After the most recent incident in which a precious stringed instrument was destroyed by baggage handlers, I'd love to present everyone with a tidy list of "How You Can Avoid Having Your Instrument Destroyed by Airlines." Unfortunately it would be a short list:
There are certainly some complications to last week's story, but this was still one of the most distressing cases I've seen of a valuable stringed instrument being destroyed in transit.
On Jan. 3, Myrna Herzog, director of the Israel-based early music ensemble Phoenix and teacher at the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv, was flying with her viola da gamba from Rio de Janeiro to Tel Aviv, with a layover in Rome. A viola da gamba is not actually a "viola" but is a larger instrument, more like a kind of cello with seven strings. This one happened to be a rare and valuable instrument: a 1685 Edward Lewis viol, built in London. It had been restored in 2001 by John Topham and Yuval Adereth. A soloist and ensemble player who has performed Europe, North and South America and Israel, Herzog had traveled frequently with the instrument, she said.
Traveling on the Italian airline Alitalia, Herzog was told there was no space on the flight for the viol. The airline, in a statement that was widely circulated, claims that she "was presented with the possibility to buy an 'extra seat' but she refused and signed a limited release form (a disclaimer of liability) after being informed that the best solution for such a delicate item was to bring it in the cabin." Herzog has maintained that she tried to purchase a second seat for the instrument but was told that none was available.
In either case, Herzog allowed the instrument to be placed in cargo, and she told The Strad that she was "assured it would be taken by hand and treated as a fragile item." She did not receive the instrument back in Rome, instead it was transferred with the rest of the luggage to the flight to Tel Aviv. After her arrival in Tel Aviv, she still did not receive the instrument back, so she went to baggage claim, where she found the instrument very badly damaged.
The viola da gamba was in a German Gewa hard case with several red "Fragile" tags. Its bridge, soundpost, pegs, strings or tailpiece had been removed, to ensure safety.
The pictures that Herzog posted on Facebook are indeed horrifying, showing broken ribs and half of the viola da gamba's body smashed in.
"It was savagely vandalized, it and it seems that a car ran over it," Herzog said on her Facebook page.
Ultimately, Alitalia said that it "deeply regrets what happened and will proceed, having established the facts, with the reimbursement in compliance with the international regulations in force."
We'll see what happens. Whatever the rules and realities are, no one should have a personal possession destroyed in this way. The airlines must do better than this.
Could this have been avoided? Well, hindsight is 20/20. But here are some take-aways:
EDITOR'S NOTE: Myrna Herzog contacted my on Jan. 11, and here is her update about the incident:
"Alitalia never bothered to give me a phone call. After four days they sent me a letter through my travel agent, where they say: 'We would like to express our deepest regret for the inconvenience you experienced while travelling on Alitalia flights AZ673 and AZ806 last January 2 from Rio de Janeiro to Tel Aviv.' They propose to give me a compensation according to the Montreal Convention - which does not cover even the cost of the instrument's case.
"In the letter they claim things completely NOT TRUE: 'Our representatives at check-in in Rio airport advised to buy an 'extra seat' to guarantee the safe carriage of the instrument but this solution was not accepted by you.' This is a blatant LIE. What happened is the opposite: they told me that the plane was full and even if I wanted, I would be unable to buy and extra seat. And they told me not to worry, the instrument would be carried BY HAND.
"Today I got a letter from Gewa, the German makers of my case, to whom I sent the photos. Mr. Werner Häcker - AL / Head of Department Product Management - Bags & Cases, says he hopes that 'Alitalia company will try to solve this in a kindly way' and Gewa offers me a new case. And he says: "we travel very often with our cello cases by plane, always by oversize luggage, but never happened something like this. The fiber from this case is really strong, to destroy it that must be one extremely pressure and impact on this case.'
"The other important thing is that the instrument can be repaired."
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