Delta Airlines smashed my lute

Delta Airlines smashed my lute


norman lebrecht

January 13, 2014

If it’s not the Customs, it’s the US airlines. This message is just in from the Lute List:

Hello all,

Last night the soundboard of my 13-course lute was completely smashed after being valet-checked on a flight. (It just happened to be my birthday. Thanks Delta.)

I have several solo lute concerts coming up in late January and

February. Is there anyone in the region of Rochester NY who would feel

comfortable loaning me a 13-course lute on which to practice and/or


Thank you,



Dr. Christopher Wilke D.M.A.

Lutenist, Guitarist and Composer

See UPDATE here.


  • I feel that checking in an instrument that you need, especially one as as breakable as a lute, is always a bad idea. If something means that much to you and won’t fit in the overheads, buy a seat for it. It is obvious that luggage gets thrown around on planes, and even if it was intact when going on who knows what accidents may happen in the hold.

    • If you read the details for Valet-Checked baggage, You would know that a. The Valet Checked items are meant to be placed in a seperate luggage area and there is no reason why any luggage should be mishandled for the Valet-Checked items..

      • Sorry forgot to also say yes I agree that wherever possible musicians need to try and book an extra seat for instruments and to check connecting flights also and if its not allowed then try and find an airline that will agree to book a seat.. And if its for paid events then it can be added on to tax expenses and the event fee.. If you are booked for a gig and they really want you the organisers will pay more! However, this still does Not excuse Delta airline staff /company telling lies and pretending to file a damage report and then saying a damage report was not completed and trying to close the customer services desk when a customer needed to resolve a serious issue before boarding their connecting flight!!

      • LesArtistes says:

        Luggage shifts around in the valet compartment just as much as it shifts around in the main compartment.

  • As a rider to Simon Williams’ comment, it should be noted that at present most legacy airlines do not allow a seat to be purchased on line for an instrument; “Mr A Cello” booked directly may well be refused or offloaded. It needs to be added to the passenger’s own booking by calling the airline or agent.

    • Laura says:

      Not necessarily true, my boyfriend just flew to Rochester (on Delta) and bought a seat for his guitar. He always travels with it that way and there’s never a problem, as long as the seat is paid for and occupied. However, airline staff still often mistreat instruments even when they’re not checked in. A flute professor at our school was flying to Germany for a concert. While she was going through the security line, an agent opened her flute case, examined the flute and SLAMMED the case shut, denting the instrument. There’s no staff training to deal with fragile goods.

    • Hahaha, Mr A Cello love it!

  • Lisa Fogler says:

    There are ways to avoid this situation. I feel bad for the guy. I know other people that have had their instruments damaged. The moment it is taken out of your control, you are taking a risk. You are trusting your treasure to the care of strangers who basically, well, don’t care. Unfortunately, unless you are willing to invest in a travel case, the odds are it will be damaged if you use a soft case. So, you have to bite the bullet and make the investment in a flight case, or hard case. Even then there is no guarantee it won’t be damaged but you are removing a lot of risk.. Be paranoid. I would wrap the case in bubble wrap and a moving blanket and cover it with duct tape and huge “fragile” labels! Or you can pack your hard case into another box and surround it with peanuts. Another trick it to take it to the gate with you anyway, knowing it will be rejected as carry-on. In that way it is the last item on the plane and the first off, and at least hand carried to the plane. I know someone who ships (insured) his instruments by FedX to his hotels instead of taking them on planes. Whenever you travel with your instrument make sure bring proof of it’s value and that you are the owner (Receipt, Bill of Sale, etc). And don’t forget to declare it if you are going to be using it for professional reasons. Don’t give them a reason to confiscate it.

    • And how would you protect the instrument especially special early music instuments from Humidity or other temperature changes ? Packing the instrument the way you suggest will cause the instrument to over-heat!

      • Daphne says:

        Actually, every such musician (for example early music performers, or performers of stringed instruments such as a cello or a theorbo) knows, that, apart from the hard / flight case, which will solve the problem of the fragility of the instrument, there is always the problem of temperature. How will the instrument overheat, since the temperature in the cargo area of the plane is a lot lower than that of the passenger cabin? All musicians I know pack their instrument in a way so that it can be kept farely warm.

