CABIN SEAT BAGGAGE: FLYING WITH A CELLO
by Michael Bersin
At some time in your career as a cellist, you will findourself booked on a commercial airline flight, needing to get to your ultimate destination with your cello intact. In this era of airline deregulation and the preponderance of airport "hubs," unless you live in a major city, you will not find a direct flight. If you check your cello as baggage, it will travel long distances outside, sometimes in extreme weather, and probably under the significant weight of other travelers' luggage. We all know, either first hand, or from friends or acquaintances, of horror stories about cellos checked as baggage. Despite advertisements for indestructible cello cases, a cello which can successfully survive that kind of abuse (and sound like something more than expensive firewood with a nice varnish) has yet to be invented. The cases survive, but the cellos don't.
The only option then, for those of us who are faint of heart, is to try to book a seat for the cello. Never mind the expense and the inquisitive looks from airport security; it can be done. The main problem is that the people you will have to deal with are not always aware of the various airlines' policies on booking a seat for your cello, nor, for the most part are they aware of what a cello is. It then becomes incumbent upon you to know the airlines' policies, the configuration possibilities for the aircraft you fly on, and the regulations governing flying with a musical instrument.
These include the "Special Federal Air Regulations " (SFAR), also known as "Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations," and the tariffs, which are the charges and policies of the airlines under various circumstances, also known as "Domestic General Rules," or DGR-1. The airlines have further documents, some of which are proprietary, which outline policies for cabin seat baggage. These can include ticket agent and gate agent manuals, aircraft operations manuals, cabin crew manuals, and flight crew manuals, as well as the certification for the aircraft filed with the Federal Aviation Administration.
You can find a copy of Title 14, Parts 1-1199 in public or academic libraries, usually in the "Government Documents" section. You can purchase a copy from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20401, (202) 783-3238. The "Domestic General Rules" are available from the Airline Tariff Publishing Company, Dulles International Airport, Box 17415, Washington, D.C. 20041, (701) 471-7510. A yearly subscription (with biweekly interleaf updates) can cost several hundred dollars. If you are associated with an educational institution, you can acquire a one time copy for $15. Armed with these documents, you will know these regulations better than the people who have a say over whether or not you get on the flight.
The FAA considers your cello a piece of cargo. The rules and procedures are covered in the section entitled "Carriage of cargo in passenger compartments" (14 CFR 121.285), and read as follows: "(c) Cargo may be carried aft of a bulkhead or divider in any passenger compartment provided the cargo is restrained to the load factors in 25.561 (b) (3) and is loaded as follows: (1) It is properly secured by a safety belt or other tiedown having enough strength to eliminate the possibility of shifting under all normally anticipated flight and ground conditions. (2) It is packaged or covered in a manner to avoid possible injury to passengers and passenger compartment occupants. (3) It does not impose any load on seats or the floor structure that exceeds the load limitation for those components. (4) Its location does not restrict access to or use of any required emergency or regular exit, or of the aisle in the passenger compartment. (5) Its location does not obscure any passenger's view of the 'seat belt' sign, 'no smoking' sign, or required exit sign, unless an auxiliary sign or other approved means for proper notification of the passenger is provided." (Doc. No. 6258, 29 FR 19202, Dec 31, 1964, as amended by Amdt. 121-179, 47 FR 33390, Aug. 2, 1982)
Practically speaking, this means your cello must be set in a bulkhead window seat which does not have an emergency exit, and that it will have to be strapped in. It is important that you ask the airline to provide a compatible seat belt extension; they will place a special record on your reservation at your request. Some airlines will provide cargo straps, if you so request. You cannot provide your own "tiedowns," since the airline has to certify to the FAA that the tiedown meets the load specifications in the regulations. The easiest way to strap in your cello is to place the cello between the armrests, with the back of the case toward the seat. The seat belt and extension should go through a case handle (or two, depending on the case) and over the top of the case. The seat belts should be cinched snugly.
There is a wide latitude in interpretation of the regulations from airline to airline and in crew interpretation of those regulations. It would be too much to hope for some sort of universal policy, considering the many different aircraft, different configurations of aircraft (even in the same fleet), and different seat widths.
All airlines have weight restrictions (which a cello easily meets), and some have maximum dimension limitations, which a cello cannot always meet. The final authority for what can and cannot strapped into a seat is the captain or "pilot in command."
Most airlines charge 75% of the full fare for a cello, but a few charge 50%. If you book well in advance (and save money on your fare), the cost for you and your cello can be identical. Some airlines charge the cello a cargo tax, which is less than the regular passenger tax.
My own experiences while flying with my cello led me to become an expert on this subject. The definitive trip included mixed up seat assignments, irritation of fellow passengers (directed at me), numerous long distance phone calls with airline representatives, miscommunication, and that fateful notation, written with a green felt tip pen on my ticket, "Involuntary Refund." Seven hours and one rented car later, I made it back home.
