Top Five Flying Disasters for Musicians

Thursday, January 09, 2014

instrument passenger on a plane instrument passenger on a plane (dmuth/flickr)

Anyone traveling with an instrument, especially an expensive one-of-a-kind type model such as a Stradivarius or a custom-made Steinway, knows the perils of flight. Danger lurks at practically every stop: there are sometimes overzealous airport staff, skeptical customs authorities, careless flight attendants, and the always precarious checked baggage dance.

Often these obstacles are just inconveniences, but all-too frequently these controls prove catastrophic for musicians. Here are five devastating accounts of air travel.

1. 13 Rare Flutes Go Missing

One of the most heartbreaking and most recent horror stories happened just before this Christmas, when the Boujemaa Razgui, a Canadian flutist, disembarked at JFK to find his bag containing 13 flutes missing. Razgui spends upwards of two years handcrafting each flute, which is has used to play with pop artists like Beyoncé and Shakira, as well as concerts with Boston Camerata. Officials later informed Razgui that bamboo canes were seized in accordance with laws against important agricultural products, though they maintained that the flutes were never there. Were they stolen or destroyed? We may never know.

 

2. Krystian Zimerman Loses a Steinway

The Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman was one of the first classical music stars to test the heightened security in American airports in the post-9/11 era. In 2006, Zimerman, who travels with his custom-made Steinway piano, arrived at JFK to find that T.S.A. officials had destroyed his expensive instrument. The officials explained that its glue had resembled a compound used in explosives. This experience was one factor that led Zimerman to announce three years later that he would no longer perform in the U.S.

 

3. Wu Man's Pipa Damaged by Flight Attendant

Playing an unusual instrument has considerable drawbacks, which Wu Man, one of the world’s foremost pipa players discovered upon a flight from Philadelphia to New Haven last June. Her pipa, which was not insured, didn’t fit in the overhead compartment, and the flight attendants wouldn’t allow her to strap the instrument into an empty seat. Instead an attendant took the Chinese lute-like instrument to stow in a closet and snapped the neck right off as its owner watched. The airline eventually paid for a new instrument, but in the meantime other pipa players lent Wu their instruments while she waited for her replacement to be made.

Wu Man's damaged pipa

4. Orchestra of St. Luke's Cancels Tour Due to Baggage Hassles

The fear of an airline damaging instruments during a trans-Atlantic flight was terrifying enough to force the Orchestra of St. Luke’s to cancel its appearances at the 2006 BBC Proms and in Edinburgh International Festival. A sudden increase in security, banning handheld luggage would have required the musicians to risk stowing their valuable instruments in baggage check rather than carrying them aboard the plane. An orchestra spokesperson explaining the cancellation said it was “impossible to surmount the obstacles in the very short time available.”

 

5. Dave Carroll's Guitar Mishap Inspires Viral Hit

Perhaps the best documented case of musical carnage happened on a 2008 United flight from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Nebraska. Dave Carroll, half of the folk duo Sons of Maxwell, picked up his Taylor guitar at the baggage check and found it irreparably broken. After unsuccessful attempts at getting compensation from United, Carroll turned to social media. He wrote a song about the unfortunate event called “United Breaks Guitars,” and posted a reenactment of the event in music-video form on YouTube. The video sent United stock plunging and has gotten more than 13 million views.

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Comments [5]

Pissed from USA

I cant believe those bastards murdered that steinway. Fucking disgusting

Aug. 16 2014 12:16 AM
steve morgan from Wellfleet MA

Mr. Fischbein, many of us who are musicians own valuable instruments that essentially represent a significant one time investment. Most working musicians I know do not have the funds to purchase another seat for their instruments. It's not a questions of being dumb; it is a question of funding for the seat. That isn't too hard to understand is it?

I can attest to the fact that as soon as you walk in with an instrument in a hard case, seemingly everyone associated with the airline sees "LUGGAGE". Years ago I switched to a soft gig bag for my guitars for traveling and also only use airlines that have large overheads for storage. In the 20 or so years since I did that, I've only had one time I was unable to put the instrument in an overhead on a full sized plane, and in that case it went into the attendants closet. I'd prefer a hard case as a soft one protects it from rain and little less, but this is how I've been able to travel for years incident free.

The point of the article is that the airlines do indeed destroy instruments. Not that musicians are remiss in not booking a seat for their instruments... Just as the ordinary traveller is not responsible when the airlines lose ones luggage... Perhaps we should all book an extra seat for our bags...

Jan. 12 2014 09:47 AM
harles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Sorry to typos below, using new laptop I got for a research project yesterday and am not use to keyboard. Should have been more careful. My Cello is a Scott Cao, hand made personally by Mr. Cao in 2002 in his California shop. One of the better intermediate Cello's on the market. This new keyboard is driving me crazy. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 10 2014 05:17 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

I can never understand why someone with a fine instrument would not, if needed pay for an extra seat for it. I have a Scoot Cao hand made cello now valued at about $18,000, not much in the rage of high priced cellos. I have flown to New York and travelled by Amtrak and on a few occasions I wanted to join some friends and play together with the. Unless I was driving I would always get a second seat for the Cello.. If I can do that with a mid range Cello I can't understand why someone with an instrument worth ten times or more that amount cannot do the same. The airlines have limits of liability are are not designed to care for very expensive musical instruments with the automated baggage carts etc. Those are simple facts of life, it is just dumb to place a valuable musical instrument in the hands of airline baggage personnel. Many specialty insurance companies such as Clairon which specialize in insuring musical instruments have codicals to there policies that require special care when traveling by air with certain high value musical instruments.
Pay extra for a seat for a musicians valuable instrument is simply a cost of doing business and should be factored into the budgets of touring musicians.
To be repetitive it is just dumb to try to save a few hundred dollars or even a few thousand dollars not to purchase an additional seat for a valuable instrument. Of course very large instruments must be shipped by commercial carriers but there are many companies experienced in shipping valuable cargo safely. People who suffer losses taking instruments through airline baggage services are just foolhardy and most likely do not take proper care of their instruments. It is said we live today in a throw away society, and some of the stories in this blog just prove that people do not take proper care of there valuable property and leave it to unknown and unskilled baggage personnel to care for them.
Then there is the famous case of Yo Yo Ma, leaving his Cello in the trunk of a New York City taxi. As an amature Cellist I admire him greatly, but where his mind was on that occasion I do not want to ask? How can someone as skilled, and intelligent as Mr Ma leave his Cello in the trunk of a taxi is beyond my simple imagination. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 10 2014 08:41 AM
Joyce Marks from milwaukee

Just pay for the mans' guitar, you have a responsibility for this type of malicious damage............yOu have lost loads of monies after this video.

Jan. 09 2014 05:35 PM

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