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Top Five Flying Disasters for Musicians

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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.