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Frequent-flyer musicians look for relief in DOT rule

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Cello on an airplane
After a decade of lobbying by musicians, it will finally be easier for cellos to fly as comfortably as the people who play them.
(Flickr / modenadude

"A violist, a cellist and a bassist walk into an airport ... "

It feels like the premise to a corny music joke, but for working musicians traveling with their instruments, walking into an airport was no laughing matter.

"It's terrifying," says Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman. "Even if if you think you know an airline's policy and you arrive at the airport having researched it, everyone's got horror stories about having missed a flight or left off a flight because a gate agent says you can't bring your instrument on the plane because it doesn't fit inside that little box they have."

Recently we published a blog post that summarized a recent rule from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to implement section 304 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 regarding the carriage of musical instruments as carry-on or checked baggage on commercial passenger flights.

In summary, the new DOT ruling states — provided all safety requirements are met — musicians are allowed to bring small instruments, like violins or guitars, on board aircraft to be stowed in an overhead bin or in-cabin storage space; to purchase a seat for larger instruments (e.g. a cello) at no additional cost beyond the typical price; and to check really large instruments (e.g. a bass) in the aircraft's cargo hold.

Following the publication of the DOT rule, the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM), AFL-CIO, issued a statement applauding the efforts of all involved.

To get further insight into musicians' travel experiences and their thoughts on the DOT rule which becomes effective in February, we asked a violist, a cellist and a bassist to share their thoughts. Here's what they had to say.

Sam Bergman, violist, Minnesota Orchestra

Have you ever missed a flight while trying to travel with your viola?

Oh sure, plenty of times. In my experience, most of the time the problem occurs at the gate. If I got bumped from a flight [for wanting to carry my viola aboard], I would hope that the next flight that I got put on would have a different gate agent and that usually worked.

I also made a point of learning very early on the models of aircraft that my case won't fit in the overhead … These days, there's almost no commercial plane left that I can't get my case in the overhead.

You can try to gently explain the rule, and for a while, a lot of musicians were using a sort of bluff: Years ago, the AFM got the TSA to write a letter for any musician to carry that says the TSA has ruled that musicians are allowed to bring instruments through security. What it doesn't say is that you're allowed to bring them onto the plane. But a lot of us found that if you wave a letter around with the TSA logo, most gate agents don't want to deal with it and they just wave you through — but that was a bluff; it didn't say they had to let you on the plane.

The other thing you could do is that a lot of instrument cases have backpack straps, and a lot of us have found that if the instrument doesn't come off your back, you get asked about it a lot less frequently. If you're carrying it, you're inviting the gate agent to inspect the instrument case's length, and then they might conclude, 'Well, you shouldn't have that.

With so many people putting roller bags in overhead bins, do you worry your viola might get damaged there?

Not really. Generally the kind of jostling that goes on in an overhead compartment is not going to be any worse than the jostling that your case probably takes in every day situations. Cases are so high-tech these days; it's not going to ding up the instrument.

What's the fear in checking a viola?

The concern with placing it under the plane is largely about temperature. These are very thin pieces of wood held together with glue, and they expand and contract like any other wood, and they can very easily crack, they can shatter, any number of things can happen. It's damage that would reduce the instrument's value to zero even if it could be repaired.

Most musicians will not under any circumstances allow it to be checked. With an instrument of any real value, you would never, ever do it. Get another flight, get on the next flight.

Are there airlines you've found easier for musicians than others?

Everyone has their own personal airline. These days, I think Delta is considered one of the better ones. A lot of musicians have pretty good frequent-flyer status if they travel a lot, so if you can tell the agent that you're platinum level, maybe that gets you somewhere.

For me, I have favorite airlines. Like Southwest, I have never had a problem in my life. I will go out of my way to fly Southwest if I can. They have an open-seating policy, which makes it easier to find a good space and then sit there.

Isn't that on a first come, first served basis?

Yes, they do line you up in order. If you check in early, you get on the plane first. I have checked in for Southwest flights during concerts through my phone on my music stand! I just have the page loaded up and ready to go, and right at the 24-hour mark, I just fire up the phone, hit that one button and it's done. 

So how do you think travel will be after the DOT rule goes into effect?

The big thing about this rule is it standardizes things. What it should put an end to is actual airline policies prohibiting instruments in the cabin. We will now be able to travel with them across the industry, at least as far as U.S.-based airlines go. You can't legislate the whole world.

