Skies Less-Than Friendly When Packing A Cello

Read Paul Katz's Piece For The Boston Globe, "Flying With A Cello Is One Traveler's Nightmare"

Paul Katz bought two tickets — one for himself and one for his cello — in the cabin of a flight from Calgary to Los Angeles. But the captain told him his centuries-old cello had to fly as checked baggage. After an agonizing flight, Katz cried when the captain returned his cello, unharmed.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. On a flight from Calgary to Los Angeles, cellist Paul Katz did everything right. He bought two tickets, one for him and one for his instrument, just the same as thousands of flights before. When he showed up to board, the flight crew said, no, that cello is baggage, that Guarneri cello made in 1669, the one that he's had for 45 years. Musicians, tell us your story of flying with your instrument. Just a reminder, it's a rebroadcast. We're not going to be able to take any new calls in his hour.

Paul Katz wrote about the nightmare flight in The Boston Globe and joins us now from member station WGBH in Boston. He's performed with the Cleveland Quartet for 26 years and now teaches cello and chamber music at the New England Conservatory of Music. Nice to have you with us today.

PAUL KATZ: Yes. Very nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: So you've got to get to a gig in L.A. You don't know if there are any other flights that day from Calgary, but you do know that if there are, two tickets will be pretty expensive. So what do you do?

KATZ: Well, I was forced to a situation where I really had to - it was either get off the plane or give the baggage handler my cello. And so I did something that I've never done in my whole life, which was to give my Guarnerius to a baggage handler. I talked to him a little bit. He promised me he would make it secure and that was that. We took off. We got up. It was one of the bumpiest runways I've ever been on, was my first fright.

(LAUGHTER)

KATZ: As soon as we got in the air, a huge turbulence. They discontinued the beverage service. And my imagination started going crazy at that point. I just thought I'd probably made the worst mistake of my life. And my imagination went crazy, really. And as a way of trying to calm myself, I just started to write down the way I felt. That was the Genesis of this story that eventually came to The Globe.

CONAN: And this is an instrument, we should point out, of course, it's worth a lot of money, but in another way, it's priceless.

KATZ: Yes. Well, I think those of us that play these great instruments - Stradivarius, Guarnerius and many other fine instruments - we're basically caretakers for the next generation. I mean, these are museum pieces and they're also our livelihood. Professional musicians have to be able to travel. Fortunately, I did not have a concert that night, but there are plenty of situations where musicians get bumped and then miss an engagement.

CONAN: And your instrument, you buy a seat for it. Why wasn't that good enough?

KATZ: Yeah, that's my question. I - of course, I've been doing this, as you just said in your introduction, for 45 years now as a member of the Cleveland Quartet. And I know all the rules. I know all the regulations. So I buy a seat. I went through check-in. I did everything properly. I bought this - the problem here was I bought the seat from American Airlines. When I arrived at the gate and the trouble started, I found out that the plane was operated by a carrier I've never even heard of before called WestJet. So it's this code-sharing business that's enough to drive one crazy.

CONAN: So they said, we're a Canadian company. We're not obligated to obey American Airlines' procedures.

KATZ: Yes, well, of course, there's several things there. They - I have an email of explanation from WestJet, where they explained to me that their seatbelts aren't rated to carry an instrument, which is, of course, nonsense. You can put a 250-pound man under one of those seatbelts. But for some reason, it's not rated to carry a 14-pound cello, which is about the size of a 10-year-old child. So, you know, this is accepted international practice. You know, we buy cello tickets all over the world - Europe, Asia, United States, Canada for that matter.

I just flew back from Montreal on Air Canada yesterday. But WestJet, for some reason, has decided that they will not accept cellos. And the problem is that they code share with so many different airlines. And they had the, kind of the nerve to write to me that they hoped that I've learned from this experience that I have to check websites more carefully and be sure that the airline that I'm dealing with will accept an instrument.

CONAN: It's - we, by the way, posted a link to Paul Katz's piece that he wrote for The Boston Globe at our website. That's at npr.org, and it includes the email that he got from the airline. So you can read that for yourself. But as you finally landed, was everything OK?

