Curtis on Tour is stalled by airline refusal to take cello

Students from the Curtis Institute were boarding a plane at Philadelphia this weekend at the start of a tour of Spain when a Lufthansa official refused to take a cello on board.

The cellist, Zach, had to take another plane – American Airlines, no problem with cello – but he could only get a flight to London and spent many hours trying to connect up with the others in Valencia.

The first Curtis on Tour performance is May 18 in Alicante.

Curtis have confirmed that ‘there were indeed difficulties with a cello’ and are looking into the incident.

Lufthansa have offered no excuses, yet.

lufthansa orchestra

UPDATE: We have some more details.

Apparently, at Philadelphia airport, Lufthansa staff gave a variety of reasons why the cello ticket could not be issued to the group. First that a boarding pass could not be printed in their system, then that the ticket was not paid for.

Despite a confirmation from Curtis’s travel agent that the ticket was paid for and a ticket number, Lufthansa was unable to resolve the problem within 2 hours, and the flight departed without the cello or cellist on board. The flight was booked through a an experienced classical-music travel agent who has booked many cello tickets down the years. She has never seen anything like this before.

Lufthansa owe Curtis an apology.

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  • Maybe they should take the Boston Symphony orchestra approach – we all fly or no-one flies. That solved the problem PDQ.

  • How can a travelling orchestra with all those people and all those instruments not have their arrangements nailed down on triplicate? This is not a breathless violinist on her first solo invitation to somewhere, or an experienced one using a new airline after years of trouble-free travel from many others. This is an epic, with all sorts of complications: countries that have restrictions on the woods you can bring in on your instruments, the makeup of bows (some older ones have pieces of ivory on them). Massive visa issues, depending upon the nationality of the various travellers. You get it in writing form someone at the airline and wave it in the face of every officious staff obstructionist who has not been trained in policy.

    As for Lufthansa: if they have acceptable policy (I forget who are the new good guys — I had not thought they — or American Airlines — were among them) and, as everywhere, it has not penetrated the masses yet, they should 1) get on with it and 2) be aware that they are hiring people who are IDIOTS, who do not have the common sense to know something about the instruments of an orchestra. Bit IDIOTS come cheaper than people who can logic their way form Point A to Point B, I suppose. It is RIDICULOUS.

    Not much joy in appealing to the diplomats if their destination was Valencia. What were they doing travelling Lufthansa to Spain anyway? Iberian not do Transatlantic? No American airlines available with better connections than the cellist’s last-minute arrangement? (Probably, but none who would take instruments…).

    • “What were they doing travelling Lufthansa to Spain anyway?”

      I suspect that this had financial and organizational reasons (i.e. the Berlin Phil on their recent tour to Taiwan flying with Air France from Berlin to Taipei).

    • Yes, you “get it in writing and wave it in the face of every officious staff obstructionist who has not been trained in policy,” but unless the person who signed that piece of paper outranks the officious obstructionist *and* can be brought to the airport in time for your flight, any prior agreement can be, and often is, ignored with impunity. You may or may not get an apology later on, which does no good if missing the flight means you miss the engagement.

    • I agree entirely with V. Lind. When you tour an orchestra – any orchestra – all the logistical issues have to be nailed down well in advance and every single detail of the tour checked, double-checked – and then checked a third time for good measure. Notwithstanding, emergency situations will probably arise, but instruments and air transport have been red-flagged almost everywhere for quite some considerable time. Whatever Lufthansa may or may not have done, it seems very clear that Curtis did not organise the tour as efficiently as it should have done.

      • Absolutely. And all the checking and double checking and triple checking can, and does, come to nothing, because the whims of one cabin crew member reign supreme in the moment. It doesn’t matter what someone in the airline’s corporate offices has agreed to in writing if they are not on site to enforce it. No amount of organising or multiple checking can protect against this.

        • “…if they are not on site to enforce it.”
          Unfortunately even that wouldn’t be a guarantee. The pilot in command has final say. So if a crew member were to (erroneously) deem a cello in the cabin to be in violation of rules and the captain agreed, the director general of the airline him-/herself could help you carry it back off the plane.

    • This was not an orchestra but a small chamber ensemble (around 5 or 6) with, I believe, one cello. Why were they flying Lufthansa? Because the final concerts are in Germany, for one reason, and the complicated connections within Europe are easier on a European airline and its subsidiaries (just guessing). Did they have boarding passes for the cellist AND the cello printed in advance through on-line check-in? I don’t know the answer.

      The fact is that this continues to be a crap-shoot. Orchestras often ship their cellos in their cases placed in heavily protected shipping crates as freight, usually without complication. Believe it or not, traveling with a large orchestra can often be more simple than travel with a small group.

      • You cannot usually print boarding passes for cellos in advance for international travel, since you have to enter passport information (and often that has to be checked at the airport by an agent), in order to get issued an international boarding pass.
        In my experience Lufthansa (while generally a very dependable airline) has terrible customer service when things go wrong. I doubt that Lufthansa will apologize, or do anything more than what is legally required of them. And even for that they might have to file a lawsuit.

  • Regardless of any arrangements ahead of time (and I’ll bet they weren’t in writing) the crew has the final say, unfortunately. I do like the Boston Symphony approach, though.

  • Berlin Phil horn player Sarah Willis features the Lufthansa Orchestra (depicted in the SD opener) in her latest episode of Sarah’s Music, containing a brief interview with a cellist flight attendant, who, fittingly enough, said she has thus far not traveled with her cello as it is too difficult and she agreed on it being quite expensive too.

  • One airline has recently clarified their policy regarding instruments onboard. Perhaps others will follow. Obviously professional musicians don’t have an option to leave their instruments at home. It’s always been expensive. I’ve always hated enduring the annoyed looks of passengers who seem to think that I’m using up an otherwise available seat for their handbag or child on a packed plane while I struggle with seatbelts, etc. They rarely imagine that I’ve actually paid for the seat! I discovered this after many conversations with the passengers seated next to me who are astonished when they find out, “You mean you had to PAY for TWO seats?!” Well, yes. Then, “What do you do for a living?”


      • Yes, Bruce, it usually does!

        It’s nice to hear the details of this trip from Robert Fitzpatrick. I wondered how one cellist could be left behind out of an orchestra!

        The reality of traveling with a cello (and traveling with a cellist!) remains.

      • Maybe you could tape a visible note on your cello case stating, “I’m a paid passenger!”. 🙂

  • I am sad that I had the same experience of being refused to board with my cello on British Airways today. I used an online agent to make the booking of the cello seat (mistake!) and told them it was for a cello. I also phoned BA directly to confirm all was ok with the cello booking one month in advance and they confirmed all was fine (I trusted their telephone customer service – mistake!). At check-in they refused entry because the cello had no ESTA visa number and they quoted me 4,500 CHF to rebook. I appreciate it’s an admin change for them but was sad they couldn’t help me at the desk. The agent couldn’t help either. I will try again tomorrow on a United Airlines flight that cost me 2,500 CHF. Expensive lesson and stressful day.

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