The tenor’s airline sold my cello’s seat

The tenor’s airline sold my cello’s seat


norman lebrecht

July 20, 2015

Gabriella Swallow turned up at London’s Heathrow airport this morning with two flight tickets, one for herself and the next for her cello.

Only to find that the airline had given her cello’s seat to a passenger they had bumped from last night’s flight.

What to do? Should she take tonight’s flight and miss rehearsal, or put her cello in the hold?

gabi's cello

Gabi made a fuss at the desk. The harassed staff allowed her to go with the cello to the gate and, in her words, ‘beg for someone to change for later flight.’

To the airline’s disgrace, a couple agreed to give up their seats so that Gabi and cello could fly side by side. She is now flying thanks to the kindness of strangers.

gabi's cello2

The airline is Air Malta. It likes to pretend is is friendly to the arts.

Its global ambassador is the opera tenor Joseph Calleja.

Unless Air Malta promptly apologies to Gabriella Swallow and assures us that this misconduct will not happen again, we expect Joseph Calleja to withdraw his patronage and will advise musicians to fly another flag carrier.

UPDATE: Air Malta has apologised, to Gabriella Swallow in person and on Slipped Disc (below). However, it managed to lose her luggage, which contained the scores she needs for rehearsal in Malta. Back to square one.


  • Paula Goodwin says:

    The trouble is they are the only proper scheduled Airline to fly from London to Malta

  • Michelle Castelletti says:

    It was absolutely disgraceful! I have no words. Thankfully Gabi and I were in close phone contact throughout.

  • Michelle Castelletti says:

    And – We bought Airmalta tickets as they guaranteed no problems with the instrument seat, whereas BA would not…

  • Stephen Gauci says:

    We are terribly sorry for the inconvenience caused to Ms Swallow whilst travelling on our services today on KM101 from London Heathrow to Malta.

    This flight was overbooked and when she arrived at checkin at Heathrow only one seat was left.

    Air Malta did its utmost to solve the problem immediately and identified an ex Air Malta employee who was happy to give up his seat so that Ms Swallow and the cello could travel to Malta together in time for the event.

    Overbookings are quite normal in the airline industry and are due to the high rate of passengers not showing for their booked flights.

    Air Malta apologises to Ms Swallow for the inconvenience caused.

    Stephen Gauci
    Head Corporate Communications
    Air Malta

  • Max Grimm says:

    I’ve seen this before. Cellos don’t complain as much as delayed human passengers. So bump the cello and accommodate the delayed passenger. At that point you’re left with a cellist whom (in our case) the airline offered a refund of the second seat and promised to transport his cello in the same cargo hold that pets are transported in (which is heated). So, the airline would have transported us and our instruments to our destination either way and also offered alternate means of transporting the cello in the heated smaller compartment vs the large unheated cargo hold.
    What one is left with in a case such as ours is an airline that will have covered its bum with creative wording in their contract of carriage, re-booking/different airline or accepting the offer of checking the cello in the heated hold. Complain too much and people without any knowledge of stringed instruments will tend to see a self-important, whiny musician, who stubbornly rejected the airline’s olive branch.

  • CDH says:

    Is it perhaps time that someone enterprising started about inventing carrying cases for stringed instruments that pack them so tightly, in such supportive and jolt-resistant materials, that they can be flow safely in the holds of planes? We can get stuff to Mars. Surely we can get cellos to Malta with a little application and ingenuity.

    And while I sympathise entirely with Ms. Swallow’s predicament, just step back a moment: if you were the PERSON who had been bumped from a flight THE PREVIOUS NIGHT, and were told that you could not get on the next available one in the morning — on this “only proper scheduled Airline to fly from London to Malta” — but that you would not be able to get a seat because it was going to a CELLO — how would you feel? The airline had a dilemma.

    But I do not understand how someone who actually had tickets — which means they were already paid for — could be refused. Overbooking is a practice the airlines have justified for years, and with their operating costs — whether a plane is full or empty — one is not unsympathetic. But once a purchase is completed, and the ticket paid for, the plane can go whether full or not. Extra people — late bookers — can be on standby till the plane doors have to be closed; when I was a student, frequently flying standby, I often was barely aboard before takeoff. They have to clean up their practices.

    But the main thing is to get a standard set of rules for travelling with instruments.

  • Julian Rowlands says:

    It’s difficult when one turns up at the airport with an instrument worth many thousands that is essentially irreplaceable, and upon which ones livelihood depends, not knowing what hassles lie ahead. Having taken precautions (phoning the airline, buying an extra seat) to ensure the instrument will travel in the cabin, one will arrive at the airport with it in a stowable case rather than a heavy duty flight case that might ensure that it can survive a trip in the hold. Regardless of whether there is some section of the hold that is supposedly heated, we know from the experience of others that an instrument is likely to not survive, and damage due to environmental factors in aircraft is not insurable. A simple trip to do a job of work is never stress free for musicians who need to take their tools of the trade with them.

  • William says:

    It’s impressive that the airline has replied here. Flights are routinely overbooked because of so many no-shows, so I have some sympathy with the airline in this situation. If i were the over-booked passenger I would definitely feel I have priority over a cello I’m afraid.

  • Holger H. says:

    Airlines never lose luggage. It’s the ground handling companies, contracted by the airlines, who “lose” the luggage usually. Quality of these ground handling companies very much depends on the locality, the airport, not on the airline. Usually there is only one or at bigger airports maybe two or three of these ground handlers, and all airlines have to use them.
    Also giving the seat to another person, can be done by ground handlers who handle the check-in for an airline. No airline has their own stuff at every airport they fly to, only at the bigger ones.

  • Michelle Castelletti says:

    All sorted early this morning… Thankfully Gabi’s still in good spirit, as always!

  • Michelle Castelletti says:

    Just thought I had to say Air Malta have more than tried to make up for everything, including greeting Gabi with flowers upon arrival. It was an unfortunate incident, but thankfully one that has been resolved in the best way possible.

  • Amahl says:

    The other day, Air Canada refused a cellist in our ensemble entry to a flight because they had overbooked. She had purchased a ticket for herself and her instrument and her receipt and itinerary clearly showed the price of two purchased tickets. Instead of a direct flight with the rest of us, she was forced to take a later trip that included two connecting flights and arrived about 12 hours later than the rest of us.

    It’s a shame that this nonsense is still a problem.