Cellist faces air rage for bringing ‘such ridiculous luggage on board’

Cellist faces air rage for bringing ‘such ridiculous luggage on board’


norman lebrecht

July 26, 2019

The Anglo-Danish cellist Jacob Shaw, a frequent flier with his instrument, just got in trouble again with the airline desk-rats.

Oh, Canada…. you can do better. As for United, just take another plane.

Here’s Jacob:

I’ve had some bad ticket errors with the cello over the years, and then there was today…..

It does not seem to matter how much The Strad or Norman Lebrecht and others use their time and energy to bring problems of traveling with musical instruments to public attention – the airlines don’t change a thing. We play by their rules and they still don’t get it or treat us with respect: What on earth can we do to change this nonsensical unnecessary stress when flying with a cello?!

Air Canada almost did not let me board in Copenhagen Airport (CPH) as they could’t work out how to check in a CBBG cello extra seat – and once they had sorted that out, refused to honour the seats that I had paid for in March with extra room to ease the first 8 hours leg of a 26 hour journey…
But that was only a small hiccup: A ridiculous situation apon landing in Canada with United caused me to almost miss my connecting flight from Toronto to Houston.

A full out argument between United and Air Canada service desks took place, as to who received the money from my cello ticket right in front of me..!! Even though they had my receipts there from MARCH (!!), I had a boarding pass for both seats and had already checked in, I was refused boarding until they sorted out between themselves whether it should be the code-share or the airline running the flight that got my money. What on earth does that have to do with me?!

Something that an airport manager, after an hours public bickering with me looking on, eventually stepped in to admit was unprofessional on their part as this had nothing to do with me: But it was too late, they had already cancelled my booking and now had to re-book it!!
And this meant an even more ridiculous situation: I was obliged to exit and re-enter security control and be searched again: “We apologise with our error in judgement on this occasion but your cello ticket was cancelled and you have to go around again”….

And the problems continued on the third leg in Houston, as I was for a third time denied boarding by an over officious gate agent that “had never heard of having a comfort seat for a piece of baggage”. Even though I had 2 boarding passes, 2 allocated seats, all absolutely booked and checked in to the airlines own regulations. On calling his supervisor, I was finally allowed to board as the last person on the plane – only to be abused verbally and publicly by the cabin staff about holding up the whole plane by bringing “such a ridiculous luggage on board”. To be followed up whilst putting the cello into the seat – “why haven’t you even brought your own extension belt for your bulky luggage? It’s your choice to travel with it so you should come prepared”…..

And of course the cherry on the cake, after managing through some superpower watching over me to finally make it to Mexico for the Festival Internacional de Violoncello León, my checked in baggage has not arrived. And it is no-where in the system. And I am sure of the reason – because my ticket was cancelled in Toronto and my baggage offloaded.

Air Canada, United, I am a frequent flyer and gold member on Star Alliance – you seem to forget I don’t bring my cello on for free. I don’t bring it on to make your life a difficulty. 
I travel with my cello for work and because I have to. I pay a lot of money to have an extra seat on all flights – that means a full ticket price for you (even though it doesn’t eat, doesn’t make noise, doesn’t bring baggage, and isn’t even allowed to collect air miles – though if I upgrade you insist I have to pay double to upgrade a cello as well).

Why do we cellists have to be treated like this? Why is it a constant fight? I just have no idea what else one is meant to do with a cello: Do we just have to accept this treatment for ever?

United and Air Canada, you’ve got some explaining to do after today and I am looking forward to hearing it.



  • Canadian cellist says:

    If he is paying full price for an extra seat on Air Canada, he is paying more than he should. Air Canada offers 50% discount for the extra seat used to carry a musical instrument. As a cellist, I have booked the extra seat with the discount numerous times without issues. Only catch is that one must call the reservations line!

    • Jacob Shaw says:

      unfortunately the whole journey was through United and only the first legs on AC…. So it is the whole ticket price minus taxes.
      Booking is never a problem: it is always on the day where the problems occur with ground staff!

  • Appalling and ridiculous! Full marks for drawing attention to this and the booby prize for all the culprits. So sorry, Jacob Shaw, that you have had to put up with all of this.

  • Ben G. says:

    Just be glad that you don’t play bass.

    • Gordon says:

      Now that you mention it, what *are* the current options for flying with a double bass? Traditional bass coffin in the cargo hold and roll the dice, or is there anything else we can do when traveling with a bass?

