Video: Here’s how airline smashed my cello

Video: Here’s how airline smashed my cello


norman lebrecht

May 10, 2015

Nicholas Gold, a cellist in the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera orchestra, had his cello broken by Southwest Airlines. He wrote to the airline and was offered a fraction of the instrument’s value – ‘our maximum liability’.

Nick is not happy. So he made a little video in his garden, showing the amount of force the airline handlers would have needed to use in order to break his cello’s neck through its reinforced case.

Quite a lot.
smashed cello1


  • Anonne says:

    All very well. But baggage handlers are throwing things down on to harder surfaces, at greater pace, than this gentle drop from a ladder on to grass. They are heaving things out of the cargo hold — not usually into, as they have to pack them there to fit best — on to a truck that will take the bags into the conveyor belt in the airport. This test is a little suggestive but not very.

    Also, if I had to check such an instrument, no matter how well I regarded the manufacturer’s claims about the sturdiness of my case, I would pad the instrument and bow with foam or towelling or some other absorbent material to make it tight and offer another layer of protection. Surely there are bow covers rather than just clipping them on the inside of the case? That could go pear-shaped in a car with a minor collision issue.

    I hope his insurance will help. But nothing can replace a valuable, or even valued, instrument. Solutions must be found for this chronic problem.

    • bratschegirl says:

      But they also claim, daily, that they do not “heave” fragile items off planes. They claim that they walk them by hand onto and off the plane. They claim that they will not put cellos on conveyor belts, and then they proceed to do just that at the end of the flight. The airlines are trying to have it both ways, making promises they have no intention of keeping and then insisting that they have no liability for not following their own stated procedures. Yes, it’s best for a cellist to buy a seat for the instrument, but again and again recently we see that this is not enough either, because gate staff and flight crews regularly refuse to allow cellos on board even with tickets. I’m grateful my own instrument now has explicit legal status as a carry-on.

  • PTN says:

    It’s a shame that this man’s cello broke. But not surprising at all. It is an unlikely outcome of checking your instrument, but it does happen from time to time. You sign something before you check it saying the airline has no responsibility if it breaks. I, personally, am getting a little tired of these videos…if you don’t want your instrument to break, you’re just going to have to bite the bullet and buy an extra seat on the plane or drive to your destination.

    • William Safford says:

      What is also a shame is that airlines refuse to take responsibility for their actions and inactions, and refuse to do a minimally acceptable job of transporting luggage.

      Whereas I agree with you on one level — I have never checked an instrument — it’s also important to observe that, in many cases, it is impossible to just drive to a destination. What if travels take one across an ocean, for example?

      And, as NYMike wrote, what does one do when one bought an extra seat for an instrument, then is refused permission to bring it into the cabin?

      Injuries are not limited to instruments; think back to the injuries suffered by contrabassoonist Lewis Lipnick from his experience with an international airline (as reported on Slipped Disc, although a quick search didn’t turn it up).

  • Greg Hlatky says:

    In traveling, you can’t depend on anyone but yourself treating your valuables tenderly. 1) Ask yourself, “What could possibly go wrong?” 2) Plan accordingly.

  • NYMike says:

    And what happens when one buys an extra seat for an instrument and is then not allowed to bring it into the cabin??

  • Nicholas Gold says:

    Hi All,

    There are many factors in deciding to check a cello or not. I don’t own a Strad or instrument that can’t be replaced. Ironically, this trip to NYC was made to look a potential cellos to buy. I was there for 24 hours to play my instrument against others…

    The reason I did the drop test was to show that an already broken Stevenson Case could withstand quite a bit of force. As you can see in the video, nothing was edited. This was not a “gentle drop.” Also there are fragile stickers all over the case. I didn’t want to throw the **ALREADY BROKEN** case with extreme force. (Plus I didn’t know if this force would actually break the cello… which it didn’t) Maybe I should have done it on the pavement, but the ground here is extremely hard since it hasn’t rained for days. Regardless, If a person fell from that height, they’d probably break a bone.

