In the light of the recent accident encountered by German cellist Alban Gerhardt
on his way from Germany to the US, and having experienced a similar
incident, I wanted to share my view on how to approach the daunting task
of flying with your cello.
Let's first get some important myths out of the way:
-My cello is not that expensive so it doesn't matter that much.
It does matter. Even if your cello is not a Stradivarius, I promise you your heart will break once you see it damaged.
-I never had any problems with my cello case and I used it to check my cello for years.
All you need is one accident to see how wrong this is. My bet is that anyone who has an accident checking their instrument will buy extra tickets for the rest of their life.
-I am saving money by checking my cello.
Once your cello has an accident and you are forced to buy an extra ticket for your return trip, or make changes to your travel plans, and eventually pay for the repair of both the cello and the case, you are not saving money anymore. And your cello might not sound the same ever again.
Two Accidents-Same Story
On February 6, 2013, Alban Gerhardt first noticed upon his arrival in the US that his Knopf bow had snapped in 2 pieces. It is only a few weeks later that he found out that his Goffriller cello also suffered a back sound-post crack, which dramatically alters both the sound and the value of the instrument.
When I traveled from Boston to Paris on March 27, 2011, I found my cello in 3 pieces upon my arrival at the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. The neck of the cello had snapped at the base of the scroll and at the base of the neck.
Both Alban and I were using the same cello case, that we likely both bought considering that this was the safest option to fly with our cello. I won't mention the name of the case, not only because this is not a deficiency of the product, but also because the maker tells you that this case is not guaranteed to protect your instrument from any accident when you purchase it.
Dealing with the Airline after the accident
Don't expect to get anything back from your Airline.
I was flying Air France on March 27, 2011 and didn't get one penny back for that accident. At the airport in Paris, I was told that the company didn't guarantee the safety of the luggage's content, but only of the container itself, in other words the cello case. I did find some damage on my case, such as broken locks and bent carbon fiber, but it didn't matter to them. After sending numerous emails, I sent a massive paper file to the Air France customer service, including all the details about my trip, my tickets, repair receipts, pictures of the broken instrument, flight change fees, and so on. They didn't even bother to reply.
I had to pay an extra 967 euros in ticket fees to bring my cello back safely to the US and to change some of my flights to allow time for the repair to be done in Paris. Although this was a horrible event to go through, I felt quite lucky at the end. I was lucky to have my insurance covering the repair cost of 2000 euros. I was lucky to have this happen to me in Paris, where I knew where to get help. I was lucky that this accident didn't affect the sound of my cello.
I am curious to see if Alban has better luck on his end, considering he his a high-profile soloist and more likely to make some noise about the incident. I sincerely wish him all the best.
Who takes care of your cello when you check it?
Just face it. Nobody cares about your cello except yourself. The airlines have plenty of rules to make sure they are not responsible for anything. You can't even get FRAGILE stickers anymore because they know it doesn't matter. The luggage handlers will throw your case around like if it was a ball of cotton. They don't know and don't care if it is a cheap cello or a Goffriller. For them, it's just one more piece of luggage on their long day.
I once saw in Italy the luggage handler bringing my cello case to the hold, as I was standing in the shuttle bus bringing us to the plane. He was dragging my case directly on the floor, neglecting to use the 2 wheels now facing up on the opposite side. Of course the case was scratched and I felt helpless watching this from the bus.
How to fly safely
Buy a ticket for your cello.
This is the only answer. Any trust put in any cello case checked under the plane is just like rolling a dice. It might work and it might not.
Check your airline's policies before buying the ticket. Some may give you a 25% discount on the full-priced ticket, some will charge you the full price. Note that you should not be paying any tax on your cello's ticket.
How to get through customs
You think having your cello in one piece means the end of your challenging trip? Think again. The customs officers have recently made the news by seizing instruments that failed to have proper papers. Not only do you need to have all your official instrument papers (proof of ownership, certificate, apparaisal, etc...) but you now need an official ATA Carnet for your instrument, which costs from $200 to $400 plus a surety bond fee, depending on the value of your instrument.
I highly recommend getting one if you don't want to see your instrument taken away from you at your arrival. Beware especially of the German customs, which made the news several times for seizing Stradivarius violins from musicians and asking them to pay 19% of the instrument's value to get it back. The Frankfurt airport seems to be a hot spot.
What should I remember from this article?
Buy an extra ticket for your cello. Check the guidelines of your airline carrier before purchasing it. Get an ATA Carnet if you plan to fly to Europe, especially Germany.
Good luck, and safe travel!