Printer-friendly version weekend vote: What is the most damaging or potentially damaging situation you've faced, flying with an instrument?

The Weekend Vote

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Published: September 18, 2015 at 3:48 PM [UTC]

Once again, this week brings a story of a stringed instrument, destroyed by an airline.

This time it's a bass -- and bassists have little choice but to entrust their instrument to the airlines, as they can't exactly fit their instruments into an overhead bin, as violinists and violists can, or even buy it a seat, as cellists can.

This week, Colorado bassist Karl Fenner posted pictures to Facebook and Twitter showing his badly damaged bass, following a trip from Atlanta to Denver on Southwest Airlines. In fact, he was returning from a successful audition with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra -- the comments on his Facebook page that precede the ruinous photos are all congratulations notices from friends.

The pictures are downright gory, showing a completely snapped neck -- even the fiberglass case was broken in two and missing chunks.

Fenner's bass

Fenner told The Strad that the instrument was a 2005 Guy Cole bass, worth around $40,000, which he had spent eight years paying off. The case was a David Gage flight trunk, worth about $3,000.

This is dismaying, to say the least. At least it appears that Denver International Airport officials allowed Fenner to document the damage, that Southwest Airlines has acknowledged the damage, and that perhaps there will be an effort to make things right with Fenner.

This said, I'm wondering how often these kinds of things are happening these days? This, of course, is an extreme case, but lesser problems also occur, and it makes it difficult to manage a life in music. What's the worst you'd had to deal with, flying with your instrument? Several of these scenarios may have happened for you, but pick whichever one was most extreme: has your instrument ever actually been damaged? Confiscated? Did you ever have to place it in cargo? I've been lucky, the worst I've encountered was that I was asked to place it in cargo, but when I explained the situation, they allowed me to take it on the plane.

From Paul Deck
Posted on September 18, 2015 at 4:06 PM
Mishaps occur with all forms of carriage, not just airlines. Airlines seem to use a lot more automated equipment to handle large items of cargo, maybe that's why the stories of airline cargo-handling incidents are more frequent and more spectacular.

The main thing will be if the airline apologizes and compensates the owner for his loss. If they don't, that will be the outrageous part of the story, even more so than the horrific damage done to his bass. Hopefully he was insured and his insurer can slug it out with the airline if it comes to that.

I didn't answer the survey because I can't actually remember flying anywhere with my violin. I suspect the main problem is just the powerlessness that one feels when some airline person takes your violin away from you or tells you it has to be packed in the hold. You feel like there's nobody you can talk to or nothing you can do, and if you make a stink about it, they'll find a way to make you miss your flight entirely. No attempt is made on the part of airline personnel to understand anyone's individual situation, but I can also see where if they did that, they'd end up getting bamboozled by some clever terrorist. The folks at the front lines of airline security are not generally the most sophisticated people.

From Gary McAleer
Posted on September 18, 2015 at 6:29 PM
Being privileged to commute to New York City from Washington D.C. for violin lessons with Sally Thomas I traveled on Eastern Airline's DC-9 for my four years of high school. Taking the "Stand by" rate I was often the last one to board.

And from time to time the check-in steward would refuse my violin to remain with me and tried to make me check my violin with the other luggage. I always told them to contact Mr. Pollack to confirm my permission to always keep my fiddle with me and bring it onboard the plane. My violin was a beautiful example of an early Peresson before he started pumping out one a week (where his workers did the bulk of the work while Sergio completed the work with some thumb planing, followed by assembling and staining his instruments, all crafted to his specifications). Sally Thomas really liked the sound, complimenting it on several occasions (but not my playing) :^) She never liked my "nail vibrato." I always thought it was a cool sound, akin to a trill.

One time when I was asked to "check" my fiddle, once again, Mr. Pollack had to be contacted. On this particular flight, after fifteen minutes in the air the pilot came on and said the luggage compartment opened in flight and we had to return to La Guardia. I learned later that some luggage was lost. I don't know how many items, but what I do know is that my fiddle, being the last item loaded in the luggage bay would have been the first thing to fly out! Thank you, Mr. Pollack!!!

From Nancy Wilson
Posted on September 18, 2015 at 6:30 PM
Play ball!

