Smashed double-bass furore: airline responds

Karl Fenner, whose instrument was smashed just after he had won an audition at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, has received a tentative response from Southwest Airlines.

‘I received a private message on facebook saying ‘please call me, we really want to make this right with you,’’ he tells a Colorado interviewer, Peter Alexander. ‘I talked with [an airline representative] for about 10 minutes today. We haven’t gotten very far in the process yet, but she did admit that it is obvious that it is the airline’s fault, and nobody on their end is going to dispute that.’

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  • There has just got to be some way for them to accommodate people who fly with anything very fragile and over a certain monetary value. Pete’s sake, you can SHIP a bull fiddle in the mail and airlines can’t handle them?

  • Amazing that someone can get so careless to damage something like a double bass. I once sat down, innocently, on a piccolino recorder which was – for a moment – left on a chair and which was so small you could hardly notice it. But a double bass!!

    • Here is one story that will help illuminate how and why these instruments are altogether too often damaged or destroyed by airline baggage handlers and/or the TSA.

      Someone I know was once touring with a well-known orchestra. They were flying to their next destination.

      He watched from inside the airplane as a baggage handler reached above his head to pull his instrument (a contrabassoon in a coffin-like hard case) off of the top of the cart. He intentionally let it plummet over six feet down to the tarmac.

      The instrument was undamaged, glad to say, despite the intentional mis- and manhandling by the baggage handler. The musician was lucky as well as prepared.

      (I may have told this story already on SD. My apologies if I repeat myself.)

      Not all instruments are as durable or as well protected as this particular contrabassoon and case. Then again, the abovementioned article mentioned that the string bass case may have been driven over, and mention was made of another incident that may have involved the neck of the instrument case hitting a wall while in a cart. So, there are even more potentially devastating ways in which an instrument can damaged or destroyed.

  • I hope Mr. Fenner quickly reaches a satisfactory settlement with Southwest.

    To step back and look at this issue a little more dispassionately, no airline has any great incentive, apart from bad publicity, to treat any valuable like a musical instrument with much more care than any other piece of baggage. Their liability for damages to luggage is set by the Montreal Convention at a ridiculously low figure (less than $2000 per passenger), the ground crew have bigger concerns – like making sure the plane pushes back from the gate on time – and, to be frank, the price of your ticket isn’t high enough to guarantee any TLC.

    If you check a valuable item as baggage, you’ve surrendered control of it to someone you cannot depend on to treat it with the care that you would. Ultimately, you and not anyone else is responsible for how it’s handled. Frequently, that leaves you with a selection of bad choices. You can 1) take a private flight (absurd), 2) try to get it in the cabin (not possible with a bass), 3) paste a zillion “Fragile!” stickers on the case and hope for the best or 4) drive instead of fly, if it’s domestic. The last one is probably the safest for the valuable since you are in control of it at all times.

    My wife and I show dogs (Borzoi) that are too big to go into the cabin. The freight guidelines on flying animals are both bizarre and applied unreasonably and capriciously. Live animals get treated better than inanimate baggage but stories abound in the show community of people boarding a flight to Destination A while their dogs are accidentally loaded on a flight to Destination B. In 2006, baggage handlers at Kennedy dropped the travel crate of a Whippet that had just competed at Westminster. The dog escaped, vanished and was never seen again.

    Rather than run those risks, we drive them regardless of the distance. True, it’s more expensive, time consuming and tiresome, but at least they’re with us and under our control at all times. And you have to say this: you don’t have to exercise a double bass on the plains of western Kansas late at night in February.

    • Mr. Hlatky, while what you say is true, it still does not mean that the gorillas (mis)handling our luggage have free reign to destroy our belongings!
      It’s one thing to have a corner of the case cracked slightly, or a bumper torn off, but the total destruction of Mr. Fenner’s bass as it was is just completely beyond comprehension and reason!
      And it’s not an isolated incident, which is even more mind numbing!

      • I agree. Passengers have the right to expect their luggage will arrive at its destination and in good condition, bumps and tears on suitcases not withstanding. Part of the problem in the US is that at many airports the baggage handlers are contractors so dont give a damn that SouthWest or whoever’s good name is being maligned. There is no sense of pride in the company. A double bass in a proper travel case has to be extraordinarily and deliberately mishandled to arrive in the condition of this one. I hope the owner will continue to publicly fight this out – airlines have to be held to a higher standard and if public shaming is the only way to do it, so be it.

    • If cleaning up and paying for damage done by uncaring, sloppy, poorly trained baggage handling contractors starts to cost too much, maybe the airlines will realize that they’d better get that part of their business back in-house and under their control. Hitting them in the bottom line is the only thing they’ll pay attention to.

  • A few years ago, a country music guitarist watched through a plane window (don’t recall which airline – sorry) while baggage handlers laughingly took his guitar out of the case, played catch with it, tossed it around and smashed it against the ground before putting it baack in the case and in the hold. Even though he had taken pictures, the airline refused to reimburse him, so he wrote a catchy ballad about the incident and posted it to YouTube. After several thousand “hits”, the airline suddenly became very cooperative. Yes, the use of employees rather than contract workers would provide the proper level of responsibility.

    • United Airlines. But he didn’t see anyone tossing guitars. He said that he heard a fellow passenger say that baggage handlers were playing guitar catch. And he waited more than a day to report the damage, which was a cracked neck that is common in that type of guitar construction. And the thing wasn’t in a fight case. Instead it flew in the type of stand case that sometimes leads to broken necks even in ground transport. But his cute video did work.

  • I’ve said it before – surely many of these occurences are deliberate breakages, and are being performed as a ‘class protest’ against what classical music (and all professional music, in fact) represents to these often poorly-paid baggage handlers. They see ‘classical’ instruments as symbols of a snobbish, exclusive and uncaring part of society. Minimum wage handlers know that they can often get away with these deliberate ‘accidents’, because there are so many of them. We need to accept this problem.

    There always has been, and always will be this terrible problem of the perception of classical music as being elitist, and the ‘property’ of only the wealthiest members of society, and many lower paid parts of our society are brought up to despise the notion of it with a vehemence that it is difficult for us to comprehend in the comfort of our cosy listening armchairs. It’s not an airport issue alone, it’s a societal problem, and the media perpetuates this perception of classical music as elitist.

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