Is It Possible to Prevent Instrument Destruction on Airlines?

January 9, 2018, 8:12 PM · 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.

Myrna Herzog and violOn 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.


Herzog's viola da gamba, after arriving in Tel Aviv. This image was posted on Herzog's Facebook page.

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."

You might also like:

Replies

January 10, 2018 at 03:48 AM · The airline should have requested that someone voluntarily relinquish their seat so that this lady could fly together with her instrument.

January 10, 2018 at 04:06 AM · This is brutal. Why do airlines do that?

January 10, 2018 at 08:01 AM · Herzog said that the instrument was "vandalized," implying an intentional act. Judging from the picture, I suspect that she's right. However, It would be difficult to prove unless surveillance video turned up.

January 10, 2018 at 06:21 PM · She said it appeared to be vandalized, and indeed it looks really, really bad. I agree that this is not provable. It's possible that "normal" handling for cargo was just too much for a precious instrument due to:

- The human handling that regular baggage goes through

- The machinery that regular baggage goes through

- The temperature in cargo (7 degrees C, 45 F)

January 10, 2018 at 07:11 PM · Never put an instrument in an airliner hold in a normal case not designed for this purpose. Ever.

January 10, 2018 at 07:38 PM · Dimitri--

I would suggest that a market exists for INDUSTRIAL GRADE travel cases for situations such as this.

An extremely tough sarcophagus into which a "normal" case would be placed to protect it from the rigors of travel.

Buying a seat for one's cello may cost perhaps $1000 a trip for international flights, right?

Perhaps a "cargo hold ready" CRATE would pay for itself in one or two flights. Not to mention it being a worthwhile investment to protect an instrument valued in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Most cases are designed as a compromise between safety (protection)and convenience (being light enough to carry around), are they not? To simply protect "well enough" for the trip from home to the car/train and into the hall.

I am a laser engineer, and we ship very sensitive laser systems back and forth from the US to Japan all the time. No problem.

Have you ever considered making such a product? You are such a respected and knowledgeable case maker, I would think that you could be the one to make such a thing a reality.

January 11, 2018 at 04:16 AM · Craig First has hit the nail on the head here. Exactly what I've been thinking as I read of case after case (ha ha --too bad not funny) of instruments destroyed by airline baggage handlers. It's time for shipping crates tougher than the blows we've seen inflicted. Put it in a bathysphere if necessary.

January 11, 2018 at 05:07 AM · Craig, Bruce Lamb at Casextreme builds something like what you're saying, though he does it primarily for guitars. It's an over-case made of corrugated polypropylene sandwich sheets that anchors the actual case inside with foam blocks at the corners and velcro straps.

It's fairly rigid for its weight but the the other ingredient of his design is that it has generous internal clearances to absorb impacts - something around two inches on all sides.

You would want something that is fairly rigid but not brittle - rigidity is useless if the overcase shatters before it has absorbed or deflected any meaningful amount of energy and flexibility is useless if there's not enough clearance to flex into. Incidentally, materials that shatter tend to be poor absorbers of kinetic energy whereas materials that stretch and then tear during failure tend to be very good at absorbing kinetic energy.

It's not exactly a pretty product but his video demonstrations are fairly impressive.

January 11, 2018 at 06:19 AM · Over the years there have been multiple tries at marketing exactly this sort of case, especially for cello and bass, but without much success.

The main problem seems to be with what's been tried so far, OK, you get off the plane, now for the next week or two you get to lug a refrigerator around instead of a case, until you fly home again.

That said, I am actually working on a solution, but it's nowhere near ready.

January 11, 2018 at 11:24 AM · How about marketing directly to the airlines?

They would maintain a fleet of super-robust case cases for various instruments. Knowing ahead of time who needs what, they could meet you and your instrument in advance of your flight to install your case in their case case for safe journey in the cargo hold.

"I'd like a ticket to Rio, and for an extra $300 I'd like to book a case case for my cello."

This would be considerably less expensive than buying 2 seats.

The airlines would be motivated to work with the manufacturer to guarantee cargo-hold levels of robustness. They have considerable logistics expertise, such that with a modest fleet of instrument case cases they should be able to accommodate the needs of musicians who book ahead.

