United Airlines resumes its wicked ways

United Airlines resumes its wicked ways


norman lebrecht

August 13, 2021

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony violinist Rachelle Hunt has informed us that United, always the least friendly airline, tried to bump her violin off a flight.

I had a terrible experience on my flight a few days ago from Knoxville to Washington Dulles. A short summary: the flight attendant insisted that I could not bring my violin on board. I showed her the federal law that stated that violins and other small instruments are allowed to be carried on as long as there is room, and she insisted that United does not have to follow federal law, they follow United’s baggage policies. After an extended argument, I was able luckily to talk over her to a sympathetic pilot who intervened and she allowed me to board with it “as an exception”.  I have her saying that United doesn’t have to follow federal law on video.

I did not miss my flight, although it was slightly delayed due to the argument, but every time this happens and United does not react, it increases the chances that another musician might suffer worse consequences, or that they might treat another musician worse.  I am even a premium passenger, and I was yelled at and denied my rights. I was shaking the entire flight because not only was I yelled at, but also the thought that I might have to check my instrument or miss my flight is extremely upsetting, since I was following all the rules!

Watch video of the incident here.


  • drummerman says:

    She needs to send this video with a detailed letter describing that happened to the appropriate department at United, then follow up with phone, email, etc.
    I would also contact my congressman/woman to confirm that United does, indeed, have to follow laws, and get that information to United.

    • Pete says:

      This is a law that allows the carriage of smaller instruments onboard airplanes. This does not restrict an airline from enacting more stringent rules.

    • Chip Muir says:

      Nothing will happen. The union will back the FA regardless. And United won’t want to stir the hornets nest.

  • Monsoon says:

    I think it’s hard to blame the flight attendant. The law is pretty wishy washy — it says that if there is space in the overhead at the time when the individual boards, then they are allowed to bring the instrument on board even if it’s larger than what is normally allowed for carry-on luggage. So the plane crew just has to say there’s no room in the overhead anymore to keep an instrument off the plane. And obviously flight attendants are on the lookout for people breaking the carry-on size limit rule — if a musician and their instrument wasn’t involved, we’d all be congratulating the flight attendant for being so vigilant.

    • Anna says:

      Just to give more information, she was the first to board the flight. There was plenty of room.

      • Sandra Schur says:

        Dear Anna…I used to be a United Airline frequent flyer…however, after many incidents such as The violinist encountered,in additions to my OWN unpleasant experiences with United…,which are many to describe,I try very hard to AVOID flying United.
        I am an old lady..and I travel extensively,and have flying for over 70 years.

  • B. Fox says:

    Very lucky, they could have beaten you up and dragged you off of the flight.

  • Hunter Biden's Laptop says:

    Huh… it’s fascinating how quickly musicians become disenchanted with authoritarianism when it’s directed at them. Maybe this flight attendant was just making a discretionary decision for the safety of all on board.

    • Damien says:

      Safety from a violin are you crazy… so interesting that you have such a strong opinion on this, seems like maybe you should keep it to yourself once in awhile.when I see children all the time bringing skateboards on planes do you have anything to complain about that. And airlines are federally regulated shows how much you know.

      • Brettermeier says:

        “Safety from a violin are you crazy…”

        A friend once told me that his barber heard of someone who got stabbed by a violin. So who’s crazy now!? 😀

    • Paul Sale says:

      Hey, so why are you hiding under Rudy’s bed?

  • Nurit Bar-Josef says:

    Yup! I am with you Rachelle. I had a flight from Steamboat Springs, CO into Denver where the flight attendant told me I couldn’t be taking up more than half the length of the overhead compartment (small airplane, but still PLENTY of room for an instrument. Too many people are shoving giant suitcases up there and apparently they are more important than my priceless instrument). This wasn’t my first ordeal with United either. Good for you for speaking out. I’m tired of it all, as I purchased priority seating for that very reason as well! I am glad you and your violin made it safely.

    • Rachelle says:

      Thanks, Nurit! I can’t believe this keeps on happening. I posted about this publicly on Facebook because the more awareness the better. Maybe it will save someone in the future from a similar or worse situation. So many people don’t know the rule, which is very clearly stated if you read the law. Usually when this happens the attendants or gate agents relent after I show them the law, or I don’t have proof of what happened. Since someone filmed it, I can prove that the employee was wrong! I just want United to train their staff properly and issue an apology!

      • norman lebrecht says:

        Rachelle, Just over 38,000 people have read your post so far on Slippedisc.com. That may help spread awareness. And hi, Nurit! N

      • Farmer Joe says:

        Your flight attendant seemed to think that she wasn’t beholden to federal law (which is an absurd thing for them to say), but if you pull up the carry-on bag policy on United’s own website, there’s a special section specifically about musical instruments which reiterates the federal law, and specifically mentions violins as an example.

        The flight attendant was obviously poorly trained, but I’m sure you can understand them needing to stick to their guns despite their ignorance… so I’d just pull up the United website for them and shove that in their face.

