by Juan Carlos Melendez-Torres, Policy Intern
In the lead up to this past weekend’s Newport Folk Festival, reports surfaced on social media of an all-too-familiar tale: a musician once again encountering problems while attempting to board a flight with a musical instrument. Last Wednesday, it was John McCauley, singer, guitarist, and songwriter of Rhode Island-based Deer Tick who was refused entry to his flight in Philadelphia by U.S. Airways. The reason? He wanted to take his guitar on board with him.
Though the airline did later refund the ticket and pay for McCauley’s Amtrak ride to the festival, this really never should have never happened in the first place. Among the many regulations included in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 is a Musical Instruments section, §41724 starting on page 74, which generally provides for passengers to take small instruments as carry-on baggage and allows passengers to purchase separate tickets for larger instruments. This much needed change happened after a decade of lobbying by the American Federation of Musicians and others. The big sticking point comes in one of the last clauses of this section, which requires that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) create “final regulations” to instrumentalize the law before it can actually be enforced against carriers. This hasn’t happened yet, despite the fact that this law was signed into law on February 14, 2012, almost 30 months ago, because, the FAA claims, they don’t have sufficient funding to write the regulations.
Adding to the confusion: a blog post that went viral last year encouraged musicians to claim privileges under this law that they don’t really have yet, creating a whole lot of confusion about what is actually codified in active regulatory policy and what is still in the bureaucratic pipeline. McCauley noted on Twitter that he attempted to follow the overzealous blogger’s instructions and show the steward a copy of the law, but it didn’t work. This is unsurprising, as until the FAA quits shrugging off its legally required duty and releases and implements its final draft of the new regulations, the airlines can do whatever they want. As was the case before the legislation passed, policies vary and are inconsistently applied, often based on the whims of airline staff.
There are two bits of good news in this whole mess, though. First, Deer Tick’s snafu got the attention of Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), who wrote a letter to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx asking him the problem. Understanding the basic need for musicians to be able transport the tools they need to make a living, Reed also seems to recognize the economic and cultural importance of music festivals like the Newport Folk Festival. The success of any festival with even a regional draw (not to mention a national or global reputation like NFF) certainly depends on the ability of its performers to travel by air while guaranteeing safety for their instruments. Reed’s pressure may or may not spur action; the FAA seems to have ignored a February bipartisan letter signed by 30 members of the house. But it sure couldn’t hurt!
The second bit of silver lining is that we’ve compiled an up-to-date fact sheet that will allow you to parse out the current situation regarding transporting musical instruments by air. Here, you can find the current status of federal law, answers to some FAQs about how to fly with instruments, and links to some further reliable resources on the issue. Our hope is that that this fact sheet will at least help you plan for uncertainty, until the FAA finally gets its act together.
Deer Tick photo courtesy Partisan Records