By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

In the words of the immortal Rodney Dangerfield, violas don’t get no respect.

They usually play second fiddle — pardon the pun — to violins in classical scores, and they are often the butt of musician jokes. Violas also became a centerpiece of a debate over the inconsistent carry-on luggage rules that has quietly been raging between orchestra musicians and airlines for nearly three years.

There have been no consistent rules in place about whether or not small musical instruments are allowed as carry-on luggage. This means it was largely left up to individual airlines to make a policy, which led to somewhat confusing rules like a policy from Air Canada who decided violins, guitars or a bass clarinet were fine but not a viola. But even violinists and guitar players regularly complained that the rules were unclear and they often didn’t find out what they were until they tried to board a plane.

The Department of Transportation announced a final rule on Dec. 30 that allowed small instruments to be a carry-on item on the same first-come, first-serve basis as other passenger luggage. Additionally, larger instruments like a tuba or cello can fly in the cabin with a ticket purchased for them, which will allow an antisocial tuba player the right to fly with his or her instrument without having to make small talk with the passenger next to them.

“For many years, [American Federation of Musicians] members have been subject to very arbitrary and contradictory size and weight requirements imposed by each airline for musical instruments that are carried on board the airplane or checked as baggage,” AFM President Ray Hair wrote in a letter to the organization’s members. “Airlines will now follow a consistent policy for all musicians traveling with instruments.”

The new rules are expected to be implemented in March. Below is a timeline with some of the highlights of the great carry-on debate.