Austrian Airlines broke my contrabass

Austrian Airlines broke my contrabass


norman lebrecht

July 23, 2015

broken bass

The latest summer victim of airline maltreatment is the distinguished NY-based French bass player, Joëlle Léandre. Joelle flew Austrian to the avant-garde Nickelsdorf Konfrontation festival last week when this happened.

She won’t be flying Austrian again any time soon. We’re awaiting a response from the airline.

Joelle, who is also a singer and composer, has performed with Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble Intercontemporain, as well as John Cage and the Merce Cunningham company.



  • The King's Consort says:

    Oh dear, oh dear, another double bass broken by the baggage handlers. It probably wasn’t Austrian’s own people who broke the bass, but whoever they contract to handle baggage at that particular airport. That’s no excuse, as there is no excuse for rough handling of any baggage. But we’ve all sat at airports watching in horror as bags are hurled about in public view by baggage handlers who simply don’t care (so heaven knows what happens out of view): they are not held personally responsible if a breakage occurs as a result of their mishandling, and probably never even get told what damage they caused – it is dealt with by another department, and then passed to insurers. So we all pay for it in the end with higher flight prices (the downside if we complain too much is that the airlines refuse to handle double basses at all – that gets rid of the problem completely for them: some airlines have already gone this way).

    We’ve been flying basses with TKC for 35 years, and if a baggage handler drops the bass from a decent height, no amount of protection will prevent its damage. But more often than not it is the neck that gets detached from the body, because someone whilst handling the bass creates a “see-saw” with the case, putting weight on one or both ends of the case with some sort of pivot (= another case) in the centre – so massive strain gets put on the weakest part of the case (the neck), and: snap! The other mercifully less regular (as much more radical) damage is that aforementioned sheer, vertical drop, usually headfirst onto hard concrete several metres below. We’ve seen that from aircraft windows before now and felt sick…

    We’ve found that some makes of bass flight case do seem to be more susceptible to damage than others (ie are less strong in that neck region), but in the end the best solution to flying basses seems to be this brilliant “unscrew the neck” double bass conversion that you can have done to your instrument. For touring this radically reduces the length of the bass case (so you don’t get the broken neck), and also considerably reduces the weight and size of the case (so it fits in every commercial make of plane, even the small ones). Our principal contrabass player has had one of her basses converted like this, and it’s completely brilliant for touring. But it’s not a great thing to do to an original 17th century master-bass. But probably it is going to be one way forward, as more airlines refuse to accept bulky baggage such as double basses – probably because they know they will break them!

    Huge sympathy to this poor lady.

  • Steve Alcott says:

    The removable neck is becoming a more and more common option for players who travel with a bass, even for “old master” basses. Some players have reported an improvement in sound after the conversion, probably due to the increased solidity of the neck joint.

    • The King's Consort says:

      I’m really interested that some players are saying that the removable neck on a double bass has actually made their instrument sound better. It makes acoustic sense from a theoretical pint of view, but it’s most intriguing to hear that this conversion has worked to their benefit in real life.

      From a purely practical aspect, having a bass case that is half the weight of, and way smaller than, a traditional bass flight case has got to be a serious way forward for touring bass players. It even saves money in excess baggage charges, so everyone wins each way!

  • Richard Savage says:

    I endorse all the very sensible comments from King’s Consort. Unfortunately “not flying Austrian” would probably not get around the issue as the loaders at many airports now work for many airlines and not just one. Mindless airline bashing every time there’s any incident, and knee-jerk calls for boycotts, are really not helpful. Some airlines do make serious efforts over instrument carriage – we recently spent an interesting afternoon with BA at Heathrow with 2 double bass cases – at their request – working out safe and practical ways of loading them on to various types of aircraft.

    • The King's Consort says:

      BA is one of the airlines that we try to fly whenever we can – often booked, it might be added, through the firm of which Richard Savage is chairman, Specialised Travel – because they really do try to fly the bass case well. On which, I am really impressed that BA spent an afternoon trying to work out the best way to load double basses. That shows a laudable commitment to flying orchestras.

    • Scott Fields says:

      My experiences with Austrian, Lufthansa, and GermanWings, all owned by Lufthansa, have been good. Most recently, I flew Austrian round trip from Cologne to a festival in Romania carrying two expensive guitars in carbon-fiber flight cases. Austrian was great. They gave me no trouble boarding. Flight attendants strapped them into 1st-class sets going there (i was strapped into a coach seat) and found space in the overheads coming back.

  • Gene Gaudette says:

    It could be worse: TAM Airlines has lost virtuoso double-bassist Robert Black’s instrument.

  • David says:

    The only problem once you have a neck off conversion is finding a good case for this purpose which is not too heavy
    many airlines have 23 Kg limit
    Any suggestions for a not too bulky not too heavy not too outrageously expensive case?!
    Am I dreaming?