An Airline Employee on Instruments and Egos

By · Photography UNSPLASH (PUBLIC DOMAIN) · Date 3/1/2018

Musicians who feel that their instruments have been mishandled by airlines like to unleash avalanches of outrage on social media, followed by petitions and calls for boycotts. British Airways recently tested tempers when gate agents refused to take three of the Kronos Quartet’s instruments on board. The quartet responded with a pledge to boycott the airline, and called on other musicians to follow suit.Of course, musicians should be able to travel with their instruments—just as athletes might take their own equipment, or doctors their medicine. But as someone yelled at me in my former capacity as an airline employee, I get uncomfortable when I see classical musicians, who often come from wealthy backgrounds, screaming at employees who earn minimum wage and already work under extraordinarily tight schedules and crushing emotional pressure. To get a different perspective on things, I spoke to an anonymous employee of one of Europe’s major carriers about musicians and their instruments.

VAN: Is it a lot of work to add an instrument to a booking?

It’s more complicated than a booking without an instrument. You have to check more things in advance—whether there’s space available, for example. It just requires more time.

Why would an airline refuse to carry a violin if a flight isn’t fully booked?

Probably because they don’t have the capacity available. There’s almost always space in the hold for instruments, but in the cabin that’s often not the case. And customers traveling with instruments don’t want them to be put in the hold under any circumstances. The problem is that you don’t pay to take a violin on board with you, which means the space can’t be guaranteed.

How have your experiences with musicians been so far?

Difficult, sometimes. For example, they often don’t seem to understand that a cello needs its own seat, and that that costs a only a bit less than a regular fare. You find yourself arguing about something that’s pretty self-explanatory.

What happens when somebody doesn’t declare their instrument, and just takes it to the gate?

Some people actually try to take advantage of the system, and appear at the gate with their large instrument. That creates huge delays and stress for the gate agent trying to get the flight ready for departure. They can’t take care of other things—the instrument has to be checked in, because there’s no space for it otherwise. And if the flight’s fully booked, then it needs to go in the hold. Which can also lead to fights, because the musician most likely isn’t going to accept that.

Is it possible to put an instrument in the flight attendants’ closet?

You can’t assume that. When customers ask me about that, I tell them that’s not what it’s for; it’s up to the individual cabin crew on that day. It’s very presumptuous to expect that in my opinion.

Is there enough space in the overhead cabins for violins actually?

That depends on the violin case. Most of them do fit, but even then, when you suggest it to musicians, they’re worried about the violin being damaged by other passengers putting their luggage there.

Are musicians particularly self-righteous when it comes to flying, compared to doctors for example?

Yes, absolutely. Luckily, these kinds of request don’t come too often, but when they do, I see that the musicians take for granted that there will be space for their instruments. If you have to give them bad news, they respond like you’re a philistine or against classical music generally. And that’s very unpleasant. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.