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.
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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