up in the air

Less than a week ago, news sites began reporting that a senator is calling for clarification of the FAA’s carry-on rules in regard to musical instruments. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island became aware of the ongoing battle between musicians and their ever-changing scary world of air travel when a musical guest scheduled to perform at the Newport Folk Festival was forced to make last-minute travel arrangements in order to fulfill his contract with the festival. The reason? US Airways* required him to stow his guitar under the plane with the rest of the cargo rather than take the fragile instrument as a carry-on and presented no other reasonable option to their customer. Instrumentalists are all too familiar with the endless struggles with airline employees who seem generally unfamiliar with the legislation that has come to be known as the “if it fits, it flies” law:

PUBLIC LAW 112–95—FEB. 14, 2012

41724. Musical instruments

‘‘(a) IN GENERAL.—

‘‘(1) SMALL INSTRUMENTS AS CARRY-ON BAGGAGE.—An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage, if—

‘‘(A) the instrument can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft cabin or under a passenger seat, in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator; and

‘‘(B) there is space for such stowage at the time the passenger boards the aircraft.

As a middle school violinist, I had already been coached by my private teacher as to how to stand up for myself in this type of situation: what to say, who to speak to, how to effectively get past the ticketing station and onto the plane without letting my violin be spotted, and how to make useful and non-aggressive suggestions to the airline attendants as to alternate storage locations onboard the aircraft for my violin in its small, light case. I know to bring appropriate documentation with me on any flight including the value of my possessions, insurance information, copies of policies and laws, and statements outlining possible legal action to be taken in the event that no solution can be reached. I have been lucky in that all I’ve experienced on the relatively few times each year that I travel with my violin is an elevated stress level, slightly uncomfortable conversations, mild embarassment over delaying boarding for other passengers, and the general worry that comes with whizzing through the air thousands of miles above the ground with the most expensive thing I own.

Others have not faired so well with the airlines. Cellist Lynn Harrell was stripped of over over half a million Delta SkyMiles that he had accumulated over years of traveling with his cello (purchasing full-priced seats for the instrument on board to ensure its safety), a story which was covered by everyone from the Wall Street Journal to The Colbert Report. To select just a handful of examples of musicians being forced to check their instruments under the plane with the rest of the baggage is a difficult decision because, in each case, a valuable possession directly linked to an individual’s livelihood, training/education, and often emotional well-being was damaged.

For those unfamiliar with this situation, you may be asking how it is that a violin, cello, guitar, or other instrument which has been carefully packed in a hard case can really sustain irreparable damage while in the airplane’s cargo hold — aren’t cases designed to protect from weather, impact, and other variables? Is the damage that we hear about in the news just cosmetic or otherwise inconvenient?

The short answer is no, and the long answer varies on an individual basis. I am a violinist, so I will comment in that regard. Many non-musicians have heard about some knockout violins still being played today: namely, those crafted by the Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari in the 18th century. Depending on the period of his life when Stradivari made a particular violin, these instruments range in present-day value from hundreds of thousands to several million dollars. What many non-musicians do not know is that the “average” professional musician also spends quite a bit of money on their “average” instruments. The violinists in small, regional (“per-service”) orchestras often perform on violins costing upwards of $20,000.00, not including the value of the bow (which can generally cost more than $1,000.00 and must receive regular maintenance). If you consider the expense that soloists or professional musicians who are regularly employed by some of the larger orchestras in the United States (Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Cleveland, Boston, etc), you may be surprised to learn that those instruments can cost much more than $60,000. This is an out-of-pocket expense, as is the specific instrument insurance — not covered by homeowner’s or other blanket plans.