KATZ: Yes. Actually, while I was on board and I was trying to keep my sanity, I started writing this piece. One of the airline flight attendants came to me and befriended me a little. She saw that I was having a breakdown. And when - in conversation, when she learned of the value of the instrument, she went and talked to the captain. The captain found a new kind of sympathy and took an interest in this. He even went down to the baggage hold, got the cello and brought it up to me, stood there while I opened it and checked it out. And, indeed, the cello was fine. So I dodged the bullet.

CONAN: Were your hands shaking a little bit as you open the case?

KATZ: Oh, no, no. I cannot tell you the - how emotional this was. As I wrote in my piece, when I opened that case and saw the instrument was fine, I cried. It was so highly traumatic. I can't tell you.

CONAN: We want to hear from musicians about the experience of, well, traveling on planes with instruments. Joshua is on the line with us from Boston.

JOSHUA: Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Joshua. You're on the air.

TYLER: Hi. How are you?

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

JOSHUA: So I'm actually at Boston Logan right now, and I'm flying out with my cello. And I had known the whole issue with traveling with your cellos from before. And I actually have an external case that goes around my cello case so that I can check it. But ironically, this time, what happened was the exact opposite of Mr. Katz's problem, which is they wouldn't let me check it and I had to buy an extra seat for it.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: They're going to get you coming and going.

JOSHUA: Yeah. So I thought that that was just kind of a funny experience, and I thought I'd share it.

CONAN: Where are you off...

JOSHUA: I've travelling...

CONAN: Where are you going to?

JOSHUA: I'm going to D.C.

CONAN: To a performance?

JOSHUA: For an audition, actually.

CONAN: Oh, well, good luck to you.

KATZ: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. And better luck next time with your case.

JOSHUA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Thanks.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have. This is an email from Sara in Chicago: I used to collect frequent-flyer miles for my cello, but every single airline has since taken them away. It makes no sense to me. I should be able to collect miles when I just bought a second, full-price ticket for the cello. The airlines don't care. They just see a cello as an inanimate object that is subject to the same policies as any other piece of baggage. So you buy another full flight - full-fare ticket, and you don't get frequent-flyer miles?

KATZ: Yeah, well, that's sort of rubbing salt in the wound, isn't it? I mean, yeah. They've killed the frequent-flyer miles for cellos if they see the word cello in a frequent-flyer account. So they can program their computers for that, but they can't program their computers to not sell a ticket to a cello. You have to go to the boarding gate to find out that they're not going to let you on the plane.

This was my argument with WestJet, who I think should kind of get with the program and change their policy and get with the established international practice that cellos can buy tickets and be fastened with seatbelts. But if they're not going to do that, then they should at least take the time to program their computers so that we can't buy tickets and show up at the gate.

CONAN: So the passenger's name on your cello was, what? Cello Katz?

KATZ: Yeah. Usually, Cello Katz, and it's indicated as a blocked seat, or sometimes cabin baggage. There are a number of terms that airlines use that designate the fact that it's a blocked seat.

CONAN: Blocked seat, so it has to be a window seat so it doesn't block anybody's way in an emergency?

KATZ: Yes, that's right. I mean, there are some really good rules that keep everybody safe. It needs to be in a window seat, needs to be in a nonemergency row. This way, no passenger's motions are obstructed. Sits on the floor if you put a seatbelt around it through the handle, make it snug. It's completely immovable. It's completely safe. I've been on emergency landings where the runway was foamed. I was on a flight where they blew a tire on takeoff, and the baggage compartments up above emptied on our heads and oxygen masks fell down. I've been in everything. I can't remember - there's this phenomenon where you can - a plane can drop a couple of thousand feet. I was on a flight that did that.

The cello, when it's strapped in properly, never budges. It's simply not an issue. But a lot of - these people in customer service, or probably even in making safety regulations, they don't really even know what a cello looks like.

CONAN: Other instruments are involved, too. Here's an email from Tad in Bonny Doon, California: Strategies for storing a guitar once you've carried it onboard. Many planes have a coat closet near the door that will accommodate a guitar. This is the best spot. If there is no coat closet, don't wait until you get to your seat before trying to store the guitar overhead. Instead, stash it in the first overhead bin available. I've had a decade of success with these methods, though I can't always say it works. Remember to take out a page out of Obi-Wan Kenobi's Jedi playbook. This is not the guitar you are looking for to stow with checked bags. This guitar is meant to travel on board with its owner. The Jedi mind trick works every time, most of the time.