Not much different than ordering up a rental car, really.

Imagine an airline advertising this? The "musicians" airline. We guarantee your guarneri.

January 11, 2018 at 07:02 PM · Dimitri hits the nail squarely on the head. Building a shipping container that will keep the instrument safe is not a big deal; the problem is that said shipping container is not practical for use anywhere except in shipment. Cyclists have this same problem - there are some very nice containers for bicycles so you can take your bike on a trip and ride in some exotic locale, but I'm not aware of any containers I would want to use that I could carry around while riding the bicycle.

As for the notion of airlines wanting to get involved, I cannot see it gaining any traction. Too few cellists to make it worth the considerable trouble. And even if they have some case which should protect it, why would they want to accept any greater liability than they currently do? There's just not that much potential reward, and now they have to keep those "case cases" stocked around the network, or carry them on all the flights (extra weight that no one is paying for most of the time - not going to be viewed favorably!) The rental car model works because lots of the passengers are using them and almost all of the time the rental car goes back to where it started. A better analogy to the rental car would be a cello rental service where you could book a rental cello at each of your destinations.

January 11, 2018 at 07:11 PM · "This would be considerably less expensive than buying 2 seats."

Why would that appeal to the airline that could simply sell 2 seats and not have to do anything special, like build a logistics structure that a microscopic fraction of the traveling public would use?

I don't think any of the cellists of my acquaintance would be eager to let their cello out of their sight even if the airline did accept responsibility for its safekeeping. If something goes wrong, the airline may be slightly inconvenienced, but you're screwed.

January 12, 2018 at 09:00 AM · OP: "cargo on an airplane: it is too cold, not pressurized" - it's just as pressurized as the passenger compartment, i.e. about 75% of sea-level pressure. As for temperature: it's above 7 °C; whether that's "too cold" is debatable.

Whether an instrument would be damaged by exposure to low pressures is also debatable; I'd expect the low relative humidity (in either passenger or cargo areas) to be more of an issue - and only if you have a porous case.

January 12, 2018 at 06:33 PM · Am I misunderstanding this? It appears that Ms. Herzog showed up the the airport with a cello-sized instrument and one plane ticket. Was she hoping to carry it on board without having bought a seat for it, or was she planning on checking it? How did she handle travel with her instrument previously? Something doesn't quite compute.

January 12, 2018 at 07:56 PM · It would seem she had one ticket, and then when there was not room, was not able to purchase another ticket.

January 13, 2018 at 12:57 AM · In this case, if she'd bought a seat for her instrument when she bought a seat for herself, the destruction could have been prevented.

January 13, 2018 at 04:47 PM · Indeed. She wasn't travelling with a violin. How did she get where she was the first time around? Buying a seat for the Cello is pretty much Standard Procedure. It bare sense that she wanted a second seat and none was available. By the sound of it, she simply showed up at the airport wanting to buy tickets on the spot. Having not planned in advance for that eventuality she found herself caught in a dilemma having to chose between her professional commitment and the safety of her instrument. This is probably why she agreed to sign the responsibility release form thinking that the risk was minimal after being assured of the special handling. Little did she know how special it would be! Poor planning is the failure on her part. Poor handling is the failure on the airline part.

January 13, 2018 at 08:16 PM · Royce, that's assuming that the airline then allowed her to board the instrument. It doesn't always happen that way, even when the ticket is purchased in advance. She apparently did not take all the reasonable steps she should have taken to protect the instrument. Still, it would be nice if one could expect a modicum of care to be taken with checked baggage!

January 16, 2018 at 01:01 PM · Does anyone know if there is ever an option of requesting that the instrument - if not allowed on the cabin - be stored in the pets section?

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Violin Finder
Yamaha Violin Finder

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Warchal Strings
Warchal Strings

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis
International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

Anne Akiko Meyers' Mirror in Mirror
Anne Akiko Meyers' Mirror in Mirror

Dimitri Musafia
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Metzler Violin Shop

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases

Fiddlerman.com

Fiddlershop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Pluhar Violins

Potter Violins

Pro-Am Strings Ltd

Violin Lab

Violin Pros

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop

Subscribe