American Airlines says no thanks for the music

American Airlines says no thanks for the music


norman lebrecht

May 08, 2022

Message from Erina Laraby-Goldwasser of the Pittsburgh Symphony:

I am writing to tell you about my experience flying American Airlines with my viola on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. I am a violist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Ironically, the orchestra was playing a concert at Pittsburgh Airport that very evening. When I went to board my flight from Pittsburgh to Chicago with my Italian viola made in 1780, and fine French bows, I was told I would need to gate check it. I explained the value of the instruments, politely tried to reason and pulled up the law on my phone to no avail. Gate agent Doug Price refused to let me board the flight or even ask the other customers for help, space (or buy them a drink as consolation). I was forced to wait 3 hours at the airport to take a later flight to Chicago. On my return flight from OHare to Pittsburgh, my carry on with all of my music and clothing was stolen right at the American Airlines gate K1 waiting to board the flight back. Over an hour on hold to the airline and numerous emails and I have yet to receive any compensation or acknowledgement.


  • Paul Dawson says:

    Great sympathy for her experience on the outbound flight.

    Puzzled by the return flight experience. If it was carry-on, surely it should have been under her control the whole time?

    Also, if it’s stuff she did not need in-flight, why not check it in? Simple courtesies like that will free up space in the cabin making more availability for musical instruments.

    One of the stupidest things airlines have done in recent years is the introduction of charges for checked baggage, but not for carry-ons.

    • Bone says:

      I thought the same thing regarding carry-on: pulled from her hands?

      • Paul Dawson says:

        My guess is that she was checking in her carry-on at the gate. Airlines frequently permit this free of charge when it becomes clear that cabin baggage capacity is going to be overwhelmed.

  • Piano Lover says:

    Sad to see how concert members flying with an instrument have to manage customs and being suspected of..what?

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Welcome to the 21st century and mammoth security issues for air travellers. A sad sign of the times.

  • James Schutmaat says:

    Erina, that happened to us with our chamber orchestra (Universidad Reformada, Colombia) on tour a couple of years ago. We just held up the boarding process, with help from other passengers, until they “found” a solution.

    • Andrew Zaplatynsky says:

      Of course, there was the crushed cello. That looked deliberate to me, since the case was undamaged. A

      • George Zeliger says:

        How is it possible to crush the cello without damaging the case? Isn’t the instrument secured inside the case? Just asking, don’t doubt what happened.

  • Henry williams says:

    It is not easy being a musician in these times.

  • I've been there says:

    Oh this is terrible! I feel so bad for you! (I think I know you, have guest led Pittsburgh) but here is my trick. (and it works). Never argue with the gate agent. You get no where. Just let them put the gate check ticket on, smile and walk the plank to the plane. As soon as you are out of sight rip off the gate check ticket and walk on board. It’s worked every time for me. There is zero coordination between the gate agent and the flight crew on board. (ok and this part is dishonest. but if you Really wanna get back at AA next time ‘gate check’ your hand luggage, rip off the ticket, save your receipt tho and then claim it as ‘lost’. ok i don’t really recommend this cuz it is blatant dishonesty but i contemplated this after a Swiss agent had me in tears. That’s when i realized whatever, I’ll just rip it off and get on board with everything.) And have so with the violin and everything from that point forward.

    • V. Lind says:

      I like it. They can’t nail you for dishonesty if airline policy is to permit your instrument and ignorant or obstructive gate agents refuse to adhere to it. THAT is the initial dishonesty.

  • I've been there says:

    PS. I DID get back at Swiss tho. I had an old crack in my Rimowa and i promptly went to the damage office upon landing. and got a new one. The least they owed me for the stress.

  • drummerman says:

    Hopefully she will make a formal complaint to the airlines, especially since she has the name of the gate agent.

    • V. Lind says:

      Indeed. And then to the PRESS: I keep suggesting that these musicians start taking this hugely widespread problem public. Due respect to SD, but it is not, despite the staggering numbers NL reports, read by the wider world.

