Daily Bow: No Miles for You!

Daily Bow LogoThe airlines have done it again!

Last week, social media and news outlets exploded as Lynn Harrell was unceremoniously booted from the Delta frequent flyer program after the program discovered that he had enrolled his cello in the program in order for it to earn miles on the extra seats he was obligated to buy it. Harrell learned of his and his cello’s expulsion after receiving a letter that first thanked him for his participation in the Delta frequent flyer program and, after that, “turned ugly in short order.” During a recent review, the letter says, it became apparent to the Delta company that Harrell’s cello was continuing to earn miles despite a 2001 warning that the practice was not allowed. For this infraction Harrell and the cello are both barred from participating in the program–and all of Harrell’s personal miles were cancelled as well.

Harrell was not, it seems, the only cellist to receive such a letter from Delta. On the same day that news of Harrell’s plight began to light up my Facebook news feed, another cellist acquaintance of mine in Houston posted a photo of a letter from Delta that, presumably, is identical to the one Harrell received. Like Harrell, his membership and his cello’s membership were terminated, resulting in the loss of all accumulated miles, cancellation of any unused award flights, and loss of all other membership benefits. And like Harrell, the termination translates into a lifetime ban from participation in the program, even for the cellist without the cello. Says Harrell of the letter, “By the end, it seemed as though they were trying to make me feel like some sort of master criminal.”

In an disturbing but all-too-common example of inconsistency in airline’s dealings with musicians, Delta’s letter to both cellists mentions a warning issued in 2001, while both cellists adamantly maintain that no such warning was ever communicated to them. The airline also prohibits all other passengers who are required to buy two seats from collecting miles on the double-seat purchase. This group includes obese passengers who require two seats and passengers who, like cellists, are buying a second seat in order to protect a valuable. While the airlines maintain that cellists and other like instrumentalists are not forced to buy two seats–after all, they say, the cello can be placed in the cargo hold of the aircraft–the simple fact of the matter is that the airlines are failing to acknowledge the reality that airline baggage handlers are notorious for breaking things. Canadian singer-songwriter Dave Carroll posted a frustrated video in 2009 after United Airlines baggage handlers damaged his $3,500 Taylor guitar. The video, entitled “United Breaks Guitars,” went viral and became a public-relations fiasco for the airline. The commonly-held airline’s fantasy that musicians can check their instruments–which in the case of classical musicians are often hundreds of thousands of dollars more expensive than Carroll’s guitar–is just that: willful fantasy of the ilk that only a corporate will to ignore reality can support.

So, to all of you folks traveling with instruments for the Thanksgiving holiday, good luck. I, for one, have had the will to fight beaten out of me by my last airline experience, so I will be sans cello for the weekend. It’s not a good time for that, but it’s also not a good time to be treated, as Harrell was, like some kind of criminal for simply trying to do my job. Delta Airlines, however, will be forever sans the business of Lynn Harrell (a huge loss, given how much he travels) and myself–and many other cellists. Harrell will be exclusively patronizing those airlines who are cello-friendly and who allow the cello to accumulate miles. “To all of those airlines,” says Harrell, “and you know who you are, I say thank you and you can expect me and Mr. Cello to continue to be a loyal customers for years to come.” Unfortunately for cellists and other instrumentalists, the hostility in the air travel industry towards musicians is making the musician’s list of no-fly airlines longer and longer–and our options are becoming fewer and fewer.

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