        • With respect Daphne, My response was specifically to Lisa Fogler re: over wrapping and packaging an instrument.. And firstly my main point was by doing all that would increase the temperature or humidity which you don’t want in warmer climates.. Secondly if you haven’t noticed Chris Wilkes the owner of the Lute is an early music specialist and he is well informed and well travelled.. He clearly knows how to look after his own instrument the problem here is most average, if not ignorant employee does not care about how they handle peoples possesions.. No case nor instrument however thick or hard’ is fool prove against human mistreatment!

  • Catherine Motuz says:

    Lisa, this is all good advice, thank you.

    I know you mean well, but I worry that putting the onus on the musicians to protect instruments from careless, irresponsible and sometimes overtly disrespectful behaviour can inadvertently lead to acceptance this behaviour, and it is not acceptable.

    Furthermore, it creates a situation where it becomes economically unfeasible to play a large instrument at all. I know a lot of musicians who would make no money on gigs if they had to shell out for extra seats or the extra weight of a theorbo-sized flight case every time, so they take the risk and check it, padding it as best they can. A symphony orchestra musician could afford it, but in Early Music at least, lots of people travel all the time and don’t get that kind of salary.

  • Pam says:


    How dreadful. My husband is an aviation writer and told me to suggest that in future — if you can — use FedEx or UPS to ship your instrument. Frankly, I cannot imagine how this would work, particularly if you are on a tour, and it certainly adds another layer of complication and cost. Airlines are just not set up to handle many musical instruments. They insist you either check them or store them where they are simply not safe.

  • Jill Sipe says:

    Write a song about it and hope it goes viral like the guy did with his guitar:

  • Marcus says:

    I feel badly for what happened in this instance regarding the Lute, but I had my instrument damaged twice while flying on Delta and both times was fully compensated. I think this needs to be presented to someone from Delta who would be in a position to take the proper action.

  • Libby Hedrick says:

    I would file a complaint with Delta, with the FAA and with the DOT. This is outrageous!

  • claaay says:

    Never submit a delicate musical instrument to the abuse of the airline baggage handling system without suitable protection. I have flown locally and internationally with my lutes in luggage and they have never been damaged, but I pack them well. If you don’t have an armor-plated travel case designed for the rigors of air travel, you must do the following at a minimum:
    1. Learn the size and weight limitations of your airline you use. The dimensions and weight of your final package must stay within these parameters.
    2. Each instrument must have its own hard case or a strong, padded box made of plywood.
    3. Lower the string pitch a third and place the instrument in its case or well padded plywood box.
    4. Pack additional padding in the form of underwear, socks, etc around the peg box and anywhere else you can.
    5. Close the lid and latch it, but don’t lock it.
    6. Place the case inside a heavy cardboard box, one big enough to allow at least 2″ space around the case for more padding in the form of styrofoam blocks, clothing, bubble wrap, wadded newspaper, or constructions of corrugated cardboard. You can buy this kind of big, tough cardboard box at FedEx, et al, and I suggest you do buy this kind of box. They are difficult to find. Consider installing wooden slats across the soundboard area for reinforcement. Glue the ends of the slats in place to the inside of the box with a hot glue gun.
    7. Close the box and tape it shut securely with lots of tape. 2″ wide clear box tape is best.
    8. Write your contact and information on the box with a heavy wide permanent marker, or make printed labels with this information and attach securely to the box. Consider writing your phone number and email address on the box as well. (an aside: everyone should write an email address inside their passport)
    9. Bring a roll of box tape with you to the airline check-in. They may require that you open the box so they can have a look for some reason. If they do, you have to tape it up again. They will not provide you tape for this. You could miss your flight if you don’t have a roll of tape with you.
    10. Plaster huge, red “FRAGILE” signs on all sides of the box. That’s 6 per box.
    11. Perform these packing procedures keeping in mind that a 230 lb gorilla wearing a baggage handler’s suit will be jumping up and down on your box.