British Airways penalises a violist

British Airways penalises a violist


norman lebrecht

August 17, 2017

It seems the viola falls, as ever, into the ill-defined zone between the violin (welcomed aboard) and the cello (buy an extra seat). From Rachel Roberts:



Support the arts, don’t fly with British Airways!

Had to pay 270.70 euros for a seat ticket for my viola in Dublin yesterday whilst traveling back from Kilkenny festival. My viola ‘needs to go in the hold’.

Sorry for this long post – it highlights incongruence within BA cabin baggage policy.

At the check-in desk the stewardess asks for viola to go in the baggage measurements basket- the dimensions of it are :
Height 56cm
Width 45cm
Depth 25cm.
The dimensions of my viola case are:
Height: 85cm
Max Width: 29cm
Depth: 16cm

Obviously it doesn’t fit ‘height-wise’ by 29cm although it’s way under the other measurements.

The time is 18.20 (flight departure 19.50) and I’m given 3 choices:
a) put the viola in the hold,
b) buy a seat ticket for the viola,
c) buy a different flight with a different airline with different cabin baggage restrictions.

Andrew Logan of LoganArts Management kindly spent more than 20 minutes talking the BA line manager on the phone, trying to negotiate a possibility for my viola to come into the cabin with me, but to no avail. (Incidentally, at the adjacent check-in desk an elderly woman was becoming increasingly distressed with the BA check-in steward and after 5-10 minutes she was escorted away by three airport police, sobbing and saying she didn’t understand. Both stewards at my check-in desk and two more at the next desk were laughing and commenting under their breath about the overt distress of this woman.)

The BA senior staff member insists (in her phone conversation and to me) that it isn’t her individual choice not to allow my viola into the cabin and that she is simply upholding baggage rules that have been applicable for years. She asks me to prove that this rule hasn’t been in place for years and prints out and proudly brandishes the Internet page with the baggage size restrictions.

But on 26/6/17 I flew with BA from Cologne/Bonn to Berlin on 26/6/17, flight no. AB6506, and I took my viola with me into the cabin.

On 26/6/17 I flew BA from Berlin to Gothenburg flight no. AB8066, and I took my viola with me into the cabin.

On 3/7/17 I flew with BA from Gothenburg to London, flight no. BA0791 and I took the viola with me into the cabin.

I ask the BA member of staff if she would like her photo taken next to the baggage restrictions but she declines.

After all the discussion I buy a separate seat ticket for the viola which costs €270.70 as I need to be back for work in the morning. The queue for the extra ticket means the time is now 19.05 and I’m aware that boarding closes at 19.30. I go straight to security where there is a big queue.

Separate issue now: When I get to the front the security officer asks her colleagues ‘Will that thing break when it goes through the machine?’ I say ‘what?!’ ..she replies ‘sometimes the musical instruments break when they go through the machine.’ (That’s not true, is it?) I suggest that she doesn’t put it through the X-ray machine if she is concerned.

They ask me to pass the viola through the walk-through scanner and I hand it to the security officer on the other side. It beeps and he immediately whisks it away and starts to open the case and take out the viola. This viola is very valuable to me! When I get through the scanner I ask him twice if I can please do that but he ignores me. His colleague comes over and says that I CAN do it, and she also lets me hold the viola whilst she swabs it.

Back to BA: I’m through security, it’s 19.25 and the gate closes at 19.30. I run to the gate and get there just in time before it closes. I get my ticket and passport scanned (the steward doesn’t even notice that I’m carrying a musical instrument), and I head straight for the flight. As I’m about to get on the flight I realise that I’ve forgotten to get the €270.70 viola seat ticket scanned so I go back to the gate and get that ticket scanned by the steward who is now looking a bit confused.

By the time I get on the plane I am one of the last to board, but yes you guessed it – there is plenty of space in the overhead lockers. As you can see from the photos the viola fits fine into the locker and no-one complains or even mentions anything about it being there. I travel back with the viola in the locker. I also take a photo of someone else’s oversized bag that was in an overhead locker (looks like golf clubs)- I speak to the owner of that luggage and he doesn’t have to pay any extra money for it.

