Cello Denied Frequent Flyer Miles

- December 31, 2012

"Musican and his cello battle with airlines..."

An interesting article caught my eye in the LA Times this morning, concerning the plight of many classical musicians trying to travel to concert engagements with their oversized instruments and the way they are treated by both the airlines and the TSA (Transportation Safety Administration). In the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle, the great cellistL Lynn Harrell was thrown out of Delta Airlines’ Frequent Flyers Program, or, rather, both Harrell and his cello were thrown out of the program.

This, from the Times article: “In his blog, L.A.-based musician Lynn Harrell has written of 11 years of buying full-fare, SkyMiles-earning Delta tickets for himself and his cello's seat beside him, collecting half a million miles for both. One day, Delta contacted him ‘in a rude letter that was really a hand-slap,’ he says, informing Harrell that his own frequent-flier miles were being confiscated and that both he and 'Cello Harrell' would be barred from collecting miles.” The name, “Cello Harrell” meets the airlines’ requirement of a name for the ticket purchase of a separate seat for Harrell’s cello.

Harrell currently travels with a 2008 cello made by Christopher Dungey of Pocatello, Idaho, but the hassles were the same, even when his instrument of choice was a 1673 instrument made by Antonio Stradivarius in Cremona, Italy.

And, it’s not just cellos. Musicians traveling with every kind of instrument, from violins to double basses and piccolos to percussion instruments are prone to the same bad treatment. Instruments are roughly handled, no matter what their value (a Stradivarius violin can have a value in the $5 million dollar range), denied access to overhead storage, even though they meet the size and weight requirements and, in the case of large string instruments, the requirement of a separate ticket to be purchased for a seat next to the musician. Years ago, when purchasing a ticket for sitar master, Ravi Shankar, who I was presenting in concert, I was required to purchase a second ticket for his sitar, though the First Class storage closet was almost empty but off limits to this world-class musician. The closet was reserved for the overpriced blazers of the businessmen in that privileged section.

There is an old viola joke (no, I don’t know why there are so many viola jokes) that asks: “What is the difference between a violin and a viola?” To which the answer is: “A viola burns longer.” Not funny to violists, any more than the fact that violists are denied the use of overhead compartments much more often than violinists. Certainly it cannot be about size, as a viola in a travelling case is within the airlines’ regulations and much smaller than the behemoths that folks are trying to cram in the overhead since airlines started charging for baggage.

None of this is new to me. Before travelling with various musical ensembles during my career, I always looked up (pre-Google searches) the most current regulations dealing with size and weight, both for carry-ons and checked baggage. I even went so far as to have shipping cases crafted to those specifications. Even then, I found myself having to carry copies of the regulations with me, as airline personnel were often rude, ignorant of the regulations or both.

Traveling into Canada with my ensemble on one tour, I had to place a bond on the value of all of the instruments to make certain that they would not be sold in that country, as if the 12 of us were traveling across the border in a rented van for hours on end for the sole purpose of selling our treasured instruments? The absurdity of the situation struck me then and continues to this day.

Recently Spanish dance artist, Maria Benitez and I reminisced about touring and how most of what we did for decades—she with her flamenco troupe and me with various musical ensembles —would be impossible today. There are just too many regulations and so many costs that would make such touring prohibitive. Ballet companies and large classical music ensembles used to tour quite regularly. Now, very few do so.

I have news for the TSA: This is not the 20’s when Al Capone’s Mafia crew carried sub-machine guns in violin cases. This is one instance where I wouldn’t mind a little bit of “profiling”, but of the positive kind. Perhaps the TSA and airlines should be trying to actively identify these artists and make their travel more pleasant. Given the joy that artists bring to people throughout the world with performances of great music, theater and dance, perhaps we should make these artists part of a “Special Flyers Program” and give them award points for the many miles they have flown to bring beauty into the world, not punish them for being Frequent Flyers, while performing the same function. 

This Los Angeles Times article is a good read and an important one. Harrell and Ralph Kirshbaum are but two of the artists quoted in the article and both have frequented the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival along with their seat-mate cellos. Maybe Harrell should incorporate his cello, since corporations are, after all, "persons."