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Jessica Duchen
Friday 27th August 2010
Mahler, Air Travel and the Age of Anxiety

First, I have an article in today's Independent in which I talk to three marvellous conductors about why Mahler is bigger now than ever before. Fascinating stuff from Sir Mark Elder (The Halle), Vladimir Jurowski (LPO) and Andris Nelsons (CBSO), who are all Mahlering like mad at the moment.

It is eminently possible that we love Mahler now because we are all s***-scared for the future of humanity. But nearer to home, anxiety levels are rising because of a specific and immediate problem concerning the attitudes of airlines towards musical instruments.

If you remember, in the aftermath of a terrorist plot a few years back there was a crackdown on hand-luggage and musicians not wanting their wooden tools-of-the-trade to be destroyed were in serious trouble. Eventually progress was made thanks to careful manoeuvres by the MU and a hard-hitting speech from Sir Mark (as above) at the Last Night of the Proms in which he pointed out that unless the situation changed soon, musicians would be unable to travel and we'd find we could only attend Concerto for Laptop.

But now, certain budget airlines - and others - appear to have realised that they can extort money from hapless musicians who can't travel without their instruments.

A baroque musician friend last night told me (and the rest of Twitter) that Eurostar is the latest travel organisation to decide to make life a little nastier. She writes: "Our cellist just got bumped off Eurostar as they made her buy a seat for her cello then revealed that her train was sold out."

This came a couple of hours after the Incorporated Society of Musicians threw its weight behind the nearly-13,000 people who have signed up to the Musicians Against Ryanair group on Facebook. The airline fiddle policy's latest victim was a 12-year-old violin student from Chetham's School of Music trying to get home from Germany with her parents. The ISM's press release states:

Her parents were told the violin was not allowed as hand luggage, and were given an ultimatum to either put the violin in the baggage hold of the plane, which would cause irreparable damage to the instrument, or to purchase an additional seat at a cost of 230 euros. This was despite the fact they had received confirmation from the Ryanair customer service department (prior to purchasing any tickets) that the instrument would be accepted. They had also checked in without problems... 

David Abrahams, Head of Legal Services at the ISM, said: ‘We are deeply concerned about the recent cases involving musicians travelling on flights with their instruments.'

‘The idea that musicians should be forced to purchase an additional seat on board an aircraft because they are carrying an instrument that can be stored safely in the overhead lockers is unfair, discriminatory and irrational. These airlines are punishing musicians for being musicians.'

Is this violin policy a corporate extortion fiddle?

Maybe legislation is the only way to put a stop to this pernicious nonsense. It shouldn't be necessary, but if it is, it had better be done sooner rather than later. Because if other airlines see fit to follow suit (hopefully they won't, but sometimes viruses mutate...) musicians will end up unable to travel. And then there will be no more Mahler; only Concerto for Laptop.

We're all aware of the unspoken subtext of budget airtravel. "Because it's cheap, the customers will put up with anything. So let's sink as low as we can: they deserve no better; they are contemptible because they allow us to treat them like pigs." It's a vicious circle.

Don't put up with it. Make a stand before it's too late. If it takes lawsuits, marching protests, the lobbying of MPs and so forth, then so be it. And join Musicians Against Ryanair here.

Yours sincerely, Furious of East Sheen.




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September 3rd, 2010
2:09 PM
I think detractors of Musicians Against Ryanair often assume because THEY live in central London or some such urban centre with a vast choice of airlines that we all do. Not true! Secondly, this is discrimination and the EU allows freedom of travel for ALL workers. Thirdly, small instruments would be put at great risk if left with baggage handlers, not to mention that if they actually got lost the trauma that would cause is unthinkable. The vast majority of musicians struggle to make a living and the fact that Ryanair has singled out musicians - who must now pay a double fare - by changing its policy is an attack on us. Michael O'Leary knows only his bottom line, Musicians Against Ryanair will attempt to reduce that so he notices how much money he is already losing from our choice (where possible) of other airlines. It might take some time, but in the end we will prevail. As the line from Puccini's Turandot states: 'Vincero! Vin...cerrrrrrrrrrr....o!!!

Jessica Duchen
September 1st, 2010
7:09 AM
Hi John, nice to see you here. The crucial question is: how much extra did the airline charge you for carrying photographic equipment? Did they make you pay several hundred pounds at the last minute for a human being's seat for it, only to insist once on board that it went in the overhead compartment? I don't expect people would mind so much if they were charged a reasonable, extra amount for delicate extra hand-luggage, but to force the last-minute payment of hundreds of £s remains outrageous. A sum of, say, £25 to take on board photographic/musical/sports/etc apparatus that requires not to be put in the hold wouldn't be unreasonable. But £190 is.