I never fly, so I did not vote. The last time I flew the County Judge who held a chamber grudge labored me- and others and brazenly wasted my time-, and gave the credit card company double what I owed them after the debt was mistakenly(?) listed twice on county records and the corporate lawyer admitted that even he didn't know what the other sum was about. They still jubilantly took my money and caused me more time waiting for a flood settlement, years after I lost almost everything in the flood.

From Raphael Klayman
Posted on September 18, 2015 at 8:40 PM
This is terrible. Fortunately I haven't had any damaging situations. On a couple of occasions I was almost asked to check my violin as the overhead bins were getting crowded but they did relent when I calmly - with probably more than a hint of desperation - explained that this was a highly valuable and very fragile violin. If they ever insisted that I check my violin, I'd ask if I could put it with the pets at least. If they refused even that, I'd get off the plane.

My understanding is that airlines in the USA are better now but overseas it is still a crap-shoot. Still, one thing I do now even on domestic flights is to take a seat towards the back, even though I'll need to be much more patient when de-planing. This increases my chances of more and earlier storage bin opportunities. Still, I worry about someone putting something heavy on my case, and I try to stand guard till the bin is full and closed by the flight attendant. This, plus the planning for the trip, etc. stresses me.

All this is why, if I'm asked if I'm afraid to fly I answer, "no", "it's everything leading up to flying that drives me nuts!" Only when the overhead bin is shut and I feel secure about my violin's safety do I start to exhale. By the time the plane starts to taxie off the runway, that is when I begin to relax!

BTW Gary, who is Mr.Pollack? I hope he has an equivalent on other airlines!

Posted on September 18, 2015 at 8:54 PM
The FAA published the new musical instrument regulation
in January of this year. If there is room in the overheads
when you board the plane, the airline must allow you to place your instrument in the overhead space.
If there is no room for your instrument, you will have to check it or get another passenger to check luggage to make way for your case.
If your case is the only item in an overhead, place the case
at the front end of the overhead so the case will not be
hurled forward against the front side wall when the pilot brakes after landing.
From Gary McAleer
Posted on September 18, 2015 at 10:35 PM
Hey Raphael,

Mr. Pollack was Eastern Airline's flight administrator back in the early 70s. In my book he deserved a gold watch for his retirement.

Posted on September 18, 2015 at 11:14 PM
A primary failing of the system was just noted by
"If there is room in the overheads when you board the plane, the airline must allow you to place your instrument in the overhead space."

"IF"...thus, one who wishes to fly with an instrument will NEVER know in advance with certainty if there will be room in the overheads, and whether the valued object will actually get inside the cabin! There are strategies to increase the probability, but I'm not aware of any that will raise it to 100% certainty. And there's still the variability of interpretation by staff.

From Jenny Rambo
Posted on September 19, 2015 at 12:37 AM
I fly with my violin several times a year. Once, the flight attendant told me there was no room overhead and I had to check the violin. I said no. She said I had to. I asked her if she REALLY wanted me to check my two hundred year old violin that belonged to my great-great-great-great grandfather. She said no. But I was irked that I had to push.
From Jim Hastings
Posted on September 19, 2015 at 1:25 AM
I voted "I've never had trouble." I did most of my flying in my student days, the bulk of it between Chicago and the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. I was able to secure my instrument in the seat next to me on several flights. I may have parked it in the overhead bin at other times; but it never went in cargo -- even on a few flights between Chicago and the East Coast.

I don't fly anymore -- stopped some time before 9/11. Can't fathom going back to it now.

"At least it appears that Denver International Airport officials allowed Fenner to document the damage."

Yes, I would hope so. If they hadn't, they would really have added insult to injury. I can only imagine what might have followed.