    In my previous posts, I have expressed my concern for all musical instruments. I believe the airlines need to address their policies and educate their workers. My situation was a little more unique than others. When I received the case back it was forced back together by smashing it. It had obviously been opened by the baggage workers, because the nut (small piece of ebony that the strings rest on) was missing!

    In response to PTN, I’m sorry you are tired of watching the videos or hearing about it. If thats the case, don’t bother watching. This specific airline does not make you sign anything about it being broken. Should every musician, including guitar players, be forced into buying a seat because the baggage handlers are so irresponsible?

    I have not turned to social media just to try and get the airline to just pay me for the instrument. If Southwest and/or other airlines would actually address the concern of instruments and at least try to implement change, I would be fine with not even taking a penny from them. For me, it’s not about the money, it’s specifically the principal of the matter. This has happened to many musicians and unfortunately a lot of people haven’t taken the precautions like I had with the Stevenson Case.

    If the airline could offer a special baggage service such as a $25-50 extra fee to make sure instruments were handled properly, I’m sure many of us would feel more comfortable checking the instrument. I have honestly felt fine checking the instrument and I’ve flown across the world using this case.

    The instrument I was hoping to buy in NYC is not a cello I would check since it’s more rare. Unfortunately I don’t know if I will be able to purchase it now because I don’t know if the sound and overall value of my current instrument will be affected. (which I would have sold in order to help fund this purchase.)

    As NYMike said, there’s also a major concern after even buying a seat. Before the Stevenson case, I use to buy a seat for the instrument. Many times the flight attendants had tried to make me check it because the flights were overbooked. Since I started checking the instrument, flying had honestly been less stressful. The only downside from not buying a seat anymore was the fact I no longer get two servings of drink and food. (I would always insist on the cellos drink and food! ha!)

    I would encourage everyone to read the letter I wrote Southwest Air. I understand some people feel strongly about checking a cello, but this issue isn’t just about an expensive cello. There’s a deeper concern: How airlines treat a musical instruments. Their workers need to learn to respect instruments while the airlines implement policies to change the way baggage handlers treat the instruments.

    Thanks for reading and following my issue here.

    -nick gold

    • PTN says:

      Yes, I do believe that if you want to ensure your instrument will arrive in one piece, you should buy a seat for it. It’s not pleasant, but it’s what you have to do. I don’t think anyone has the right to whine and moan when their instrument shows up broken. It’s happened to me. I did not take to social media or blast the airline responsible. It was extremely inconvenient but it was the risk I took when checking my cello rather than buying a seat for it. I’ve learned from that mistake and always buy a seat now. I’ve never had problems considering it is written in to most airline’s contract of carriage.

  • Eric says:

    Just thinking out loud, but I wonder if it would help any to slightly detune the instrument to reduce the tension on the neck & scroll but sill have enough to keep the soundpost in place?

    Still NO excuse for the airline gorillas to mishandle baggage as has been demonstrated SO many times!!!!!!

    Wonder what can be done? Not enough musicians traveling by air for a mass refusal to fly to do any good. How about class action lawsuits? Probably not….

    Maybe MORE of these youtube posts to try to force the airlines hand?

    Maybe the union getting involved again? They did SOME good recently regarding instruments as checked baggage.
    Maybe that’s the next step.

    • Brian says:

      Eric, I strongly recommend you not use the word “gorillas” to describe airline ramp workers in the future. It is a little too suggestive.

  • SVM says:

    I am not sure that the comparison to a Chinese “student” instrument is really valid. Based on my very limited knowledge of fine violins, I am under the impression that more expensive stringed instruments tend to be more fragile on account of the wood being cut more thinly (in order to obtain better resonance or something). Thus, an impact that would not damage a cheap ‘cello may well be sufficient to cause damage to a more expensive one. Apologies if I am giving misinformation here — obviously, I am happy to be corrected by any luthiers or experts who know better.

  • Brian says:

    Well, I would recommend flying Spirit Airways next time. They treat all their customers and their possessions with the utmost respect and sincerity.