They Tried To Make Me Check My Tuba, I Said No, No, No

March 05, 2012 -- 3:06 pm PST

Daryl P. Friedman's picture
Daryl P. Friedman

Life just got simpler for musicians flying with their instruments, and in some strange way, we have Amy Winehouse to thank for it.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Boring name. Cool result. Tucked in the massive, 145-page bill is a provision that at long last standardizes instrument carry-on policy, giving musicians the certainty and clarity they deserve.

The bill was signed into law two days after the GRAMMYs, and in fact the GRAMMYs played a role in its passage, as did Winehouse, bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, and an 81-year-old cigar-smoking Republican congressman from North Carolina named Howard Coble.

To understand how this unlikely cast of characters coalesced into a victory for musicians, let's rewind. For nearly a decade, our friends and allies at the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) have sought to solve a problem for musicians traveling by air: Each airline had its own rule about carrying on instruments. Musicians dreamed of having a clear, consistent policy, but the only way to accomplish that is to mandate it through legislation. A solution was placed in a draft House bill, but the dream was stalled for years. At last year's GRAMMYs on the Hill Advocacy Day, this issue was one of the key lobbying talking points as we walked the halls of Congress with our AFM brothers and sisters.

The House provision was inserted by someone who might seem as an unlikely champion, Greensboro, N.C. Congressman Coble. But to those of us who know him, Coble is a friend of music makers and intellectual property, and the recipient of the 2002 GRAMMYs on the Hill Award.

Let's let the National Journal(Feb. 18, 2011) take it from here:

"You see, Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., who pushed the [instrument] language in a House markup this week, is a groupie for both [Scruggs and Winehouse].

"Ed McDonald, Coble's chief of staff, told National Journal Dailythat his boss's vested interest comes from a longtime friendship with bluegrass legend and fellow North Carolinian Earl Scruggs, whom Coble presented with a [Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award] in 2008. But friends and constituents alike might be surprised at what they'd find on Coble's playlist.

"'Usually, the modern stuff goes right over his head,' McDonald said. 'But one time we were at a [GRAMMY] rehearsal — he's always been involved in the music industry — and he heard Amy Winehouse and told me, 'You know, I really like that rehab song.' I can tell you, it was something I never thought I'd hear Howard Coble say.'

"The Senate passed a version of the reauthorization bill on Thursday; there is no timeline yet for the FAA measure to hit the House floor. Once it does, though, you can bet Coble will be there with bells — or headphones — on."

One year later, the bill has passed with the instrument provision. Traveling with your guitar? Bring it on board and place it in any available compartment where it fits. Afraid to check that prized Guarneri Cello? Buy it a seat and have it travel on the plane next to you. Regardless of the carrier, the rules are now clear and standardized.

So next time you're flying home from a gig on a red-eye and your instrument is safely tucked into the bin above you, look down at the lights below and thank Howard Coble.

Then look up at the lights above and thank Amy Winehouse.

Update November 4, 2015: We are saddened to learn of the passing of Rep. Howard Coble. All of us at The Recording Academy were proud to know him as a true friend to musicians.