Airlines Keep Up the Fight Against String Instruments

August 18, 2017, 8:04 PM · Apparently, buying a ticket to fly your cello on American Airlines isn't enough to ensure that you won't have your cello snatched away while everyone argues about whether you actually have the right to board with said cello.

cello on plane

We've heard about the big incidents regarding the abuse of cellists by airlines: instruments being destroyed; passengers being denied boarding with a cello, and also the famous incident about Lynn Harrell being denied Delta miles for the cello for which he's paid thousands of dollars in full-fare tickets on the airline.

But how about the untold stress of transporting a cello and narrowly escaping having it put in cargo, even when abiding by every rule in the most careful way possible? That's what happened Thursday to a college student that I've known since she was a small child. Her name is Maddie, and she is a 19-year-old sophomore at Purdue University.

The first year she went to college, her family planned the entire trip around the transport of her cello, which is worth about $8,000. Wary of the awful stories about flying with a cello, they chose to drive from Los Angeles to Indiana, an epic cross-country trip. That required her mother to take a week off from work (losing a week of income) and also to pay for gas, hotel rooms, and eating on the road. Since it's difficult to do that twice in a year, they decided to try a different tack for her way home: maybe days and nights on an Amtrak train would be nice and relaxing in a sleeper room, yes? It wasn't. The shaking, bumping, stops, and racket of a train meant no sleep for two days and nights. The cross-country rail system in America leaves a lot to be desired.

So they gave in: this time they'd have her fly out with the cello, but they would take every possible precaution. "We spent three hours on the phone booking the tickets, as there are lots of regulations about the cello having its own seat," her mom wrote on Facebook. The cello has to be in a bulkhead row, window seat, and it has to be booked not as a person but instead as cabin cargo. It's not possible to do this online, it has to be done over the phone. Nonetheless, the agents on the phone had trouble understanding all this, "so that meant sitting endlessly on hold while they went and discussed it with managers."

They bought a special cabin cargo ticket for the cello for $175 that assigned the cello a specific seat on the plane, and they dropped her off at Los Angeles International Airport, feeling pretty secure in the fact that they'd jumped through every hoop and provided her what she needed to travel safely with her cello.

Unfortunately, their extra effort and careful planning did not spare her a stressful confrontation at the airport. When she arrived at the gate, the agent told her the cello, which was in a hard case, was too big to go in the cabin. The gate agent then "got belligerent with her when she insisted she had purchased a seat and ticket just for the cello." The gate agent then forcefully took the cello away from her and said it would be checked with the luggage.

Of course, that can be a death sentence for a valuable cello.

Fortunately, her parents had not left the airport, so they circled back around and went to the counter for American Airlines, where they argued with the supervisor until he called the gate, explained, and got them to comply.

Thankfully, they put the cello back in her hands, and she arrived safely with it in Indiana.

Still, this kind of incident leaves a lot of questions and concerns. My first one, being the parent of someone Maddie's age: What if her parents hadn't been there? What was she supposed to do if they simply refused to listen to her?

And more generally: What can one possibly do, to ensure the safe transport of a cello? Does one need more than the plane ticket? Here is one excellent article about traveling with a cello from thecellopracticehelper.com, and here is another from Cello.org It might also be helpful to print out relevant regulations that apply to traveling with a cello, just in case your gate agent is not familiar with what a cello is or what the rules are, both government rules and the individual airline's rules.

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Replies

August 19, 2017 at 05:28 AM · Luckily i play the violin and well... They never ask how much it costs otherwise they'd make me sign something.

I had no issue with emirates or Turkish airlines.

So many issues in the states with instruments.

Feels bad...

August 19, 2017 at 11:50 AM · Stupid Wright Brothers.

August 19, 2017 at 01:58 PM · Specialized Insurance is needed. Like Travel Insurance, but this goes directly back on the airlines.

"If a seat ticket is purchased for cargo (instrument, pet, etc) and said cargo is then refused enrty with accompanying party, any and all damages to said cargo (including specialized packages i.e. cello cases) will be reimbursed to accompanying party with regards to full replacement value."

Call your insurance providers for details or availability.

AIRLINES: Send Memos with necessary contact info to confirm the FULL approval of any ticket-bearing-cargo, or in case of denial at gate.

August 19, 2017 at 03:12 PM · I always carry a printout of the TSA rules with me. Especially with a paid seat is very clear in the rules that the airline must let it in. For my violin it's less clear without a ticket because they don't have to let it in if there's no space. For this reason I try to keep my premier status do that I board early. For my violinist son we pay extra for early boarding. So far no trouble.

August 19, 2017 at 03:26 PM · I look at it like this: you are doing something relatively unusual (not for you, but for the people whose cooperation you need for the process to go smoothly). They deal all day long with passengers who feel deserving of special treatment, in a job which seems about as appealing as being a customer representative at the DMV (except with some travel benefits, and less job security). To cap it off, the job gives them a bit of authority, and with it the ability to make someone miserable. I am surprised we don't see more incidents like this!

A friend of mine has taken a different approach, and bought an armored flight case for his cello, which he checks as baggage. I have watched it come down the baggage carousel with a resounding thud (that sucker is heavy!) but no damage to case or contents. I see that there is an outfit called David Gage String Instruments making cases like this; no recommendation implied!