  • Variant says:

    United sucks as do most airlines. They think they rule everything they are uptight air wardens

  • Joe Blow says:

    United is a POS airlines that just wants your money.

  • BigSir says:

    These people are idiots and seem to rejoice in screwing people.

  • Alviano says:

    Nothing pleases a United employee more than to deny a passenger something. Avoid them, with or without a violin in hand.

  • V. Lind says:

    To any American familiar with the law out there: is there any truth whatsoever to a staff contention that their company does not have to follow American law, only its own policies? I find that hard to believe.

    But I am aware that private clubs can operate to their own rules, whatever the law: they need not admit members of minority races or both sexes. (Augusta National, where the Masters golf tournament is held, had a famous protest mounted by women a few years back, and there are still courses in America where Tiger Woods may not play).

    Are some businesses also exempt? If so, travelling musicians need to know. Otherwise, I think it’s time they got litigious to bring some of these tyrants to heel.

    • Chris B says:

      Airlines are bound by Federal Law when operating in the United States or as an American registry carrier, they are always bound by Federal Laws. The FAA which is a Federal Agency oversees and establishes operating principles for any American registry carrier as well as Private aircraft.
      Flight attendants unless they are also Lawyers have little comprehension of the rule of carriage, let alone making asinine, un-informed comments such as this. The Captain of the aircraft has final authority on what happens onboard if there is any question about safety, policy adoption or even deflection. I know this. Circumventing or being seen to usurp a colleagues authority or stance can be deleterious at times and though when stubborn or ignorant thinking is counter to common sense, then one has to step in and resolve the matter. If people would employ the Golden Rule many such trite incidents would not escalate into conflict management exercises.
      This why there are more and more onboard incidents and one wishes a sense of decency, respect would prevail over “if you don’t do what I tell you, I will call the Police!”
      Really pathetic.

    • JJC says:

      Excuse me, but your example is not only off-point, it is wrong. Tiger Woods can and does (or used to) play anywhere he wants to. I, however, white middle class American, will never have the opportunity to play at those fine clubs who are honored to host Tiger. That is fine, they are private and I understand what that is all about and understand their right to be exclusive and support it. But Tiger Woods has all doors open to him. He has an extensive practice facility at his home in Florida. If you showed up at his door and demanded to use it, would you be allowed to? Just asking…

      • V. Lind says:

        He MAY be allowed to play anywhere, but he is not allowed to be a member everywhere. And the statement regarding his not being able to play in certain places came from the man himself.

  • John says:

    What the crap was the flight attendant thinking???
    Ive had good help with the attendants with concern enough to be able to put it into their “closet” on my flights.

  • Malcolm James says:

    ‘We don’t follow federal law. We follow our baggage policies’ WOW. Would anyone else like to try this line if they get stopped by cops?

    • Sisko24 says:

      There are folks who call themselves ‘sovereign citizens’ who say that line to police officers when they’re pulled over for speeding, or DWI or something. It almost never goes well for those ‘sovereign citizens’.

  • Jay Moseley says:

    As unfortunate as this may be, that’s not what the regulations state. Violins are allowed – in the sense that they are not banned – but ultimately, it is up to the airline on whether or not the item is allowed on the plane as a carry-on.


    • Lance says:

      Correct. Although the flight attendant was unartful in her choice of words, she is correct about airlines being able to create their own policies within the bounds of federal law.

  • AO says:

    United is the one of the worst airline carriers in America. I try to avoid it like a plague. Try Southwest airline (if available) next time.

  • Guest says:

    This article is probably referring to a regional subsidiary who aren’t required or in fact allowed to bring carry on luggage in the cabin (as distinct from a personal item). It’s actually an FAA requirement. They don’t enjoy enforcing the requirement, but it is a requirement.

  • Heath says:

    There is a difference between Federal Law allows for or does not prohibit violins and small instruments as carry-ons versus requiring that airlines accept them as carry-ons. I understand the frustration, but airlines are private businesses that have right to be more strict in their policies, just not more lenient than Federal Law.

  • Billy Clark says:

    Just stop using them. They really don’t want your money. They only want packages that don’t cause problems.

  • EF says:

    United has a new codeshare partner, commutair, that is only letting you bring a personal item onboard (see https://www.united.com/ual/en/us/fly/travel/baggage/carry-on.html#exceptions). They don’t tell you this baggage rule anywhere in the booking process and you still get the normal screen that baggage limits = one carry on & one personal item. I got burned by this in June – and they’re very aggressive about enforcing this, I had the boarding agent chase me down the jetbridge to make sure I gate checked something. “Luckily” they let me check my backpack and carry my violin on, but it meant I had to pull my laptop, meds, other electronics etc out of my backpack last minute in the jetbridge and carry them in my hands onboard, where they took up exactly as much space as they would have contained in a backpack.

  • SP says:

    You a misrepresenting the federal law governing musical instruments on planes.

