Damaged Instrument Case

Nowadays, planes can be an inconvenient place for musicians who often have to fly overseas, as airlines have been enforcing ironclad rules when it comes to traveling with instruments. It comes out unfair especially from a musician’s point of view, as most airport personnel do not understand how precious these million-dollar Strads actually cost.

Traveling with Instruments: The Growing Problem Musicians Have to Face

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Traveling Musicians

Los Angeles Times

Airline Companies vs. Traveling Musicians

Steven Isserlis, a London-based cellist, shares his unusual plane experience. He took a flight via Air Canada, and the airline personnel placed his beloved cello on a bassinet similar to the one used for babies. They later kicked Isserlis and his cello out as soon as they failed to wrap six seat belts around it.

The story may sound odd, but it just depicts how twisted the relationship is between musicians and the airline industry and how hard traveling with instruments has always been for these performers. There seems to be no chances of them meeting in between, as most musicians have to resort to reserving an extra seat because their instruments are too big for the carry-on luggage area and too fragile to be treated like a check-in baggage.

Another case in point is that of Drew Banzhaf. The Rice University graduate was on his way to an audition when Southwest Air handed back his damaged double bass. “The neck and scroll dislodged from the body by a jagged break,” Banzhaf recalled. But his woes did not end there, Banzhaf said that the company even made it difficult for him to file a claim.

Airline companies had gradually been imposing stricter rules when it comes to security, much to the dismay of travelling musicians. It comes at the heels of several tragedies that have created a global impact on the travel industry, an example of which was the 9/11 attack followed by 2008’s Great Recession.

The Case of Renowned Cellist Lynn Harrell

Los Angeles–based musician Lynn Harrell has highlighted the issue concerning traveling with instruments through his blog post that targeted Delta Airlines. He wrote that he and his cello have collectively earned half a million SkyMiles throughout their travels back in 2012. Harrell usually purchased full fare tickets just to have the instrument sit next to him. Delta responded by confiscating his miles and terminating his membership and awards under his account. To add insult to the injury, they also banned him from flying with them again.

Paul Skrbec of Delta Airlines clarified that they “advised him that mileage cannot be accumulated for tickets purchased for musical instruments.” But it does not stop there—Harrell stated that airline companies, not just Delta, were often mishandling their priceless cargo.

“After 9/11, cello endpins were removed by airport handlers, and my colleagues reported that they would arrive at the concert hall to find them missing. Imagine! They were rendered unable to play,” he comments, “without these supporting spikes that attach the instrument to the floor.”

Flying with Guitar

Al Hunter’s Tech Blog

Fellow musician Isserlis can attest to what Harrell had gone through, as a similar situation involving British Airways had happened to him. “I was threatened with legal action if I ever again attempted such a heinous crime as holding a mileage account in my cello’s name. Nor was I to use rewards from my own account to buy cello’s tickets,” he said.

How Musicians Cope with the Inconvenience of Traveling with Instruments

To get by airline mishandling, Harrell travels with what he calls a fool-proof cello. He would take the pin off and pack it in a suitcase to prevent it from getting lost. Not only that, Harrell has come up with several other tricks as well. He admitted to changing the passenger for his cello’s ticket and schedules flights between 4:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. to avoid strict check-in agents.

Another option is to use GPS trackers. Advanced technology has made it easier for everyone to locate items using GPS devices that are capable of determining the real-time location of anything and anyone. For the sake of peace of mind, some musicians attach GPS trackers to their instruments so they’ll know where it is at any given time.

The now–very strict laws imposed on traveling musicians are a far cry from their privileges during the ’70s and ’80s, where planes were bigger, there were no strict rules, and personnel would actually respect how valuable the instruments were. Not to mention, this was a time that airline companies would never send out rude responses to people who needed extra seats for their equipment.

Traveling with Instruments

Musical Toronto

So just when will the ongoing fight between musicians traveling with instruments on hand and TSA agents ever stop? By the looks of it, these two parties are not going to see eye to eye about this issue anytime soon.

Helen Nightengale, studio musician and wife to Harrell, recounted on how a TSA personnel took her $5 million violin out of its case and put it in a plastic box. She added that it was after she instructed him to “be careful” with a hint of agitation in her voice.

For all musicians out there, the urgency and need to get your instruments on board can be an exhausting process. But the best thing you can do here is to get the upper hand by remaining calm and polite. As anger, no matter how justifiable, will never get you a positive response.

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Amanda Thomas