I also speak with the stewardess who is also Customer Services Manager for the flight; she confirms that there were 6 seats free in economy and 4 seats free in club class. (That means there are 10 allocations of cabin luggage not being used altogether.) She says that BA asks you to buy a ticket in case the flight fills up, but she also says she can’t understand why, with the timing being so close to take-off and 6 seats being free, I am forced to pay for an extra seat.

From this experience I’ve reached the following conclusions:

1. Airports and airlines (particularly British Airways and Dublin airport it seems) still have work to do in training their staff in routine procedures – and employees get away with aggressive / passive-aggressive, inflammatory behaviour.

2. There is such ‘flexibility’ within BA musical instrument cabin baggage rules that it still seems down to the discretion of individual line managers or cabin stewards whether or not musical instruments are allowed into the cabin on a flight. There is no formal policy or procedure that can be relied upon.

3. Musicians are discriminated against by British Airways and other airlines. Other customers have oversized luggage but don’t have to pay. BA is just the latest in my experience. United Airlines was another terrible experience.

4. This was a massive waste of a PR opportunity for BA to be seen as an airline that actually supports the arts. It’s hard enough for musicians and other arts professionals to survive in an increasingly harsh business and travel ‘climate’ without being discriminated against.

5. It’s humiliating to be asked by uniformed staff to put your musical instrument into a baggage gauge that anyone can see from 20 metres away it’s not going to fit into, just so that the staff member can say ‘oh look it doesn’t fit- you have to buy another ticket’

6. Support the arts. Do not fly BA.


  • Kathryn says:

    I fly BA frequently with my viola – sometimes its stress free, sometimes it’s really stressful, depending on the check in staff. Apparently it’s at the discretion of the captain – which you won’t find out about until you get to the gate. I have found that travelling with a shaped case is far easier than a rectangular case. When I do travel with it, it’s my only piece of hand baggage. I frequently see guitars being carried as cabin baggage and they are larger still

  • Ariel Dragge says:

    There is much sympathy to be had with the violist here, but in my opinion the argument is not valid that (paraphrased) “one dimension didn’t fit in the measurement basket but the others were under the specification” . Using that argument –everything is OK if the sum of the dimensions is less than 126 cm–you should be able to take on board an object that has the dimensions 120 cm x 3 cm x 3 cm, which is unlikely to be allowed.

    Nevertheless, it is quite clear that the airline C-suite executives are interested primarily in their bonuses, which means maximizing profits and the stock price by trimming costs to the bone, and that includes training staff for events like the above.

    Regarding “discrimination”, in today’s environment, I suspect you have no chance of getting traction with that unless “identity politics” or “intersectionality” or “oppressed minorities” are involved.

    • Bruce says:

      I’d say there’s something wrong with the dimensional requirements if the viola case doesn’t fit in the “must fit here” box but does fit into the actual overhead compartment. (Author says “as the photos show” but I don’t see a photo of the viola in the overhead bin.)

      • Scotty says:

        The must-fit boxes that all airlines use do not test whether items will fit in the overhead; a single type of box is used for an airline’s entire fleet, which will contain a variety of overheads. The boxes just represent an airline’s maximum carry on size.

        • Bruce says:

          Still something wrong with the way they measure, though, since the viola apparently did fit into the overhead compartment… oh, I think I see what you mean. The airline’s stance is “We don’t care if it will fit in the overhead compartment; if it won’t fit in this box, we’re not letting it on the plane.”

          Which still leaves the question of why the other passenger’s golf clubs were allowed with no extra charge…

          • Scotty says:

            That’s right, it’s a follow-the-rules tester, not a will-it-fit tester. Although I don’t know about those golf clubs, I do know that most airlines relax their rules for people who have reached a high frequent flier status.

  • Sandra Bamber says:

    Like so many situations in todays crazy world we decent, honest, British travellers are often treated with contempt by airlines! it’s time to take a stand but how I dont know, if anyone comes up with a solution I’m with you.

  • symphony musician says:

    Complain to BA. After the IT fiasco in May they won’t want to look bad in public, and with your detailed story and photographic evidence they are made to look ridiculous. You might get a refund for the extra ticket. Good luck!

  • Una says:

    Sorry far too long to read, but sounds all very unreasonable and would have expected better fro BA rather than Bugger All.