  • Mike says:

    Should be pointed out that this was NOT United Airlines. It was one of their regional subsidiaries. On these smaller jets they often have weight and balance issues and therefore have different rules about bags and cargo in the cabin. I can’t imagine that a violin case wouldn’t fit in the overhead and I’m sure the FA didn’t completely understand the rules she has to follow but she is correct that she had to follow the FAA Ops Specs for her company regardless of what the passenger thinks is law.

    • SkywardEyes says:


      Regional airlines fly *smaller* planes under the umbrella of a version of the majors’ names (United Express; American Eagle; Delta Connection), solely to connect smaller-city airports (Knoxville and Steamboat) to big hub airports (Washington Dulles and Denver).

      Many travelers never notice the small print on their ticket itinerary which says, ie, “Operated by SkyWest DBA [doing business as] United Express.”

      Also, look at the flight numbers carefully: regional airlines operating subsidiary flights for the majors usually have *four* digits, starting around 3000 (note: this is not the case for Southwest Airlines’ four-digit flight numbers; SWA does NOT have a regional subsidiary like American/Delta/United do).

      Musicians can check for this important info when we book a ticket on The Big Three because smaller planes operated by their regional airlines invariably mean *less room* for carry-on bags in those planes.

      And, as these posts show, there isn’t uniformity, despite what federal law says, between what one flight attendant might say vs another. A FA on mainline United Airlines likely may have no issue with a violin, but the FA on your regional, connecting United Express flight may very much have a problem with it (again: due to regional airlines’ planes being smaller than mainline airlines’ planes, they likely have less carry-on space).

      Also: consider checking the aircraft and seating choices of your specific flight on seatguru.com. It lists best and worst seats on a given plane.

  • Jay says:

    ummm…federal law allows it, doesn’t demand airlines allow it. Federal law allows speed limits up to 70mph, but a local jurisdiction says slow down to 25 in our school zone. Get it?

  • Deravaci says:

    She gives millennials a bad name and she was able to bring the damn violin on the plane. I don’t see the issue. Life’s not fair. Don’t fly United next time and move on with your life

  • KW says:

    As long as people keep putting up with bad behavior by the likes of United and AA, they will not stop. Gotta quit buying the cheapest tickets you can find and vote with your pocket book, when travelers start to head elsewhere, the bad boys of the industry will clean up their act.

  • Adam says:

    United doesn’t have to follow Federal Law. So once they fly you to Dulles they aren’t required to land; they can just open the cargo door and throw you out as they fly over the airport.

    • Just another reader says:

      It would me nice if they let you jump out the passenger door instead. Who wants to be treated as cargo?

    • Michael S. says:

      Adam, Thanks for the great idea. When I put your genius plan into action I am sure that I will receive yet another $1-zillion bonus
      Signed, CEO Untied Airlines…oops, make that United Airlines

  • Kevan says:

    Some people have stated that this airline isn’t United but a smaller airline who operates flights on their behalf but how can the normal passenger tell short of becoming an aviation enthusiast!These partner airlines generally livery their aircraft in the livery of the company they’re running the route for and the staff are kitted out in the uniform of the bigger airline.

    • Ladybakes says:

      When you book your ticket, you will see “operated by Commmutair Dba United Express”. It is very clear.

  • Nomorewhiners says:

    I’m growing tired of pompous, arrogant people going through life thinking rules don’t apply to them. Get a grip!

    • Symphony musician says:

      If there’s a FA vacancy at United you could probably get a job there, with your customer-hating, anti-musician attitude. How on earth are musicians supposed to travel with extremely vulnerable, very expensive instruments when this is the kind of attitude you encounter? Even when a flight is full and all the overhead bins are full airlines should still make space for fragile instruments. 90% of the stuff other people take on board would easily survive in the hold and most of it probably isn’t needed during the flight. If you really don’t care then why do you follow slippedisc?!

  • Pete says:

    United doesn’t have to allow her to carry her instrument onboard, even though the federal says they’re allowed. United, or any other carrier can be more restrictive than federal laws, if they desire. It is unfortunate, but it is what it is….she needs to switch airlines.

  • Paul Sale says:

    OK Karen. It’s not like you were a COPD patient denied your O2.

  • Bohemer says:

    Does violin in case fit the carry-on baggage size passengers are allowed to bring aboard, which can be tested in a frame usually sitting at every gate?? If not, end of discussion, period.

  • Just another reader says:

    I can’t complain. United let me bring my pet miniature zebra in the cabin as a comfort mascot.

  • Michael S. says:

    Rachelle was lucky. There was the elderly father a couple of years ago that they had beaten up in front of his family by “security” thugs. I had quit flying United AND all their partners before that, just because it is merely a cattle car with wings, but I am grateful they continue to justify my judgment.

  • Joshua D says:

    Federal law isn’t the law it’s a Set of minimum requirements. United policies may absolutely supersede the requirements from the FAA.

    If you were on my flight I wouldn’tve argued/negotiated with you at all. Gate check it, buy a seat for it, or try a different carrier.