For many musicians traveling with instruments a major concern is if the airline will allow them to carry their instrument onboard. Horror stories abound about instruments that were severely damaged, lost, or otherwise compromised when checked in with baggage. A ruling by the FAA which seemingly supported the musicians' rights about carrying instruments onboard was mitigated by leaving the discretion to the airlines. Excuses such as "a very full flight" have been used to require musicians to check their instruments in.
The ability to board with your instrument is at the discretion of the airline gate agent. If they feel your instrument is too large, or they feel that the aircraft cannot accommodate your instrument, they can request you to gate-check your instrument. Also, some agents apparently aren't aware of the FAA's policy with regard to boarding with instruments and may give you an argument. Be prepared for the worse, and do whatever is necessary to protect your instrument. Always assume that you may be asked to check your instrument in.
Now the International Federation of Musicians has come out with an airlines rating system based on how accommodating airlines' cabin policies are for musicians. The rating system takes a three-tiered approach: Green for the best, amber for the next best, and red for the airlines that are least accommodating. This full article describes the rating system in further detail, and the full rating list can be viewed here.
Generally, an airline will accommodate you if your instrument can fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat. The issue is how much of the overhead compartment you can reasonably occupy for your instrument. Your own experience with airlines of your selection can best determine how to travel and what airline to use; however, you're always at the mercy of the gate agent. The new ratings system may help you decide which airline you wish to take your chances with.
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