitars” was brought up. “Then he got a check right away.” Carroll heard from another musician who said that, after expressing concern about putting his guitar in the belly of the plane, he was encouraged to bring it up into the cabin. And now, of course, airlines, musicians, instrument-toting travelers and even the TSA are all taking another look at the rules and regulations for taking instruments along on airplanes.

So what are the rules?
Well, the rules aren’t that clear. And they vary from airline to airline. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?)

TSA consulted with music organizations, such as the American Federation of Musicians, to understand the challenges of transporting musical instruments. Right now, on its Web site, the TSA recommends sending brass instruments as checked luggage and bringing stringed instruments as carry-on; keeping in mind your airline’s size requirements for carry-on items.

But right away, the rules get a bit mushy. As far as the TSA is concerned, when you go through the screening checkpoint, “you may carry one (1) musical instrument in addition to 1 carry-on and 1 personal item.” Sounds great, right? Think of all the extra underwear, socks and T-shirts you can pack in there with that banjo. But not so fast. That’s just the TSA’s screening policy. When it comes time to board your airplane, the TSA notes in bold print, “airlines may or may not allow the additional carry-on item on their aircraft.”

So what’s a well-mannered, instrument-toting traveler to do? Taylor Guitars, which repairs more than 1,000 travel-traumatized guitars each year, made their own YouTube video on that topic. And, with input from the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the company sent along a few helpful tips:

  • Know your airline’s policy on transporting instruments. Look it up on the airline’s Web site, print it out and take it with you. “Many flight attendants do not know their own airline’s policy regarding carry-on guitars. If you can calmly explain that your instrument is within their mandated guidelines, and actually show them those guidelines, you will be way ahead of the game.”
  • Each airline has a maximum size for carry-on items, measured by linear inches — the sum of the length, width and height of your travel case. On many airlines, including Continental, American and United, the limit is 45 linear inches. “In many cases, even though your instrument case does not fit in the ‘size wise’ metal contraption at the gate, it might still be within the linear-inch maximum.”
  • Carry a fabric tape measure with you.  It can come in handy if you’re challenged about your dimensions of your instrument case.

What else can you do?
To avoid the risk of being parted from their instruments at the check-in counter, the security checkpoint, the gate or on the plane as the overhead bins fill up, musicians that can afford it often purchase a second seat just for their instruments.

“I endured a lot of ‘Would Mr. Cello like some peanuts?’ comments,” says Dave Beck, who used to work for orchestras that paid for his cello to have its own seat. But for the average working musician, that second seat purchase isn't really an option.

Dave “United Breaks Guitars” Carroll doesn’t think musicians should even have to worry about something terrible happening to an instrument checked in as baggage.

“We have the right to demand that our property is being well cared for — and we have to assume that the people taking care of baggage do so with respect and care.”

For Carroll, it’s a basic customer service issue: “They get it right most of the time; why can’t they get it right all the time?”

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for