I then called a representative of the offending airline. She informed me that the airlines in general were moving away from allowing musical instruments in the passenger compartment; she felt they would soon be forbidden by regulations (this was at a time when the FAA and airlines were concerned about excess carry-on baggage).
I did what any self-respecting cellist would do: I organized a letter writing campaign with the help of a considerable number of local musicians. The vice president for marketing for the offending airline was deluged with letters bemoaning the situation.
A month later, I was informed by the airline that they had received FAA approval for "cabin seat baggage" on their jet aircraft. I anticipated many happy and hassle-free flights. Wrong. On one subsequent trip, a cabin crew member firmly stated, "You can't bring that on board." I answered, "Yes I can." This was a big mistake. She retorted, "Don't argue with me." While we went through the routine and I showed her my ticket, she called the gate agent and the first officer, who then called the captain, while someone else called a ground supervisor. While they waited and scratched their heads, the rest of the passengers gave me dirty looks for causing problems which were delaying the flight. The supervisor then showed up and stated, "Yeah, its all right. You can do that." As we were taxiing, the cabin crew member pointed to my boarding pass and stated, "All you had to do was show me that, and there wouldn't have been any problem." I apologized with the explanation that I thought I had. A passenger seated behind me said, in a very loud voice, "You shouldn't apologize, I saw you show that to her earlier."
There are a few basic rules for successfully flying with your instrument. The most important is to have a travel agent. The second most important is not to believe them when they say, "You can do it with a 30 minute layover." I stopped believing that the first time I went through Minneapolis/St. Paul. I live in a town half the size of the terminal building.
Always check in early - on occasion, some airlines toss your prebooked seating assignments to the winds. If you are first in line, you've got first dibs on the bulkhead seats. Since they are the only ones you can occupy with your cello, it's a good idea never to violate this rule.
Know the type of aircraft you will be flying on. If your commuter flight is on a small aircraft without a bulkhead, you're out of luck. And as a cost-conscious traveler, you need to know that on certain wide body jets, the only bulkhead window seats not on an emergency exit are in first class. Most airlines' policies are: "Where your cello goes, you go." So you could have to pay for two first class tickets.
This brings us to another important rule. Cultivate a relationship with a car rental firm. Major credit cards help, too, when you are stuck in a bind. I've logged many bonus car rental miles on my frequent flier cards because, "I'm sorry sir, we cannot accommodate a musical instrument on our aircraft."
You my have noticed that I referred to frequent flier cards in the plural. Not only one for each airline, but one for your cello on each airline, too. My cello has a card embossed with "Cello Dbags Bersin," as it would appear on the ticket issued for the cello. (Dbags is the record flag which warns the airline there is trouble in the offing). The value of this, when you are flying with your cello, is that it can cash in on those Hawaiian vacations with you. In addition, it is a matter of great joy in my household when the cello receives its junk mail addressed to "Mr. Cello Dbags Bersin." This also causes amusement and functions as an icebreaker at the check-in counter when the ticket agent, looking at the reservation computer, says to everyone within earshot, "Look, it even has its own frequent flyer card!"
One interesting survival tool, which I have never used, is to have some sort of scam. I know of a harpist who, while touring, needed to check her harp as baggage. Harps aren't charged by weight (less expensive), but by volume (very expensive). So, she carted the instrument to the air freight terminal and played an impromptu concert for the baggage crew. There was, shall we say, a successful outcome to the story. I would not recommend that a cellist play in the terminal building. In most airports that will get you arrested, if you don't have the requisite permits.
For those with strong constitutions and guile who like to live with risk, there is always the bald-faced lie. "No, it's a viola, and if you look it up, your rules say I can carry it on board with me." I have heard of one rather tall cellist, with an ultralight thin case, who hides it under his coat and puts it in the overhead bin. (But this only works on a 767.)
The danger of trying to pull a scam is that you could get caught. When you do get caught you only have two options - spend money, or check the instrument as baggage. In the first option, if you are lucky enough to be on a flight that was not overbooked, you might note that a ticket purchased 20 seconds before pushback from the gate is considerably more expensive than one purchased two weeks in advance.
Inevitably, carefully laid travel plans can get side tracked. On checking in recently, I found the airline had "changed equipment" - a euphemism for "you're on a different aircraft and your bulkhead seat assignment doesn't mean diddly."
It is important to remain calm, cheerful, and understanding with airline personnel. Remember key phrases such as: "May I have your name, please," and "I want to speak with your supervisor." Always carry the toll-free reservation numbers for the airlines you are traveling on. If your flight is cancelled or delayed, the wait on the phone is much shorter than the wait behind 150 irate fellow travelers. Besides, bulkhead seats are at a premium, and the phone reservations people can deal with it easily. It brightens their day to speak with someone with a peculiar problem. "That's very interesting sir, does it travel often!"
************************************************************************ Reproduced with permission, all rights reserved ************************************************************************ Written by:
Department of Music
Central Missouri State University
Reprinted in TUTTI CELLI by the permission of STRINGS magazine.
The article appeared in the July/August issue of STRINGS