August 28th, 2010
9:08 AM
Although as Jessica knows I am a long-standing supporter of classical music and musicians the implied parallel between the post-terrorist restrictions and Ryanair's rules is completely false. Be it remembered first that from top to bottom classical music depends on charity - or as we prefer to call it sponsorship, overt subsidy and the covert subsidy provided for example by bread-winning partners. Ryanair is a budget airline. It is not a monopoly. It pricing is partly determined by its allocation of the finite space in an aircraft to customers. Its rules on carry-on luggage are absolutely clear. The restrictions on the dimensions of carry-on luggage are there for a reason - the airline is not psychic and cannot know in advance which customers are going to bring less carry-on luggage so as to contribute their space to those who would like to bring more. A violin case does not fit the dimensions needed to ensure that each passenger can bring their stated allowance - shape of luggage is important here, and a violin-shaped case takes up much more space than the standard approved one. There is no justification - not to say case - for musicians' whining about this, much less mounting a public petition. Ryanair does not owe them a living. Musicians can fly BA, who are always helpful, or with any other airline of their choice. I write as a photographer who was caught out by the Ryanair rules myself. Camera bags that don't quite fit the rules and odd shaped cases containing violins simply don't meet the stated Ryanair criteria for carry-on luggage. End of. What is unforgivable, however, is Ryanair's alleged acceptance of a violin and case as hand-luggage and it subsequent reneging on the undertaking - but that is not, shall we say, an open and shut case for endless discussion here, but a matter for the lawyers.

August 27th, 2010
10:08 PM
In the US only one airline guarantees that a musician can bring an instrument into the cabin: Northwest. All others are sticking to their size limitations for carryon luggage. United's customer service call center (in India) informed me that, 'Of course you may carry on your guitar, so long as it is only 18 inches long and 24 inches wide.' I now ship my instrument Fedex to my hotel. Still cheaper than buying a seat for it, and no chance of being bumped from my flight.

August 27th, 2010
11:08 AM
The more I hear of Mahler (after 40 years of him) the more 'schmalzy','kitsch' and shallow I find him whereas my love of Sibelius has never ceased to grow.

August 27th, 2010
10:08 AM
I've never quite understood the vitriol thrown at Ryanair by some musicians; see that very FaceBook group for prime examples. It's not as if Ryanair has any need, desire, or obligation to carry any particular person or particular item of luggage; if they are difficult about certain things, then perhaps musicians should simply decide not to fly with them. Problem solved. But why the fuss? It's as if musicians believe they have a 'right' to carry their instruments on board, over and above any other passenger's luggage. I understand that to do so is a reasonable request, and so do the majority of airlines, so there isn't really a problem. Presumably the only reason anyone wants to fly with Ryanair is that it is cheap, or accesses slightly unusual locations. Equally presumably, if Ryanair were somehow forced to provide the level of customer service and care of 'better' airlines, that some musicians demand, they would no longer be able to offer such low fares and may not fly to the more out-of-the-way destinations any more - in which case you may as well travel on any old airline anyway. As far as the 'cellist on the Eurostar goes, it's a good quip, but without further information it's difficult to know how reasonable or otherwise this was. One assumes that the 'cellist was unwilling to leave the instrument in the guard's area or luggage van, and IIRC the luggage racks on the Eurostar aren't really suitable. Most 'cellists I know would prefer their instrument to remain within sight, and on a seat, in this situation. If the train is sold out, how can you expect Eurostar to suddenly find a spare seat - chargeable or not - for the 'cello? To be guaranteed a seat, the instrumentalist should buy one (a child fare is normally permissible); on not-Ryanair airlines, this is the norm, would you expect a 'cellist to rock up at an airport and just expect that they can take their 'cello on board without a ticket? No, you wouldn't, so why should that be different for the train? Many train companies are quite nice about this, of course, and one can talk round most guards who aren't so convinced, but that's no guarantee of a space for the 'cello, the only one of which is to buy a seat. (*Disclaimer: I appreciate that the situation the ISM refer to is slightly different, in that Ryanair had previously assured the family that the violin would be permitted, but the ground staff decided otherwise. This is clearly a problem within the company which is to the detriment of travellers and should be resolved speedily. However, the implication by much of the FaceBook group that musicians should have some special status to carry their instruments anywhere strikes me as a bit daft; there's competition in the airline sector for a reason, musicians should make use of it.)

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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