‘Air France broke my cello’

‘Air France broke my cello’


norman lebrecht

April 27, 2015

The cellist Aristide de Plessis informs us:

A colleague of mine recently acquired a 200-year-old cello. She headed to Zurich from Johannesburg to do an audition. Being a student, she had no choice but to check it in as hold baggage as she could not afford a second seat from one hemisphere to another.

Not only did the airline lose her cello in Paris and deliver it to Zurich two days too late, the case was badly damaged with small chunks missing, and the fingerboard had completely fallen off. A closer inspection revealed a nasty, fresh crack on the top, which will devalue the instrument considerably.

The victim of the accident has asked to remain anonymous.


UPDATE: Credit to AirFrance. They contacted us within an hour and are handling the complaint.


  • Sebastian says:

    I’m sorry, but in the real world, you cannot just check in a valuable instrument. Any more than you would check in say, a wedding cake, or a glass chandelier. It patently makes no sense at all.

    • Conor says:

      Spare a thought for us poor double bassists, who HAVE to check our fine instruments! On a recent flight with Ryanair, despite investing thousands in an ultra-light and strong carbon fibre flight case, i was charged through the nose for the instrument being “overweight”. This is despite bicycles in boxes (of the same weight) being allowed to be checked at little or no extra cost. The fact that my profession was music and another’s sport seemed to be the difference. Surely discrimination?

    • Edward says:

      Oh yes it does, that’s why you put it in a sufficiently strong case. These are very expensive and are designed to resist impacts. The instrument is suspended inside. It takes serious negligence/incompetence to subject these to enough stress to destroy them. People don’t understand this and think that it’s like any ol’ piece of luggage that is damaged, so tough luck, you shouldn’t have checked it and put your instrument in it. These cases are nothing like that. Even some lower end cases can have three adults stand on them. The higher end can have cars run over them. So when, in spite of this, one’s instrument is damaged, it’s just negligence/incompentence. Plain stupidity can also play a role, e.g., not closing cases property after opening them for inspection.

      • William Safford says:

        Good point.

        “It takes serious negligence/incompetence to subject these to enough stress to destroy them.”

        That’s why cases need to be so strong.

        One friend watched in horror from the airplane window as baggage handlers dragged his contrabassoon case off the top of a luggage cart, from above the bag handler’s head, and dropped to the ground. It was at least a six foot drop to the tarmac. Luckily for him, the instrument survived the impact.

  • Ira Spaulding says:

    AIR FRANCE is dreadful, last summer when travelling to Beirut to teach a week of Vocal Workshops, they did not schedule enough time for my connection, my luggage was lost, I went to the airport in Beirut 3 days unnecessarily, until they finally came up with my luggage 5 days after arrival. Needless to say I was not compensated in any way and only dealt with extremely rude people at Charles de Gaulle airport as well as with totally confused personnel in Beirut. My suggestion? Avoid Air France at all costs!

    • Anon says:

      It’s funny how people don’t know how this works. Airlines never handle the luggage themselves. That’s at each airport done by service companies.
      Usually at a given airport each airline uses the same handling provider. This is not a problem with an airline but with the ground service provider. Take your airline bashing rant elsewhere.

      • Edward says:

        You’re right, it’s usually not the airlines handling the luggage. But the airlines are ultimately responsible to the customer for the luggage entrusted to them. In case of damage caused by the third-party handlers, airlines should go after these incompentent contractors for any monies they have to compensate their passengers.

  • NYMike says:

    Since the story is about a crack in the top among other injuries to the instrument, I don’t understand the photo of a cracked and broken back. Is this a stock photo?

  • Jon H says:

    My guess is traveling from the climate of Johannesburg to Zurich is tough on a stringed instrument regardless. As much as you’d like to play the audition on your own instrument (and a 200 year old one), have to consider all the risks. Maybe the airline could’ve done more, I agree – but had all that gone well, the distance and the climate changes are still causing huge, fast changes.

    • Anonne says:

      The airline did not refuse to seat the cello — the student could not afford to pay for it. In this day and age, where they practically charge you for loo paper, it is hardly likely they would forego a full fare to accommodate a student’s cello. Was it sufficiently padded in its case?

    • bratschegirl says:

      I’ve been a professional string player for over 30 years. I know of no colleague who would *ever* consider taking an audition on an instrument not their own, nor have I ever heard of that happening.

  • Matt Cpt.737 says:

    Recklessly optimistic to think that it would travel that far and transfer flights without taking some knocks.

    I would certainly book a second seat if I had a +200 year old instrument – even if I was a ‘student’.

    Not solely the airlines fault I feel – or was it an attempt to win compensation?


    • Edward says:

      For some ‘students’ an extra seat is not an option, especially if we’re talking about several flights a year. That is why cellists buy flight cases (sometimes over 1K) to transport their instruments. Assuming the musician is using an appropriate rigid case (they are much more rugged than normal luggage), that is all musicians can do. If there is damage, it usually is done by ground crews who are separate contractors at airports. However, the airline should answer to its customers for damage done by contractors it pays, who should pay the airline for the compensation it pays its customers. After all, the airline is their customer. One pays the airlines good money to look after one’s property when it is in its custody, and one assumes that the case will be knocked, scraped, chipped maybe, that’s it performing its function. Beyond this, when a fiberglass case a 200-pound man could skip rope on without affecting the instrument, and which is marked “fragile” in red, in 5 languages, is damaged enough to destroy its contents, the proper term is “gross negligence”. Purchasing insurance does not change much for the airline: it only means that the insurance company will seek compensation instead of the passenger. Passengers should accept no less, doing so is making substandard, mediocre service become the norm. It reminds me of bank directors who expect bonuses for “doing their job well”. Doing a good job IS the norm. Looking after customer’s luggage/answering to the customer IS the norm (provided the luggage is appropriate; putting your instrument in a canvas bag would indeed be irresponsible).

  • Janaina says:

    After years of travels through the Atlantic, Air France finally broke my cello too. I then learned to never put it there again, either I pay an extra seat or rent an instrument on my arrival. Unfortunately when I was a student I really had no choice. Air France payed for the damaged at the time, but as we know, the instrument will never be the same…