The Pitfalls of Carrying Musical Instruments on Planes

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U.S. airlines are more punctual and less likely to lose your bag than at any time in more than two decades, according to a recent Associated Press analysis of Bureau of Transportation data. Fewer than three suitcases per 1,000 passengers were reported lost, damaged or delayed from January through June, a record low.

But a recent spate of stories concerning musical instruments on airplanes suggests that the skies aren't always friendly for musicians. 

Paul Katz, a former member of the Cleveland Quartet, recently experienced a particularly dramatic incident involving his 1669 Andrea Guarneri cello and a flight from Calgary to Los Angeles operated by WestJet, which partners with American and Delta, among other carriers.

"I was even pre-boarded. I got the royal treatment,” Katz tells host Naomi Lewin in this podcast. Then one of the flight attendants came and told him the airline "had a policy that cellos were not allowed on board and that I’d have to leave. So that started a lot of shenanigans. I begged, I pleaded, I got mad, I got sad, I did everything." Eventually, Katz agreed to let the airline stow the cello in the luggage hold below the wing.

“As the plane took off, it was the bumpiest runway you could imagine," Katz continued. "Then we got up in the air and after a few minutes they discontinued beverage service because there was so much turbulence. At this point my imagination started going completely crazy. I was near a breakdown because I thought 'how could I have ever done this?' The stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life was to give them my instrument.” (WestJet countered in a statement that "the seat and its restraint system are designed and rated for a person.")

The incident drew widespread attention after Katz wrote about it in an article for the Boston Globe, and it raised new questions of how airlines set their own rules about which musical instruments are allowed on board. Cellos are particularly problematic, not being able to fit in overhead bins and generally requiring their own seat.

This comes as the Paris-based International Federation of Musicians (FIM) has launched an online petition with the aim of persuading EU legislators to take action on the issue of musical instruments on planes. The organization, which represents 72 musicians' unions worldwide, is calling for Europe to follow the example of the US, which earlier this year introduced a uniform musical instrument policy for airlines.

Still, the "passenger bill of rights" which passed in congress in February is not without loopholes. As Rose Hirschel, the owner of the travel agency Musicians' Travel Services, explained, while the bill is a tremendous advance, “it has a stipulation for each carrier to judge whether each instrument is safe on the aircraft. It will help a lot but it certainly will not be a panacea.”

James H. Burnett III is a culture writer for the Boston Globe who recently examined the rules governing carry-on luggage. Considering Katz’s experience, he is not overly optimistic that the rules will become clearer. “Given that ultimately this is a government bureaucracy we’re seeing, which means more red tape wrapped around more red tape. So I don’t see any serious change in the near future."

Listen to the full discussion above - which includes tips on boarding the plane more quickly and smoothly - and share your thoughts below.

Guests:

  • Paul Katz, a professor of cello and chamber music, New England Conservatory and cellist in the Cleveland Quartet from 1969-1995
  • Rose Hirschel, owner, Musicians' Travel Services
  • James H. Burnett III, cultural reporter, Boston Globe