  • William Gross says:

    Some times you do have to, I hate to say it, look to a lawyer to right a wrong.

  • Anon says:

    Not clear as to how many carry-ons Laraby-Goldwasser was toting. One carry-on plus small personal item allowed. She says her carry-on with clothes and music was stolen, did she also have the viola that she thought she could get on on these flights? Over the limit.

    Unless she has a very small viola case, the dimensions may exceed the allowable carry-on.

    Carry-on stolen carry-on from gate? How? Did she monitor it? Taken from her possession? Lost at gate check by handlers? You have to keep a hand on your luggage, purse, instruments, valuables, did she? Or, did she leave the carry-on unattended, even briefly?

    These days with full flights, did she pay a bit extra, likely less than $50 US, to board early? Frequent flier status or American credit card holder?

    It may not seem fair, but sorry, you have to be a bit smart when flying with an instrument. That’s been the case for years. And yes, I’ve taken multiple fights out of Chicago O’Hare with violin and a few with viola (which I call a “violin” if asked – “viola” tends to confuse many airline employees.)

    • OverYNS says:

      Hey Anon, unless the law has changed or my memory is wrong, those of us traveling with instruments are allowed another carryon of any size. I often travel with an instrument and a rollaboard. It is pretty typical for all of us! Why tell Erina about how many ways she messed up? Instead the appropriate response is sympathy for her lost/stolen luggage and anger for the airline’s treatment of her!

    • MS says:

      Musical instruments are exempt from the carry-on rule. That was the law she looked up to show the gate agent, who promptly dismissed the law.

    • Dan Wions says:

      Anon, Do you honestly think someone in the Pittsburgh Symphony doesn’t have enough experience flying with her instrument to know this? Agreed, not a lot of detail in the story. But maybe a little sympathy and benefit of the doubt is in order.

  • Hal Sacks says:

    So sorry for your frustrating and harmful experience.

  • Bea says:

    My goodness. Sorry Erina, this is terrible. Hope it gets resolved soon.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Must be a slow news day.

    Woe is me.

  • Monsoon says:

    “I explained the value of the instruments, politely tried to reason and pulled up the law on my phone to no avail.”

    There’s a post about this issue probably once a month; musicians need to read the law more carefully because it doesn’t entitle them to what they think it does:

    49 U.S. Code § 41724 says that “small instruments” can be brought on the plane as carry on luggage **if** “there is space for such stowage at the time the passenger boards the aircraft.”

    So if they board last and there is no more space to in the plane to store the instrument, then they cannot bring it on.

    There’s a very simple legislative fix that they should lobby Congress for: Small instruments get stowed in the overhead before all other passenger luggage.

    And if you want to make that equitable with everyone else who is flying, in the rules and regulations, allow Airlines to charge musicians a small fee for this privilege.

    • Anon says:

      Thank you for stating the obvious. Use of the overheads depends on available space. Board late, good luck.

      The AA flights I’ve taken in recent months have started gate checking long before boarding is complete. The airlines are pushed to meet pull back deadlines. They aren’t interested in delaying boarding protocols while negotiating with travelers who feel their carry-ones are more important than items already stored. (Even if true.)

  • F MILLER says:

    As a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh now living in LA (Heinz Hall is obviously not accessible to me now), I continue to follow the wonderful PSO, particularly on WQED-FM. To read of your recent misfortune is disheartening. My sole hope is that a return of your property is imminent…particularly your music.

  • Ory Shihor says:

    I guess they expect her to drive or take the train? Or fly private? I would imagine that a viola case will easily fit in the overhead compartment.

    • PaulD says:

      Short flights like Pittsburgh-Chicago are often on regional jets or turboprops. The overhead compartments on these planes are very limited, so you’ve got to plan ahead.

      • Anon! A Moose! says:

        I specifically choose flights that are full size jets and I avoid regional jets like the plague. On the occasions I’ve had no choice things have usually worked out but the boarding process for the small jets is often unpredictable and haphazard so it’s difficult to count on knowing how to get to board first.

