My two-week stay in Europe ended earlier this week with a stroke of luck: My German father-in-law gave me his beautiful old violin, the one he's played since he was 11. But getting it back safely to the U.S. was more of a problem than I imagined.
Suddenly, I felt the anxiety many traveling musicians must feel when it comes to protecting their precious instruments. I flew on British Airways and it seems that a recently revised company policy denies you from taking a violin on board as a carry-on item. Or does it? The airline's website says one thing, but folks at British Airways told me another.
I had read about the problems with the airline and violins in The Telegraph, so I called the airline myself to inquire. Sure enough, I was told no violins were allowed as carry-on luggage.
Panicked, and with no time to arrange for overseas shipping, I took my chances by packing my violin case within a large, hard-sided suitcase stuffed with dirty laundry for padding. Off I was on my way from Düsseldorf to Washington, D.C.
During a layover in London's Heathrow Airport, I met with a friendly British Airways customer service manager, who confidently informed me that the carrier does indeed allow reasonably sized violins to be carried on if the plane isn't full. Now I was really confused.
Everything I'd heard and read said "no violins." Even the airline's own website stipulates the smaller size restrictions. Today I called the British Airways press office, and media relations executive Philip Allport told me it's all about the fine print. He noted that the company has recently revised the language on its website, causing confusion. The policy states that instruments slightly larger that the maximum (56 centimeters) length will be accepted, as long as space is available. But, he said, "We can't guarantee it. If the flight is completely full, chances are we won't be able to take the instrument."
As it turns out, I'm not the only one confused by the new restrictions. The Incorporated Society for Musicians is also looking into the revised ruling. The U.K.-based professional organization has started a campaign to adopt a "musician-friendly policy." British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber has spoken out in protest. On the ISM's website he calls the new rules "almost unbelievable."
At home, I unlocked the massive suitcase and then, fearfully, cracked open the violin case. Ouch. The fiddle was in one piece, but wounded. The bridge had collapsed and the sound post (a wooden support peg inside the instrument) had dislodged. Time for a visit to my local repair shop.
Here in the States the rules about instruments changed earlier this year. The Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization includes a provision stating that any instrument safely fitting in an overhead bin, or under a seat, is allowed as carry-on baggage. The musicians' union in the UK is lobbying for something similar. Let's hope they succeed.
Have any horror stories about taking your instrument on board?