Another area for concern where one may be even more helpless is dealing with customs! With recent regulations to clamp down on protected materials such as elephant ivory, tortoiseshell, etc. there are that many more ways to find one's self in a jam most unpleasant. My reading of most instrument insurance policies I have seen is that they did not cover you if your instrument was seized by customs.

I have traveled across the country with a valuable instrument on AMTRAK in sleeper accommodations and rather enjoyed it! Trips without the instrument were even better, of course; as far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as stress-free travel with a fine instrument.

August 19, 2017 at 03:52 PM · there is also the issue of requiring the cello to travel in a bulkhead seat but not being able to guarantee that the particular aircraft being used will in fact have a balkhead seat on board. Some have only symbolic deviders...curtains for example ... between coach and first class, rather than a solid wall.

August 19, 2017 at 05:05 PM · This is especially egregious because the parents followed all the requirements laid out by AA. The Federal Register/Vol 80, No. 2/Monday, January 5, 2015/Rules and Regulations reads ""Many airlines have already adopted policies concerning the air transportation of musical instruments that mirror the requirements in Section 403 of the Act. The stakeholders recognized that, while most airlines’ current policies regarding musical instruments are consistent with the statute, frontline customer service agents and flight crew may not always be well-versed in those policies and may not communicate those policies accurately and effectively to musicians."

I suggest that all musicians--especially traveling musicians-- contact the specific airlines (in this case, American) and ask "What has American Airlines done to communicate this to their flight crew and front line agents?" Obviously, not enough.

August 19, 2017 at 05:49 PM · I feel for the girl because the airline gave so much extra grief. However, she should learn to deal with train. It is a great way to travel across the country.

August 19, 2017 at 07:49 PM · I might be experiencing a little piccolo travel envy...

August 19, 2017 at 08:14 PM · I traveled with a cello from JFK to Seattle on Delta, with most courteous and kind assistance from everyone involved. The reservation for the cello and me in the rear bulkhead row with a window seat for the cello was made through an agent whose son played the cello, so there was much understanding there. A gentleman on the shuttle bus from Manhattan to the airport was most helpful as well, since, as he put it, I had a "guitar" with me.

August 19, 2017 at 08:32 PM · I was recently asked if there was anything in my case that was sharp or dangerous.

Not a tactful thing to ask an amateur violinist.

More recently, I switched from Virgin Atlantic to Delta for an overseas flight. I don't remember having a problem with Virgin, especially in premium economy, but Delta is stuck with US carrier regulations and will perhaps be more reliable about letting my case on board. We shall see.

August 19, 2017 at 10:29 PM · I just had problems with Emirates and my viola on my flight to Bangkok

I was forced to send it in the special bulk compartment. On my arrival to Bangkok I found my instrument damage in both rib-sides.

August 20, 2017 at 12:25 PM · This has probably been thought of many times over, and rejected as no better than putting it in the hands of the airlines, but if you don't need the cello for a few days (such as when moving one place to another rather than going somewhere for a performance or something), what about just shipping it? I am thinking of Maddie's case here (no pun intended).

If you do have a really sturdy case (for the cello), would FedEx or someone be safe? Lots of violin shops ship instruments all the time, with apparently no big issues. And carriers I would think are used to handing stuff more carefully?

Just a thought...

Carol :)

August 20, 2017 at 11:08 PM · I remember when I wanted gear pegs put in my Topa violin. I called Potter's in Bethesda and asked whether I should drive it up from Blacksburg (4.5 hours) and whether they could do the work while I go shopping or such. They said that wasn't practicable, but why don't I ship the violin?

I said, well, it's kind of a valuable instrument (probably in the $12k range).

The agent at Potter's laughed. He said they ship instruments far more valuable all the time using courier services (UPS, FedEx) and that incidents have been extremely rare. They sent me a set of instructions for packing the violin properly. Fortunately I had a proper violin-shipping box already and off it went. It came back nicely fitted with PegHeds (they're wonderful), cleaned (at my request), and ready to tune and play.

So when you are off to college ("Back Home Again in Indiana"), my suggestion is that you ship your violin to yourself by UPS. There may be some things that are different with cellos. For example the shipping box for the violin is a regular cardboard box, but appropriately sized, and with foam peanuts and bubble wrap around the violin in its case. Not sure how you would do that for a cello, whether the box had better be made of plywood instead of cardboard, whether the box might exceed their cargo sizes, whether such a box would fit into your Mini Cooper, or what it would cost.

August 20, 2017 at 11:16 PM · Also we live in an age where before you deal with the airline agent, you hand your phone to the guy behind you so that he can record the whole transaction.

August 22, 2017 at 05:01 AM · Once the (correct, legal) reservations are made that allow the instrument in the cabin in a bulkhead seat), can you get a letter from a supervisor (or higher official in the company--the president or CEO would be nice) guaranteeing its acceptance on the flight?

August 25, 2017 at 03:30 AM · I have had similar problems traveling with a banjo. The airline personnel act as if I have no right to carry it on the plane. Other passengers don't appreciate musician concerns either. I would love to know what rights, if any I have as a paying passenger to bring my instrument on board as carry on luggage.

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