    • Anon says:

      Not every overhead can handle a viola case. Been there, done that.

  • Ricardo says:

    I’ve been flying internationally for 40 years. Bringing a violin or a viola onboard a plane – even a small one – has NEVER been a problem in any way whatsoever. It has mysteriously become so in the past 15-20 years or so. The office rats who make those rules have no idea whatsoever what they are legislating. Then you see other passengers bring huge carry-ons. They of course can do that. But musicians and our instruments ? Noooo…
    This is just one more in the endless list of bullshit items that our modern times have regaled us with. The world is going to hell, and the highways are increasing in number.
    I for one will go there singing, or fiddling, like the soldier in the Soldier’s Tale.

  • Alexander Graham Cracker says:

    Maybe she should’ve referred to her viola as a “therapy instrument.”

  • Erina says:

    Thank you for your well wishes! I
    traveled with only a small Bam viola case and standard carry-on suitcase (which I would have happily checked had that been an option). Wishing everyone safe and easy travels!

  • Guillaume says:

    “There’s a post about this issue probably once a month; musicians need to read the law more carefully because it doesn’t entitle them to what they think it does:”

    Second this. I’ve seen a lot of whinging on this subject but it’s apparent the musicians have either not read or the rules properly, misinterpreted them, or even consider themselves special exemptions.

    • KSL says:

      I think musicians need to be given an extra carry-on allowance when flying except in the case of big instruments such as cellists, etc.
      As airlines are ever ore devising ways to squeeze more more money out of passengers, it’s getting already hard enough to fly.

      Soloists, full-time orchestra members maybe able to afford to pay the extra charges, but think of all the ‘gig’ musicians, students, etc.! They are already struggling financially! Their instruments are their tools for their livelihood!

      Btw, I’m not a musician.

  • Alex says:

    One idea is to buy an extra seat for the viola as one would for a cello. That way, the agent can’t say no. It’s generally not enough to say you have an old instrument. That will fall on deaf ears, and the agent will try to assert their power. Meanwhile, luggage stolen at a gate is the traveler’s responsibility, as airport security is not within the purview of the carrier. If you want to complain, it’s best to talk to the airport authority about their poor surveillance.

  • Kervin says:

    I’m pretty sure that flight from ORD-PIT was a regional aircraft probably a 50 seater. Those aircraft instruments but as long as you can purchase a seat to stow it properly. It can’t stay on your lap for safety reasons and if she boarded towards the end probably there was no space and the overhead bins are very tiny .
    She should have known better since it seems she does this trip often. I hate when people blame airlines for that one time you the individual failed to do your sue diligence.
    Yes you can bring your instruments as long as there is space and it doesn’t affect others safety in the event of an evacuation

  • Chris Raehl says:

    For those confused about her carry-on being stolen, if she was asked to check her carry-on on the return, sometimes you leave your carryon at the boarding door and it sits there after you board the plane until ground crew actually put it on the plane. It’s also possible that the bag was brought up on arrival before she was off the plane and someone grabbed it there. It’s also possible that it was checked through to bag claim and she either didn’t know to pick it up there or it was stolen at bag claim.

  • Frequentflyer says:

    Always ask the airline for written proof of value should anything happen to the instrument. Violin @50k+ whatever. And should it be damaged, the airline shall reimburse. Always worked for me, from Zurich and London to Tokyo and Adelaide. Just ask “I promise to pay the bearer…”
    Yes. Truly works.
    Dreadful for Erina though.

  • Dan Nathan says:

    Never, never, NEVER EVER Fly American Airlines. They have been the WORST most unfriendly airline for more than 40 years. It has been my experience they have the most poorly trained staff at the gate, and the stewards were always rude and dismissive. Fly Southwest or anyone else!!

  • ESF says:

    Shocking. And a good reason for musicians to boycott American Airlines.