VC WEB BLOG | Cellist, Paul Katz – “The Apprehension of Flying with an Instrument” [BLOG]

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Shelter Island, NY - 8/23/08 - Cellist Paul Katz, at The Perlman Music Program facility in Shelter Island, NY August 23, 2008. (Photo by Gordon M. Grant)

The Violin Channel recently caught up with Cleveland String Quartet cellist and New England Conservatory faculty member, Paul Katz.

In a VC-exclusive blog, the veteran cellist shares his on-going apprehension surrounding flying with his cello – and a call for the urgent changes he wishes to see across the airline industry.


“What are the three greatest risks that terrify every concertizing cellist? The 6th Bach Suite, a slipping endpin, and . . . airline travel with your cello! The war stories are endless, and there is not a cellist who has been in an airport that does not have a tale to tell (probably not a violinist, violist, guitarist or bass player either). Arriving at the check-in counter with a cello is a little like walking out on stage without knowing what piece your presenter will ask you to play — you did your best to prepare, but what they are about to say to you is unpredictable.  What fate awaits you? Will they hassle the cello?  Will you even be on this plane? Success or catastrophe — both are possible.

So we cope. Some of us buy onboard seats for our instrument, some carry 50 pound shipping cases and take a chance with checked baggage, some  bring super small cases with the hope that they will be allowed in an overhead bin, some can’t afford the expense or handle the  pressure and decide to rent or borrow cellos from city to city. We laugh, we cry, we are outraged or resigned. But fear and uncertainty are ever-present: I have been on literally thousands of flights since 1970 and at every check-in counter, every boarding gate, with every flight attendant I ever approached, I have felt apprehension.

Airline personnel are untrained, usually ignorant of the rules regarding cellos (what’s that?), so there is absolutely no uniformity or way to predict one’s fate. Some flight attendants have been extraordinarily wonderful to me and others have literally blocked the doorway.  Flying Tokyo to New York, my cello actually once got a bed in the crew’s cabin, while I, full of jealously, remained wedged in the back of the economy section. And, it’s just as possible to run into a real jerk: “There is no way in hell you’re bringing that thing on my airplane” is a line I will never forget (the fact that I had purchased a seat and was holding a boarding pass for “Miss A. Cello,” made no difference to Captain Macho.

The outrages continue: Just this weekend Mike Block had his cello bashed by Southwest Airlines. Two weeks back, Nathan Chan, a young Juilliard cellist, had his cello refused by WestJet, even though he had legally purchased a seat for “cabin baggage/cello” and had a boarding pass for his instrument–what if he had had a concert at the other end of that flight? The incident caused an instant social media outrage–blogs on CelloBello.com, Facebook postings, a petition on Change.org. But then it all died. Change.org has received only 311 signatures!

So is anything to be done? This is our profession, our livelihood, our instruments are super fragile, hundreds of years old, often so expensive we are even afraid to mention their value to the uniformed agent who has our fate in his or her hands.

I’ve come to the conclusion that musicians are just too nice. We spend our life in our practice rooms and let the world go by. As chamber musicians we are trained, proud to be non-confrontational.  We complain, gripe among ourselves about airline injustice, but how many of us ever take up the cause? Why do we continue to accept this abusive relationship? I’ve been traveling with my cello for almost 50 years and it pains me that so many illogical, unfair practices still exist.  In truth, we bear some responsibility for continuing to go along with this maltreatment.

To be sure, there is sporadic, even meaningful progress. The Violin Channel just successfully sparked a social media campaign that caused Norwegian Air to adopt an instrument friendly policy for violins and violas. And major kudos to Air Canada! They are now offering seats for cellos at 50% off! In the United States, a Passenger Bill of Rights passed by the United States Congress, actually gives violinists the right to put their instruments in the overhead and gives cellists the right to purchase a seat (print out the law and carry it with you). But many airline personnel remain uninformed of these regulations, and companies like WestJet, who operate out of Canada, continue to treat musicians rudely.

The problem is that it’s all so piecemeal and unpredictable. We are still at the whim of the individual airline and the last-second, unforeseen decision of an airline employee. We musicians now have the power of social media websites like Change.org, and outlets like The Violin Channel and CelloBello.com.  What we need is a sense of some militancy, a sustained, collective voice that praises our airline friends like Norwegian Air and Air Canada, and publicly and relentlessly condemns the WestJets of the world.

Please sign the Change.org petition, support Facebook protests, write letters of thank you to Air Canada and Norwegian Air and letters of protest to Southwest Airlines and WestJet. A fair, clear, uniform policy that all airlines adhere to is definitely an attainable goal, but it is up to us! We must insist that airlines teach their employees the Passenger Bill of Rights as it pertains to musical instruments.  Please don’t fly WestJet, fly Air Canada, and thank the airline people whenever they are helpful and cooperative.

That’s all we can do and we must do it. We must help ourselves as it will probably be a while before we have a cellist in the White House!

-Paul”

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