From Katherine Dunham
Posted on September 19, 2015 at 3:13 AM
I was in the UK, I think it was in 2007 and two days before I was to fly to the US there was a terrorist scare (terrorists planning to concoct liquid explosives onboard a plane). All hand luggage was forbidden on all flights when I had to fly, so I reluctantly, and tearfully gave up my violin to be put in the hold. A violin maker friend of mine had advised me to tune it down a whole step and put padding in front of the bridge and under the tailpiece, which I did, but I never expected the violin to survive. When I arrived in Chicago the violin was already there, having been sent on a different flight... it was going round and round on the luggage carousel when I got there. However, when I opened the case the violin was fine. It's a very fragile two hundred year old instrument, but no damage at all. On all other occasions when I've been told the violin would have to be put in the hold I've managed to to talk them out of it, but in this case there was no chance of that.
From Brian Kelly
Posted on September 19, 2015 at 7:09 AM
I always take my violin to China with me when I go there. I advise Cathay Pacific beforehand and there is never a problem. Their sister airline (Dragonair) within China will sometimes let you take it on the plane but if the plane is full then they label it fragile and take it from you. They hand it back to you at the end of the flight. I don't think it goes in the cargo hold as it does not end up on the baggage carousel. There has never been a problem.
Posted on September 19, 2015 at 12:48 PM
I recently flew from California to the east coast with my violin on Jet Blue. As it got nearer to my trip, I called the airlines, just to make sure that I would be able to take my violin onboard. It was a good thing that I did. Although, they did allow you to bring your instrument onboard, provided there was room, my seat was scheduled to be the very last to board. Jet Blue offered me a new seat assignment and early boarding privilege for a moderate fee and I took them up on it. I was able to stow my violin right across from my seat, where I could keep an eye on it. The last passengers to board were desperately looking for stowage space and some had to check their items. Many airlines are now offering an early boarding option. It usually costs a bit more, but it's well worth it.
Posted on September 19, 2015 at 1:04 PM
In Frankfurt, flying with Lufthansa, I had my viola tested for.... explosives! I was not allowed to take it in the case so I took the instrument out of the case and wrapped it in some clothes to take it with me.
From Raphael Klayman
Posted on September 19, 2015 at 1:14 PM
A few of things I do for protection in the overhead bin:

1. I start with a good, solid case with suspension air features and I make sure to use the neck protector.

2. Under the fingerboard, I put - never too tightly - a well-fitted arch-protector.

3. Under the tail piece I put some 1/4" foam.

4. If I have a sweater or light jacket with me and there is room, I'll put that, or maybe an airline blanket, under the case.

I feel that all the above helps in general and for some air turbulence. If checked in cargo, nothing helps save dumb luck or Divine Providence!

PS Luis, that's horrible! I think I've heard of other incidents like that. I mean, you showed them your viola, you showed them your case. What is wrong with putting them both together? If it were me, I'd refuse to go on that flight and lodge a major complaint. Between that sort of thing and worrying about ivory tips on bows and maybe even white color collars and pins on pegs, etc. they're almost destroying the propagation of our art. I'm all for reasonable security, but these sort of things are absurd. Let them go after the real bad guys. I wonder if Lufthansa would have done that with Ann Sophie Mutter. It would be interesting to make a study of major soloists who regularly globe trot. Does their fame matter? Does going into first class matter?

From marjory lange
Posted on September 19, 2015 at 6:30 PM
This is not a new problem. Back in the early 1970s, when on-board space for larger luggage was relatively new, while flying with American Airlines, I was forced to put my instrument in baggage in December. When I arrived, the varnish looked to have lifted off the top altogether. My teacher said to leave it in the (half-warm) garage over night. The instrument survived, I survived, but I flew TWA (man, am I dating myself, or what?) from then on. Their policy was more accommodating.

Since 1980, I have never flown with an instrument. Made many friends borrowing, have occasionally rented, but my instruments travel by car or train, never in the air.

Posted on September 20, 2015 at 9:18 PM

I've had good luck, even with UK budget airlines, by contacting in advance and getting their agreement. I don't think this works with Ryan, but EasyJet and FlyBe have been cooperative. At the end of the call I ask for the customer service ticket number so I have some proof of agreement. I also try to be first in the boarding queue so the overheads are empty. Only 4 flights, but no problems so far. I take an inflatable pillow and wear a lot of bulky clothing I can use to pad the overhead compartment and prevent the instrument moving.


The violin itself is considerably smaller than the max carry-on size for most airlines. It should be possible to have a flight case made up for carrying on, or Bam used to make one if you can find it. No suspension in the case, but surely better than the hold! Bows would be in a separate tube. If you can't get this into the cabin, at least it's easier to protect a bow, particularly if it's carbon.