    Hope you get the money back.

  • Una says:

    And also expected better from the Irish too!

  • Frank Spencer says:

    I’m all for putting more violas in the hold…..

  • Jonathan May says:

    I may be viewing this too simply but the maximum stated volume of a suitcase to BAs limits is 63000 cubic cms and the viola case is 39440 cubic cms. Go figure !

    • Michael says:

      I’m just a simple soul and that’s how I looked at it. If BA don’t mean volume they should say so clearly.
      Having said, that the Skyskanner website, presumably having carefully established BA’s intentions, says you can bring additional items like guitars as part of your hand luggage if they fit the size restrictions. Size restrictions, undefined, must mean volume as I’m sure I’ve never seen many guitars less than 56 cm long.
      The website also says BA will try to accommodate larger instruments measuring 190cm x 75cm x 65cm if you give 24 hours notice before departure.
      BA should clarify what they mean on their own website if they want to escape the kind of critiscism and negative comments meted out in this discussion, but I suspect they don’t care.

  • Martha Aldrich Mitchell says:

    British Airways, please tell us this isn’t so. I am not a frequent flier, but I have bragged for years about your kind, delightful service (though the food has deteriated a Lot since my first flight from Boston to London. My mother was born 5 miles from Stonehenge and I have marvelous cousins still there. I adore music, classical and know the value of instruments! Not sure I have another trip in me, now in my late eighties, but BA has figured along with my fantastic memories of!England and Scotland!

  • ….. Ryan Air and Easy Jet are terrible with musical instruments. Certainly flights from City Airport didn’t bat an eyelid last year when a friend took her viola to Sicily a couple of years ago.

  • EszterK says:

    I have cellist friends who had problems with British Airlines not wanting to let the cello into the cabin even though they had purchased a seat for it…
    Me and my husband stopped flying with them a long time ago and take Lufthansa instead every time we can.

  • Laurie says:

    Flying BA used to be a pleasure. Not now. Not for a long time. I consider them to be the worst of the “foreign” airlines flying in and out of the US. Such a shame. Of course the American carriers deserve all of the negative press they receive. From my experience SAS is superb. I have no idea how they treat musicians. Can someone enlighten me?

  • bratschegirl says:

    A US youth orchestra I’m connected with flew BA on a tour some years back. Despite meticulous arrangements agreed to beforehand, including voluminous correspondence as to the exact measurements and weights of every instrument that BA agreed in advance could be brought into the cabin, which included all violins and violas as well as woodwinds and small brass, gate staff confiscated and checked all the violins and violas on an outbound leg from Heathrow. Miraculously, nothing was damaged. BA also refused to provide written confirmation of their advance agreement for violins and violas to be cabin baggage for the return flights, but thankfully the group encountered no oppositional staff and all went as it should have. Never again.

  • Sándor szilveszter says:

    Recomandation: Don’t fly with BA! 🙂

    • Scotty says:

      The problem is that one musician or another has tagged virtually all of the airlines as a don’t fly with. Some are impossible, but at least predictably so. Most, such as BA, are hit and miss.

  • Patricia says:

    I had almost exactly this problem flying to my Dad’s funeral in Spain – I wanted to take his viola to play, but BA would not guarantee it a place in the cabin unless I bought a seat for it. So instead I had to borrow one when I got there, which rather defeated the object. Ryanair, on the other hand, charge £50 per leg of the journey to take an instrument in the cabin – don’t know about cellos, though. The whole thing must be a nightmare for professional orchestras travelling to gigs overseas.

  • Chris Clift says:

    So sorry to read of Rachel’s problem. No consolation I know but only a week or two ago I read Steven Isserlis’s tale of trying to get his cello on board, in the cabin, and he had already purchased a seat for it, as many cellists tend to do these days. He ended up having to re-book with a different airline just so he could reach his performance destination.

    I do hope this publicity for BA’s inconsistency (for that is what these stories flag up) over musical instruments encourages the company to refund your extra ticket costs.

    Kind regards Chris Clift – remember Karen O’Connor? She was my wife.

  • William says:

    You accepted the terms and conditions. Its aviation with strict rules. It is a plane not a bus. It is not discrimiation as when I take my boards I also need to follow the rules. Stom moaning.