US Airways refuses to allow double bass as luggage, in apparent violation of FAA regulations
By Peter Alexander
[NOTE: This story has been updated Nov. 19 to include more details. See below for additional details.]
[FURTHER NOTE: I just received a call from a spokesperson for US Airways. I will post his statement shortly.]
Just today (Nov. 18), Time for Three, the eclectic violin-violin-bass trio that has had several popular appearances at the Colorado Music Festival, encountered serious travel troubles with US Airways.
You may recall that in May of this year, the group’s violinists, Zach DePue and Nick Kendall, were refused permission to bring their violins on board a US Airways flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Fayetteville, Ark., where they were scheduled to play at the Artosphere Arts and Nature Festival.
In violation of both FAA rules and the airline’s own policies, the captain refused permission for them to carry their violins into the cabin. Nick and Zach were told that they would either have to put the instruments in the luggage compartment—something no violinist would agree to—or be booted from the flight. They were literally left standing on the tarmac, where Zach played an impromptu performance.
In that case, the violinists eventually were placed on a later flight. The captain of that flight—being either more of a music lover or more inclined to honor the FAA regulations—did not raise any objections, and they did get to their destination in time.
Nevertheless, the refusal by the captain of the first flight to allow the violins on board created quite a stir among musicians and fans of Time for Three. Such unpredictable travel barriers make life nearly impossible for professional musicians who have to travel to pursue their careers, as many do.
Since then, the YouTube video of Zach playing Bach outside the airplane has had more the 300,000 hits, and Time for Three has marketed a t-shirt for travelling string players that has Section 403 of the FAA Modernization of Reform Act of 2012 printed on the back. It states in part, that carriers “shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin.”
Then, things died down a bit. But today, US Airways struck again. The same airline. Ignoring the same FAA regulations. But this time it was the third member of the group, bassist Ranaan Meyer, and this time it was an outright refusal to take his bass on board.
Ranaan was returning home after an appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” when the airline refused to accept his bass—packed to go with luggage, as basses normally do—at all. Appeals to the US Airways shift manager were useless. Ranaan ended up booking with Delta Airlines, which accepted him and his bass with no hesitation.
Time for Three is understandably perplexed. Like many musicians, the group travels professionally with their instruments. A lot. They cannot understand—and neither can I—why an airline would court bad publicity and the displeasure of professional travelers who cover so many miles each year. Time for Three is considering what the next step might be to assure their ability to travel professionally.
At this point, we should step back and understand what is supposed to happen with traveling string players and their instruments. Because of their value, the violins and violas played by professional musicians must never be placed in luggage. Recognizing that, both FAA regulations and most airlines’ policies allow those instruments to qualify as carry-on bags. This normally does not create a problem, although there are occasional exceptions, such as Nick and Zach’s run-in with US Airways last May.
Professional-quality cellos are equally delicate, and they again should never be packed as luggage. Because they are clearly not small enough to fit in overhead compartments, cellists usually book extra seats for their instruments. That normally does not create any problems, although there are occasional stories that crop up where traveling cellists encounter obstinate flight crews or airlines: read more here, here and here.
Double basses obviously have to be packed to go in the luggage compartment. That has long been accepted practice with most airlines and all musicians that I know. Until today, I had never heard of a bass being refused as checked baggage provided the plane was large enough to accomodate the instrument, as was the case in this incident.
As of now, I have requested comment from American Airlines/US Airways. Time for Three has received a message on Twitter asking for flight information so that the airline could “look into the incident” (quoting the email I received from a representative of Time for Three).
This story will be updated as new information becomes available. I would welcome a statement from the airline.
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Nov. 19, 2014, Update: Today I would like to fill in some of the details that did not make it into yesterday’s initial story (above).
Ranaan Meyer, the bassist for Time for Three, was returning home to Philadelphia yesterday (Nov 18) from Los Angeles, where he and the other members of the trio had performed on “Dancing with the Stars.” When he went to check in his bass with US Airways, the instrument was refused as checked baggage, a decision that was appealed to the shift manager—the highest US Airways official at the checkin area—who confirmed that the bass would not be allowed on the flight. (Meyer’s video shows her walking away after declining to say anything on camera.)
In other words, he never got past the checkin counter. He was not turned away at the airplane door or at the gate—unlike previous incidents of musicians having problems boarding flights with their instruments.
Several points are important here. First: Meyer has flown with his bass as checked baggage literally hundreds of times, on many different airlines, and it has never even been questioned. This is completely standard for bass players who have to travel for their professional work. I have not yet found one who has ever had his bass turned away by an airline. Meyer reports that he often flies on smaller planes into Sun Valley, Id., one of the smaller airports on his travels, with no problems.
Second, several people have pointed out that US Airways has a written policy on musical instruments posted on their web page that seems to support the shift manager’s decision. But their policy (a) makes little sense as written and (b) would prohibit any bass players from ever buying a ticket on their airlines for professional travel. The policy states that “Cellos and bass violas will only be accepted as seat baggage,” which is nonsensical because a “bass viola” (by which I assume they mean bass viol, or double bass) certainly would not fit in an airline seat, or anywhere in the cabin. Consequently, this policy would automatically disqualify US Airways as a carrier for bass players traveling on professional business.
Finally, it should be noted that Meyer has a travel case for his bass that is made for the instrument to be shipped in the baggage compartment, and he expects to pay any excess baggage charges when traveling with the bass. Time for Three reports that those charges can range from as little as $150 up to as much as $400 each way. So it’s not as if he’s a free-loader.
Incidentally, bass players report that Southwest Airlines has the lowest charges for transporting their instruments—usually $150. A contact with Time for Three has written to me that “Other bass players we have worked with and that I have booked travel for always request Southwest. It is sort of known that they are the cheapest and the easiest to work with when it comes to oversized luggage!”
To finish the story of Meyer’s odyssey, he had purchased a non-stop ticket on US Airways because he had an appointment in Philadelphia at 6 p.m. In the end, Delta airlines took Meyer and his bass with no questions asked. He was routed through Atlanta and arrived in Philadelphia at 5:20, just barely giving him time to meet his appointment.
No lasting damage was done, but Meyer, Time for Three, and musicians all around the country are left with questions in their minds whether they would be turned away in similar circumstances. This creates a very difficult environment for the music industry, one that sooner or later should be resolved, for the benefit of airlines—who can’t want constant stories about their mistreatment of musicians trickling out—and of the professionals who depend upon travel for their careers.
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NOTE: The original story has been edited to correct the spelling of Nick Kendall on 18 November.