What it probably will not put an end to is individual airline employees who are having a bad day and don't know the policy and want to throw their weight around a little. It's not going to fix that, but nothing's going to fix that.

Edward Kelsey Moore, cellist, Chicago PhilharmonicChicago Sinfonietta

Have you ever experienced difficulty traveling to or from a gig with your cello?

I haven't traveled with my cello for many years because it's such a pain in the ass. 

When you travel with a cello, your options are to either purchase a full-price seat for the instrument (often restricted to the bulkhead row) or to send it as luggage. Even if you buy a seat, airline staff can stop you from boarding if they think the cello will obstruct another passenger's view of the seatbelt sign (it won't) or if they believe that you won't be able to fasten the seatbelt around the instrument (you can always fasten it with a seatbelt extender and usually can without it).

There are cello cases designed to be checked with baggage, but it's a scary prospect to hand your instrument off to a luggage handler. I've always been too afraid to do it, so I always paid for a seat for my cello.

Is there a particular experience that stands out for you?

The last time I flew with my cello, I had shown my boarding pass to the gate attendant and was walking down the gangway when a young woman ran after me and stopped me by shoving her hand against my chest. She said, "I don't know where you think you're going with that thing, but you're not bringing it on this plane."

After showing the cello's ticket to the woman's superior, I was allowed onto the plane, but that was the end of my flying with the cello.

I had a German book tour in 2013, and I was asked to perform as a part of the readings. My one condition was that the publisher arrange for a cello for me in Germany. I played a different cello every night in six different cities rather than travel with my own instrument.

Do you anticipate your travel experiences will change as a result of the DOT ruling?

The new rules will hopefully help musicians by giving them something to cite when they have trouble at airports. But there is still a lot of discretion left to the overworked and underpaid airline personnel who end up making on-the-spot decisions, especially regarding larger instruments like cellos.

Between vagueness in the new DOT ruling and the separate issue of what constitutes sufficient proof of bow-purchase dates to satisfy ivory import restrictions, I can't say that I'm optimistic about having an improved travel experience in the near future.

Ranaan Meyer, bassist, Time for Three

What are some difficulties you've had traveling with your bass?

Most people are shocked at the sheer size of the instrument. if you're not used to seeing a bass player carry a bass in the bass trunk, it's overwhelming for a lot of people the first time they see it.

And it's no different when you show up at an airport, when people are trying to do their jobs at the airport and at the counters and they see this thing, they're often not looking at the passenger, but they're looking at the instrument, trying to figure out how in the heck they're going to get this thing on the plane, and they're concerned about it — unless, of course, they've seen it before.

You had some difficulty recently while traveling from Los Angeles.

With US Airways in particular, for whatever reason, we go through the most challenges when traveling with the bass. We're not sure exactly why that all happens. On other circumstances when flying with US Airways, it's been allowed on the plane, we just had to pay the money to make it so we could take it.

But this particular occasion I showed up, and from the top on down at LAX, they were telling me that it is not allowed to take the instrument on their airline, under any circumstances. That we couldn't check it. That was the brick wall that we hit. 

After all was said and done, the airline actually offered me an apology and some miles as compensation, I believe it was 10,000 miles. I told them from the beginning, I didn't really need an apology and I didn't want any compensation; what I wanted was for this to hopefully not happen again because instrumentalists who travel depend on airlines to get them to their gigs. They said they would try really hard so they wouldn't allow this to happen again.

Have you ever missed gigs because of this?

No — I never have, actually. The only time we've ever missed a gig in the existence of our band was when we got caught in a blizzard. We were driving to it, and we got into a little bit of an accident.

The worst that's ever happened to me from traveling on the airlines was that the bass didn't show up for a show. It's kind of unreal that in 15 years of doing gigs with Time For Three, it only happened once and it was on Lufthansa coming back from Europe to New York. Fortunately, David Gage String Instrument Repair in New York City rented me a bass so I could use it and get by with a different instrument.

After the DOT ruling, do you anticipate travel will get easier for you?

If everybody reads and does what they're supposed to do, it seems like we'll all be taken care of.

I'm no expert, I'm just a bass player, but it seems like from our travels, that the next step they need to take is to make sure that everybody is reading things accurately and doing their jobs in the most appropriate way.

Editor's note: The story originally appeared on classicalmpr.org