Scary thought, but perhaps it's not as dangerous as we all believe. I know a prolific violin maker and one of the very top classical guitar makers who have shipped many instruments around the world and both report that they never have problems provided the instrument is properly prepared (reduced string tension, etc). Both use Hiscox cases, which may not be a coincidence - they offer a high level of protection. They then place the case in an outer box with insulating protective foam. My broker tells me that this would be covered on my insurance.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 20, 2015 at 10:08 PM
Tested for explosives, holy cow!
From Margaret Mehl
Posted on September 22, 2015 at 1:06 PM

Testing for explosives (if that's what it is) happened to me at Düsseldorf Airport in Germany. Once it was the violin. Yesterday it was my rucksack and the waistband of my trousers. Seems to be random rather than directed at fiddles.

My worst experience was being asked to place the violin int he hold on a full flight from Paris to Cologne. I refused point-blank and a space was found. I suspect that having CHECKED baggage may well be an advantage, because if you then insist on not flying with them when already in the cabin they will have to retrieve your baggage, which could delay the flight significantly. A flight I was on was once delayed for at least 20 min because they had to retrieve someone's suitcase: they were not allowed to fly with unaccompanied baggage from a passenger who had checked in.

I only phoned an Airline in advance once or twice. This is often advised, but in my experience pointless, because a) phones are not necessarily answered by anyone who has any idea of anything at all, b) many people have no idea what a violin looks like, let alone its size - at best they will quote the measuments for hand luggage at you, and the violin, although much narrower, is slightly too long: this is even true of the Bam Cabin case, c) even if they know what you are talking about and tell you it's ok, you still have to explain this both at the check-in desk and at the gate.

Easyjet (a European budget Airline) used to be one of the few Airlines that actually told you on their website that it was ok to take a small instrument (I think they named violins) into the cabin, but I'm not sure that they still do. Ryanair is reportedly ok as long as you have booked a seat (this of course makes no sense, since your violin will be safer in the overhead locker unless you are able to strap it to that seat). Have only flown Ryanair once and without my violin as they have such a bad reputation.

The biggest problem seems to be the absence of a coherent policy and the absense of hard information on the airlines' websites. Thus, I once flew on Air Berlin with 2 (!) violins, but read in a local paper that a violinist from Cologne was turned away at the gate (in Cologne or Düsseldorf I think) and had to book another flight. Anyway this same Airline cancelled the last flight I booked with them without reason on the day of departure, just before Christmas and then had the cheek to offer me a discount on my next flight with them. I am wondering whether to send them a message, "just booked with Ryanair" (this being the most insulting, I guess)or whatever when I book my flight for this Christmas:

One problem flying between European cities is that the aircrafts can be very small indeed. And you don't always know in advance. Last week my SAS flight to Düsseldorf was "downsized" just before departure (in this case I narrowly missed being left behind altogether because of "overbooking").

Even these small aircrafts have space in the overhead lockers for an ordinary violin case, but will the staff see it that way? In recent years I have been travelling with a Bam Cabin and the bow in a tube in my suitcase. This is mainly for the sake of my nerves than because of bad experience. Would not risk this if I had to change planes or fly with dodgy Airlines.

By the way, a luthier here in Copenhagen told me in answer to my question about violins in the hold (this was the summer when London airports allowed no hand luggage at all): "never".

Posted on September 22, 2015 at 6:25 PM
I've always been able to carry-on the fiddle, but I quit flying after too much other luggage was lost and never found. Until the airlines get control of these problems and start treating travelers' possessions with care, I'd sooner walk . . .
From Brent Hudson
Posted on September 22, 2015 at 6:28 PM
Too much luggage has been completely lost, never to be found: I've quit flying . . .
From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on September 24, 2015 at 7:41 PM
Jim Hastings wrote:

"At least it appears that Denver International Airport officials allowed Fenner to document the damage."

Yes, I would hope so. If they hadn't, they would really have added insult to injury. I can only imagine what might have followed.

Here's the story of how one person dealt with it.

And here's the video.

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