The Airlines Strike Back

Apparently, it doesn’t matter how many laws are passed, orchestra musicians are going to get hassled over bringing instruments on board as carry-on baggage. The latest incident involved British Airways and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), or at least three of its musicians.

Adaptistration People 127The 9/6/2015 edition of The Boston Globe published an article about a run-in with British Airways gate agents on a full flight and the size of Principal Trombone Toby Oft instrument while in his padded carrying case. Long story short, neither side really backed down form their positions; British Airlines asserting that all carry-on baggage must comply with required dimensions and hey, if the overhead compartments are full when you get on board then you’re out of luck while the BSO continued to assert what everyone in the field knows in that these instruments are fragile, valuable, and in many cases, irreplaceable.

Orchestras could side-step the problem by going the private charter route or even purchase their own aircraft but I wouldn’t hold your breath on seeing a BSO branded jet overhead anytime soon. So unless someone figures out a reasonable co-ownership model, you can expect there to be plenty more musician vs. airline stories ahead.

If nothing else, the BSO’s recent ordeal makes British Airway’s strapline, “To Fly. To Serve. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. Always putting you at the heart of everything we engineer, innovate and pioneer. Today and tomorrow,” seem a bit overly sanguine.

Postscript: Oft recently published an account of the incident at his personal blog: TRAVELING THE UNFRIENDLY SKIES – No instrument will be guaranteed safe passage Update: thanks to reader Ron Wold for pointing out the Oft’s article no longer appears to be available.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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8 thoughts on “The Airlines Strike Back

  1. But then, British Airways are pretty well known for their marketing gaffs that are usually concocted with complete disassociation from operational reality. Remember the BA vs. Virgin marketing wars of the 90s? Seems the BSO may have forgotten about them.

  2. Thanks Drew, for continuing to cover things that are so relevant to me. I just flew with my horn last week, and faced pressure to gate check. Carry-on space is something of a moving target, I discovered on this trip that my smaller horn case (purchased to accommodate shrinking overhead compartments years ago) now doesn’t fit under the seat of a plane with the new entertainment system in seatbacks. The extra hardware took away a critical 2 inches of width down there.
    Also, It appears that the article by Toby Oft was quickly taken down. There still exists a google cached version however.

  3. As I think about this, I am disappointed to hear that the BSO wasn’t more on top of this at a management level. They are a high-profile group that tours regularly, and this is a known issue. Like so many issues facing musicians, this is one where a top level group has the opportunity to cut a wedge for the rest of us by making sure the airlines don’t pull this kind of stuff. Unlike when I make my stand all alone in front of 200 unsympathetic non-musicians and risk being stuck in Chicago because I won’t gate check my horn, Toby and his colleagues are in the rare position of having 102 people on the plane who know what the fuss is all about. In spite of all the talk from the union and the letters from the government agencies about the permissibility of instruments as carry on baggage, the fact remains that every musical instrument policy still leaves plenty of opportunity for arbitrary decisions to exclude an instrument at the last minute. I still feel like I am smuggling my horn onto every single plane I board, and I know it is only a roll of the dice that keeps me from getting booted every time, because the rules still leave room for flight crew and gate agents to arbitrarily make this call. The worst part, as I see it, is that even though Toby finally got on board with his instrument (and had plenty of room to put it overhead), there were other musicians in the group that got bullied into gate checking instruments.

  4. I’m not sure what else a manager could have done in that situation; problems typically arise as the result of an individual gate agent and/or flight attendant and all of the advance notice in the world doesn’t seem to be able to influence that crucial variable.

    And as you’ve pointed out, until there is some enforceable action associated with the rules, I wouldn’t expect much to change.

  5. It is usually the gate agent. They don’t communicate with the flight attendants, so they arbitrarily force people to gate check after X passengers have boarded.

    I was forced to gate check my stick case by a gate agent on the way to an audition even after asking, “this is a musical instrument. Are you sure there’s absolutely no way to get it in the cabin?”

    When I got on the plane I had the same experience as Toby. There was overhead space for at least 15 more bags (that’s a conservative estimate), including an entire empty bin. By the time I turned around, my case was already gone. The flight attendant apologized and said she didn’t like when gate agents did that.

    Lesson learned. Next time I will nod and smile at the gate, take the tag, but my instrument won’t leave my hand until I stick my head in the cabin door and I’m sure there’s no space for it.

    Anyone who’s worked retail or customer service knows certain people will always take the path of least resistance. The problem isn’t with those people. The problem is that the airlines don’t discipline their employees, and the FAA doesn’t discipline the airlines. There are no consequences, so why put in more effort than you need to?

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