  • David McKellar says:

    Outrageous!! You have my complete sympathy. I don’t know how you do it—-dealing with these cromagnons. Bravo!

  • Jacob Shaw says:

    Dear Norman,
    Many thanks once again for drawing attention to this.
    Is there any way to help me reach out to United? They won’t answer my emails or my reaching out on social media….
    This has to stop: I am not the only one with such ridiculous experiences this summer!
    Thanks so much!

    • M says:

      Have you seen the youtube video United breaks guitars? 🙂 They responded to that guy!!

    • Thadius says:

      Perhaps you are coming off as arrogant and then they immediately decide to dislike you? That and the word forever isn’t ‘for ever’, it’s forever which would make those at United lol. Finally, no musician I know would buy a ticket with United, I haven’t flown them since forever.

      • Jacob Shaw says:

        Hi Thadius,
        The first two plane problems were because of them being unable to use their computers correctly.
        The third issue arose before my mouth had even opened.
        My behaviour or likeability being correct or not correct was never an issue on this trip: However I can assure you with many flights a year, a smile and warm behaviour towards airline staff has always helped me,
        Not this time….!

    • Northcoastcat says:

      I suggest contacting Elliott Advocacy through its website.

    • Julianna says:

      Airing my disputes on Twitter has gotten me attention and $1000 gift certificate from United. Be sure to tag United in your post. Unless you don’t want to go that route. Bad PR is always a good way to get their attention.

  • Susie says:

    Oh Mr. Shaw, I so sorry for this terrible and completely avoidable situation you were put in. I am a flight attendant and have a son who is a cellist. I have tried to explain to the higher ups, we need to train our employees (agents, ground staff, pilots and flight attendants) about the fragility and exorbitant value of precious stringed instruments in particular. For cellos, all it takes us a seatbelt extension and voila, the instrument is safe and secure. Musicians should board first do ground staff can get the cello secured without having to swim upstream as passengers push to board. People who berated you are idiots with no knowledge of fragile instruments whatsoever. They compare everything to an electric guitar. It’s not that guitars and other instruments (woodwinds, brass, etc.) are not valuable but the string instruments are in a league of their own when it comes to value and fragility. I’m sorry you were treated so abominably. Musicians do so much in bringing beauty to this not so beautiful world and airlines must do better.

  • Peter says:

    Just when you thought they couldn’t get any worse, the airlines found a way.

  • Bill says:

    I wonder if the next time you get a cooperative gate agent who seems to know the rules you might be able to get them to tell you exactly what categories or codes you can tell the uninformed to consult when a dispute arises over what is allowed?

    • Jacob Shaw says:

      Hi Bill,
      I did that but it didn’t seem to help… the problem is codeshare airlines all have different rules/ways of doing thjngs and they try to implement their own techniques whilst registering for another company. (This time AC / United). It would be fantastic if all the airlines on the same “alliance” settled it between them so they all had the same computer systems!

  • Appalling. I am so sorry this happened to you, and keeps happening to so many of us cellists. It’s an outrage.

  • Northcoastcat says:

    I suggest contacting Elliott Advocacy. This is just the kind of thing they deal with.

    Elliott Advocacy is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t.

  • Steve Retallick says:

    Maybe a different airline? I’ve only ever had good experiences with Cathay..

  • Graeme Gee says:

    Local Sydney newspaper’s travel section carried some complains about Air Canada from travellers more used to Qantas & Singapore, I guess. They were appalled at the general rudeness of the staff and weren’t even carrying celli! It seemed the airline was notorious for it’s attitude. The unofficial motto is understood to be “Air Canada. We’re not happy unless you’re not happy.”

  • Nancy England says:

    I had a similar situation with my Rollator (I’m handicapped and need the thing to get around). All was fine on American Airlines in the States…they stuck it on board, in the cabinet the flight attendants use for their luggage. But Delta, going over to Europe, decided it was luggage. I was seated and heard luggage being thrown into the hold, including a rather recognizable clunk/crunch.
    Sure enough, after landing at Heathrow, there was my Rollator, minus half a leg and a wheel. Naturally it took a huge amount of time to get written description, but it seems that American and Delta never could decide whose fault it was – which company the baggage handlers worked for. I NEVER got compensated (over $100).
    I’m doing a similar trip in a couple of weeks and I’m wondering what I could do to prevent a repeat performance.

  • Julianna says:

    United Airlines FA staff has been abusive to me more than once even as a regular customer flying even in first class. Thank you for standing up and also I’m sorry for your terrible ordeal.