Maintaining a string instrument is not always easy: we must avoid abrupt changes in the temperature and humidity of our wooden instruments (for older violins, even walking from an outside performance venue on a humid summer day to a cool air-conditioned restaurant after a concert   — or being onstage at an outside performance venue in the first place — can cause problems). Our strings are tempermental as well, sometimes made of metallic blends or a natural material referred to as “gut,” and the extra expansion and contraction of these materials can cause them to break or, in worse cases, cause other delicate parts of the instrument that are held in place by the string tension alone to break. Even when traveling with an instrument in the pressurized cabin, violinists take special precautions against the altitude change by adjusting the string tension before boarding. The cargo hold’s pressurization varies from aircraft to aircraft, and it can get as cold as 40 degrees Farenheit (7 Celsius). At these temperatures, wooden instruments not only risk breaking seams (a separation of the wood at glued points — minor repairs costing about $50+ per seam) but they also risk cracks in the wood itself which can immediately and irreparably reduce the value of the instrument, its tone quality, and its ability to project its sound. A string instrument like a violin, viola, cello, or bass depends entirely on a balance of tension to maintain its playability: The strings are connected both at the top at the pegs and at the bottom at a place called the tailpiece, held on through a little loop connected to the bottom “endbutton.” The strings will break if their tension is too great or unbalanced, causing the bridge to fall off, the tailpiece to possibly scratch or chip the varnish of the wooden body underneath it, and soon the soundpost — a small, thin, dowel-like piece that has been placed and adjusted with great care inside the violin — will fall. Without a soundpost, the entire violin will begin to compress and, over time, will be worthless. Some of these problems will occur instantly when the instrument reaches a certain temperature, and others can be avoided if addressed right away. It all depends on the age of the violin, the type of materials, the craftsmanship of the lutheir who created it, and the intensity of mishandling or improper care. Cases are designed to protect violins from everyday travel in cars and trains, from rehearsal to home studio. They have gauges to help us monitor the humidity in the case, shield from sudden changes, and some have waterproofing elements to protect from rain, but accidentally tip over a case on the subway and you’ll be surprised at how quickly its owner jumps to its rescue.

Now, back to the reason I decided to address this issue here. I am grateful for Senator Reed’s call for action, and I am hopeful that his support may encourage other politicians to get involved with this issue. Do I believe he understands the full extent — the number of incidents, the span of years, the amount of personal property damaged — that the rules of individual airlines affect musicians and performing ensembles? Not really, not yet at least. However, it is not important at this time. What is important is that someone with an economic interest — the Senator is, no doubt, concerned with bringing tourism and publicity to his state — has entered this debate and it is no longer a question of  musicians on individual case-by-case bases vs. huge airline corporations. Orchestras, operas, music festivals, ballet companies, and other artistic performances can be great, but participation in these cultural events and the benefit that city and state economies can reap from them is only possible if airlines show this smallest gesture of support. Perhaps when other government leaders realize the impact that the cancellation of these programs have on the revenue of their hospitality, dining, local transportation, retail, and additional entertainment establishments they will join Senator Reed in making air travel a bit more reasonable for musicians.

*You may recall that this is not the first US Airways incident this year: At the end of May 2014, the violinists of Time for Three were not allowed to board their plane flying from Charlotte, NC to the Artosphere Festival in Fayetteville, AR with their violins as carry-ons. Their impromptu protest in the form of a YouTube video was viewed by hundreds of musicians and fans of the classically-trained trio within the first hour of its posting, and their story was later picked up by The Today Show and other television news programs. Ultimately, their flight was rescheduled and they were allowed to board the plane carrying their instruments (valued at approximately $250k each), but followers of Tf3’s twitter account may remember that, despite the public reaction and media coverage, Nick and Zach still had a bit of a struggle getting onto the plane with their carry-ons.


One thought on “up in the air

  1. Last week, Air Canada published a detailed explanation of its musical instrument transportation policy which was met with such an outpour of social media shaming over the arbitrary rules that it has since amended the policy. The most glaring inconsistency was Air Canada’s allowance of violins as either checked or carry-on baggage but its restriction of violas as carry-on baggage. Some spectacular spoofs were posted online, including:

    As of today (10/7/14), no adjustment has been made regarding violas on Air Canada’s website (http://www.aircanada.com/en/travelinfo/airport/baggage/music_inst.html#a-cello-violin-viola-accordion-bagpipes-banjo-bassoon-bells-clarinet-chimes-cymbals-bass-drums-fiddle-flute-guitar-harp-horn-keyboard-marimba-mute-oboe-saxophone-sound-stand-timpani-trombone-trumpet-tuba).

    My big question? Who has a foldable bassoon…?


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