Air woes: BA almost lose the Boston Symphony

Air woes: BA almost lose the Boston Symphony


norman lebrecht

September 07, 2015

On their fully-booked homebound flight from a wildly successful European tour, three members of the orchestra were told they could not board their instruments. The reason? New BA regulations.

A heated discussion ensued.

The outcome: everyone boarded, and BA apologised.

The moral: it’s tougher for an airline to fight a whole orchestra than it is to pick on a lone travelling musician.

Always remember: airlines are not our friends.


singapore airlines


  • Richard Savage says:

    The aim of the new BA rules is to ensure that only one piece per person goes into the overhead locker and the other must fit under the seat in front – which seems perfectly reasonable. The old allowance was being regularly abused by people trying to take on 2 large cases.
    Our advice to instrumentalists since these new rules were announced has been twofold: regard their instrument as their main carry-on and minimise the size of their second piece; and try to board the aircraft as early as possible. The carriage of valuable instruments in the cabin is, unfortunately, still a dispensation and not a right. One US carrier has recently announced that it will no longer accept instruments in the cabin at all – despite a recent Federal Law designed to have the opposite effect.

    • JKJohnson says:

      I have looked through various comments in the reports that Norman has made about instruments subjected to abuse with various airlines and found your named a number of times. It is unfortunate that you work for British Airways (or, possibly another airline) and have not presented yourself as one of their employees. That said, I think most would agree that it is not typical of orchestral musicians to “regularly abuse” any situation regarding boarding an airplane with their instrument. It is a part of their work. When they fly with your airline, they are “going to and from work”, the same as a business person boarding with a laptop/briefcase. Flutes and clarinet cases are oftentimes much smaller than the cases carried on by non-musicians. Why discriminate? Let them board. Without an event. Or, the orchestra can spend its money elsewhere and fly with a reasonable and responsible carrier; especially if the entire orchestra is filling up the plane.

      • Max Grimm says:

        Apparently you did not look through the comments sufficiently, or you would have been able to ascertain that Mr. Savage does not work for an airline but is in fact the chairman of an agency which specialises in travel and tour planning & management for choral and instrumental ensembles. As such, I believe him to have a broader knowledge of and less influenced view on the issues at hand than the average airline worker (or the odd musician).

        • The King's Consort says:

          Absolutely right, Mr Grimm. Specialised Travel, of which Richard Savage is Chairman, is one of the most experienced and reputable travel agencies in the world specialising in moving orchestras and musicians. They know the business inside out, and that’s why many major orchestras have been working with them for decades, TKC included.

          We’ve been moving musicians around the globe for 35 years, and (trust me, Mr/Ms Johnson) orchestral musicians are just as able to “try it on” in terms of trying to take far too much into the cabin as anyone else… We advise our musicians before almost every flight what they are likely to be able (and not to be able) to take on board. It is slightly different for most airlines. As Richard Savage writes, BA state that (for orchestras) an instrument case plus a small “computer sized” bag which will fit under the seat in front is the current BA rule, which seems perfectly reasonable if every passenger is going to be able to get some hand baggage on the flight (for whilst a flute or oboe case is indeed small, a trombone or a bassoon, let alone a double viola case, is not within the usual hand baggage dimensions, but BA are usually understanding).

          That’s why BA remains one of the airlines of choice for TKC, as they usually make a huge effort to accommodate orchestras and their unusual needs. On which, we twice moved 85 musicians over the weekend on jam-packed BA flights, and Richard Savage and our tour manager (who’s been moving orchestras for 25 years so also knows the ins and outs) were good naturedly keeping everything under control – so that when one cello seat booking for the return leg went awry (someone within BA’s Gremlin department apparently pressed a special “delete” button on the return booking for the cello seat), calmness and reasonableness on the part of everyone ensured that everything got back on track.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Thank you, Richard. Which US carrier is that?

  • Jeffrey E. Salzberg says:

    Airlines aren’t anybody’s friends. As an industry, they single-handedly refute free-market theory; if any other company mistreated its customers the way airlines do, it would quickly go out of business.

  • Richard Savage says:

    I’m grateful to TKC and Mr Grimm for springing to my defence; I’ve never tried to hide either my identity or my role in this business. For 45+ years we’ve acted as the buffer between airlines and musicians. I can’t accept that “airlines are not our friends” (NL) – they are businesses and not a public service and have their other passengers (a majority) to accommodate as well. BA’s policy makes eminent sense if you work out the relationship between the number of passengers on a full flight and the space available in overhead lockers. They have to work out how many wheelie bags will fit into the available space of one of their aircraft. Oversize instrument cases can take the space of two – so on a full flight who should adjudicate? Their idea of setting a maximum size and a dispensation where possible seems to be the least worse option. Some carriers got brownie points a while back for posting improbable “instrument friendly” policies on their websites to try to gain business – which they were then unable to deliver, much to the chagrin of, for example, a cello group who had all their instruments refused on a regional Saab 340 in Scotland. Rules have to work with all aircraft types across a fleet. Orchestras want to pay the lowest group seat price even if they take up much of a plane but airline economics don’t work that way – seat price increases as planes fill. I can’t release the name of the US airline as we’re negotiating with them as we do constantly with most carriers. But BA are amongst the most constructive in trying to find ways to accommodate musicians and their instruments – whilst not inconveniencing other passengers. TKC alludes to another growing problem – which is the instant “computer says no” response from far too many poorly trained and inexperienced desk staff, many of whom are no longer directly employed by the carrier. That is where calm reasoning, firmly backed up with all the relevant printouts, becomes essential – as happened this weekend with TKC and also with the BSO and their hugely experienced (American) travel manager… Incidentally BA now have a new policy of putting a yellow cabin baggage tag on the second (under seat) piece at check in to show that both pieces conform. Instrumentalists should request this at that point – it stops an old system where some people tried to hide some of their carry-on behind a convenient pillar until they had their boarding card!

  • bratschegirl says:

    BA staff, despite prior agreement meticulously arranged between the airline and the tour agency, forced all violin and viola players, plus numerous others in a US youth orchestra with which I travelled this summer, to gate-check their instruments when boarding a connecting flight (on a large aircraft) at Heathrow. All the players, as instructed, were carrying on only (single) instrument cases plus small personal bags which fit under the seats. The flight left the gate with huge amounts of unused overhead bin space. Furthermore, in advance of the return journey, BA administrative staff were spectacularly unwilling to make the slightest gesture toward ensuring that this scenario was not repeated (thankfully, it was not). Miraculously, no instruments were damaged, but you may be certain that this orchestra will never book with BA again.

    It is a complete canard that instruments take up more than their share of overhead locker space. A violin or viola case will happily coexist with two rollaboard bags laid sideways in the bin, occupying exactly the same amount of space as three rollaboards laid in head-first. Why is it considered unthinkable to possibly separate some other passenger from their toothbrush and knickers, but business as usual to endanger precious, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable artistic creations that are also vital professional tools?