We're talking with cellist Paul Katz about his nightmare flight. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

This is Tyler, Tyler on the air with us from New York.

TYLER: Hi. I've been flying for about eight or nine years with my trombone for auditions and gigs, trans-Atlantic and stuff. And one of the first times I did it, I was stuck on the L-line in Chicago flying back. And when I got to the desk, I was very frantic. It was one of my first auditions I'd taken. And the woman at the desk was trying to calm me down. It was about 10 p.m. at night. She said, well, you play us a tune, and we'll see about changing your flight to a later flight. Well, I played, I think, a Beatles tune, "When I'm Sixty-Four," and then they put me on the next flight.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So there are some advantages?

TYLER: Well, it's a conversation piece, I guess. And in my experience is that most people want to help out. They're just trying to go by the book, I guess. But in my experience, it's kind of worked out for me, carrying a trombone.

CONAN: And does a trombone fit neatly in the overhead case?

TYLER: In my case, it does, yeah. I have a special case I use when I fly with it. It's really small. That way, it can fit. Yes, it does.

CONAN: All right. Well, good. And what - I was just going to ask you to perform a little of "When I was Sixty-Four," but never mind.

(LAUGHTER)

TYLER: Maybe next time.

CONAN: Maybe next time. Let's go to Greg, and Greg is with us from Lincoln, Nebraska.

GREG: Yes. Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

GREG: Hi. I'm a cellist of a string quartet as well, and I've had numerous occasions of being kicked off a flight. Last year, I was kicked off - or last summer, I was kicked off of a flight by United Airlines and tweeted about it, and it got picked by The New York Post and went as a global story. Since then, we've had a new bill passed. I was just looking it up before calling in. And the regulations are pretty specific about what we can do with our instruments, but it also says that the secretary of the FAA has two full years to implement them. So we're still quite a long ways off from any relief from what Mr. Katz went through on his flight.

CONAN: Mr. Katz, so you wrote on your piece that you carry a copy of this legislation with you everywhere you go.

KATZ: Yes, I do now. And Greg is right. I mean, our Congress - which, I guess, we would all agree hasn't done too much in this last session - they did get together a Passenger's Bill of Rights last February. And wonderfully, they - musical instruments and regulations for musical instruments are very specifically covered there, and it's to establish uniformity among airlines. I'm not at all - and it gives musicians the right to put their instruments overhead in baggage - in the baggage bins, excuse me, overhead in the baggage bins. And it also gives us the right, if our instrument is too large for that, to purchase a seat. So that seems very clear.

Now, the part that I'm not really clear about is the fact that this WestJet flight was a Canadian airlines flying from Canada. Of course, they're a sovereign nation. The - and they have their own safety, you know, arm of the government. But the president of the American Federation of Musicians, when he kind of announced triumphantly the successful passing of this legislation, specifically said that it will help musicians in the United States and Canada. So this is something that I'm trying to investigate and find out about, are - is Canada operating under a different set of rules? Or is there some unanimity here? And perhaps, a lot of the Canadian airlines don't know about it yet.

CONAN: Greg, thanks very much.

GREG: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Noah in Norman, Oklahoma: When I flew with the Oklahoma Youth Orchestra to Germany to begin a European tour, I packed my double bass into its case, then into a padded box and hoped for the best. All the musicians were holding their breath as they unpacked their instruments upon arrival, none more nervously than the bassists. Fortunately, my instrument arrived unscathed, and the tour was a success. But I recommend a smaller instrument to any jetsetter.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So, Paul Katz, maybe now you can - the flute. It's not too late.

KATZ: My mother offered me the choice of the flute or the cello. If I only had known.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today, and good luck in your new role as a traveler's advocate.

KATZ: I hope that people will continue to follow this at cellobello.com. There's a blogging section and a lot of activity there, C-E-L-L-O-B-E-L-L-O.com.

CONAN: Paul Katz teaches cello and chamber music at the New England Conservatory of Music. His piece "Flying With My Cello: One Traveler's Nightmare" ran in the Boston Globe last week. You could find a link to it at our website. That's at npr.org. And he joined us today from member station WGBH in Boston. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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