The short answer is yes, but different airlines have different guidelines.

Air Canada has received a lot of flack the past few years when it first banned violas from traveling as carry-on luggage only to reverse its stance a few weeks later. Given that the airline already had a history of destroying valuable violas, this stance by Air Canada seemed odd to begin with. We at Viola Central fly with violas frequently, but try to fly under the radar (see what we did there) when passing through the TSA checkpoints and boarding aircraft. Generally, airlines should allow you to fly with your viola as carry-on luggage, but below we’ve included some guidelines to ensure your viola’s safety.

UPDATE (9/4/16): The  International Federation of Musicians (IMF) has now released an official rating of airlines that it considers best for flying with violas. The airlines the IMF gave a “green” rating to are: Air Canada (funnily enough given their prior attitude), Air Dolomiti, Air Mauritius, American Airlines, Avianca, Brussels Airlines, Delta Airlines, El Al, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue and Southwest Airlines.

 

Tips for Traveling with a Viola as Carry-On Luggage

  1. Be upfront with TSA or security personnel. Let them know that there is a musical instrument inside when you get the x-ray machine and let them inspect it if need be. DO NOT get offended if a security officer wants to open the case because if you do, you will most likely be in the express lane to a pat-down and further inspection.
  2. Consider buying a seat for your viola. While this is common practice for cellists who want to maintain the safety of their instruments, violists can also do this when their viola does not fit in the overhead bins. Research the airline and flight ahead of time to see what standard overhead bins sizes are (sometimes these vary when you are on a express flight). Often companies, including Air Canada, will offer a discount when buying an extra seat for your viola.
  3. Measure your case to comply with carry-on luggage requirements. Obviously you don’t want to violate the FAA regulations and airline policies around carry-on luggage size, and you certainly don’t want to upset your fellow passengers by bringing on oversize luggage, so measure your viola case size.
  4. If they ask you if it is a violin, just say, “Yes!” Most people we’ve run into don’t know the difference anyway. Save your explanations & energy – you might need it later!
  5. Kindly inform the flight attendants that you are traveling with a musical instrument. Often when you are boarding a flight that has limited overhead space, you will be given a tag and asked to drop your luggage at the gate so that it can be gate-checked. Obviously, your viola is suspecitble to the same issues as if it were checked in this case, so kindly tell the flight attendants and boarding staff that you are traveling with a valuable instrument and would prefer to carry it on-board. Most of the time they will be happy to let you on so that they aren’t responsible for destroying a priceless instrument, like the $13,000 viola destroyed on an Air Canada flight.
  6. Always board ASAP! The new TSA rule says that musicians should be allowed to carry-on their instruments as long as 1) it fits in the overhead bins & 2) there is room in the overhead bins. If they run out of room, you are out of luck
  7. If all else fails, make a scene. If you ask for the manager or a TSA supervisor, the answer will most likely be “yes” given the recent rubs they’ve had with musicians.
  8. Carry your instrument in a hard case. Most of the airlines require a hard case anyway, so you might as well show up to the airport with one. Amazon has some great hard cases for violas. Just find one that fits your viola size.

 

Guidelines for Flying with a Viola from Major Airlines

 

Air Canada allows violins, violas, and guitars as carry-on luggage as long as they fit in the overhead bin…

String instruments (e.g. guitars, violins and violas) can be carried on board as long as they fit in the overhead bin and there is space available in the cabin at time of boarding. In some cases, a seat may also be purchased for these instruments. Contact Air Canada Reservations for more information.

 

United Airlines allows violins and other small instruments onboard as long as they fit in the overhead bins…

Depending on their size, musical instruments can be carried on board, handled as checked baggage, or carried as cabin-seat baggage.

As carry-on

As part of the allowance of one carry-on bag plus one personal item, a passenger may carry a violin, guitar or other small musical instrument onboard the aircraft if:

  1. The instrument can be stowed in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of the passenger; and
  2. There is space for stowage at the time when the passenger boards the aircraft

Musical instruments transported onboard United and United Express aircraft must be in hard-shell cases.

 

Delta Airlines also allows musical instruments as long as they meet the carry-on requirements below. Our suggestion, don’t let them measure it.

Musical instruments and/or equipment are accepted as checked baggage, carry-on baggage or cabin-seat baggage — depending on its size and shape — on Delta and Delta Connection® carriers flights¹. Please help us to keep your instrument safe by bringing it in a hard-shell case.

What Instruments Can I Check?

Musical instruments or equipment can be checked if the total linear dimension (length + width + height) does not exceed 150 inches (381 cm), and provided the weight, including the case, does not exceed 165lbs (75 kg).

See standard rules and fees for overweight and oversized baggage.

What Instruments Can I Carry On?

Guitars and other smaller musical instruments, such as violins, will be accepted as your free carry-on baggage item on Delta and Delta Connection® carriers flights¹. These items must easily fit in the overhead bin or other approved storage location in the cabin, based on available space at the time of boarding. Musical instruments may be gate claimed at the discretion of the passenger and as a result of limited overhead space.

What Instruments Might Need Their Own Seat?

You may purchase a full fare ticket for an item that you feel is too fragile to be handled as checked baggage. You may stow the baggage in any passenger seat with a bulkhead or divider in front of the compartment. The following restrictions apply. The item must:

  • not exceed 165 lbs (75 kg)
  • be packaged or covered in a way to avoid injury to other passengers
  • be properly secured by a seatbelt to avoid shifting during flight
  • not restrict access to, or use of, any required emergency or regular exits or aisle of the cabin
  • not obscure any passenger’s view of seatbelt, no smoking or exit signs
  • not contain dangerous goods
  • be secured in a seat in the same cabin as the owner and preferably next to the owner

 

American Airlines has the same policies as above with the option to purchase a seat for your viola…

Carry-on instruments

You can travel with small musical instruments as your carry-on item on a first come, first serve basis as long as it:

If your instrument doesn’t fit in the carry-on baggage space, you can choose to buy an additional seat which:

If you choose to buy an additional seat for your instrument, please note that seat baggage must not weigh more than 165 lbs. (75 kg) and must meet seat size restrictions based on airplane type.

 

Conclusion

Most of the major airlines have similar policies for flying with a viola or other musical instrument. We recommend checking with your specific airline to make sure you can fly with your viola (or “LARGE” violin 🙂 ) and buy a hard case. This will ensure a speedy, and hopefully safe, journey through the air for your viola.

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