Musicians and Airlines Are Squabbling Over Frequent-Flier Miles; ‘He Could Have Played the Flute, But No’
Cellist Lynn Harrell at Los Angeles International Airport with his cello before a flight to Boston on Sunday. His cello is his 15-pound travel companion.
Renowned cellist Lynn Harrell travels the world on two airline tickets—one for himself and one for his beloved companion, his $5 million, nearly 300-year-old cello. “Cello Harrell” gets its own boarding pass and even collects frequent-flier miles in its own account. Many cellos do, even for high school musicians.
But two seats don’t always equal twice the miles. Delta Air Lines’ frequent-flier rules only allow people, not musical instruments, to collect miles, and Delta has been auditing accounts to catch frequent-flier scofflaws. Violating the rules can draw a severe penalty: Delta wiped out not only Cello Harrell’s SkyMiles account, but also Lynn Harrell’s personal SkyMiles account last year. Total loss: half a million miles. And Delta banned him from its loyalty program.
Musicians often buy airline seats for their instruments so they have a secure place for the expensive items. But should musicians get double airline miles? “The punitive nature of stripping me of my miles smarts,” said Mr. Harrell, 69, who tours through Europe, Asia and the Americas, often on full-fare tickets. He tried to pull strings with Delta, but the airline refused any appeal.
Extra miles for extra tickets is a growing, thorny issue for airlines as more passengers seek extra seats for various reasons, from being overweight to traveling with a pet. Airlines encourage many to buy two seats to avoid liability for valuables and help larger customers avoid encroaching on neighboring passengers. Delta says the intent of its program is to reward customers for the duration of the flight. “An object doesn’t have a loyalty experience,” a Delta spokesman said.
The benefits that come to double-seat purchasers vary by airline. United Airlines says it double-credits miles to a traveler’s account for the purchase of a second seat, whether for a cello or because the customer needs the extra space. But American Airlines and Delta both say miles accumulate one time per flight, regardless of the number of seats purchased, and only a person can have a frequent-flier account.
In the early years of airline loyalty programs, that requirement helped protect travelers from having employers seize frequent-flier miles earned on business travel. Many companies could reduce their travel costs by using frequent-flier miles for business trips if miles didn’t have to be paid to personal accounts. Having individuals collect miles kept travelers loyal to a particular airline even when a company might prefer its employee fly a different airline to save money.
Harrell collected miles for years from Delta, but in 2001 the airline sent Mr. Harrell a letter saying the practice violated its rules. Mr. Harrell stopped for a while, he says, but Delta agents trying to be helpful suggested they could open an account for his cello. He resumed collecting miles. (If agents were encouraging travelers to open accounts for instruments, “that’s not a reflection of our policy,” Delta’s spokesman said.)
Mr. Harrell walks through the American Airlines terminal with his cello strapped to his back at the Los Angeles International Airport Sunday. . Mr. Harrell is a major international star, a two-time Grammy Award winner and a frequent guest of orchestras world-wide. In recent seasons he has collaborated with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist André Previn. In 1994, Mr. Harrell appeared at the Vatican with the Royal Philharmonic in a concert that was the Vatican’s first official memorial to the Holocaust.
Mr. Harrell collects miles for his cello on United. But after Delta cut him off, Cello Harrell stopped collecting miles on American as a precaution against another stern punishment.
“It weighs only 15 pounds and it doesn’t eat,” Mr. Harrell said of his traveling companion, which has to always have a window seat because, when strapped in, it can block access to the aisle for a passenger in an emergency. Mr. Harrell said he wonders if Delta offices in Atlanta have motivational posters that read, “Only You Can Prevent Cello Miles Theft.”
Delta said Mr. Harrell’s account was discovered in an internal audit, and the company wiped out his personal account after determining he had been warned in 2001 but was still violating rules. Audits continue, but the spokesman declined to say how many other accounts have been terminated.
Cellists say earning miles on their extra seats is important to defray high travel costs when orchestras around the world are struggling financially. Buying two tickets for a prominent soloist—especially if the tickets are $7,000 business-class international seats—can dissuade some orchestras, or cause them to book a pianist or violinist who wouldn’t require an extra airline seat. So cellists use miles to buy seats for instruments or upgrades.
The practice starts early. One mother of a college-age cellist who started traveling with a ticket for his cello during high school says Delta agents set up a frequent-flier account for the teen’s cello. SkyMiles account statements go to the mother’s email address. The cello has the same birth date and gender as her son for booking reservations.
“Delta even gave him his own seat-belt extender for the cello,” she said, adding that the cello continues to collect miles. “He could have played the flute, but no.”
Traveling with instruments has long been difficult for musicians, who complain that airlines often enforce their own rules inconsistently. Some flight crews object to large instruments like cellos, while others are helpful and accommodating. Occasionally crews try to force musicians to give up seats on full flights, not realizing the instrument’s seat was purchased. Under federal law, seated cellos require a window seat. Cellos are belted into seats with seat-belt extenders—some musicians prefer the instruments to rest neck down and some seat them upright.
Mr. Harrell, seen performing in 2010, bottom right, is a two time Grammy Award winner with a discography of over 30 recordings . German cellist Alban Gerhardt traveled 22 years checking his cello as baggage in a sturdy case. Last month, disaster struck at Washington’s Dulles International Airport when the Transportation Security Administration opened the case during a baggage check. When Mr. Gerhardt arrived in Chicago, he found his bow broken in half and a note from TSA saying it had opened the case for inspection.
Mr. Gerhardt, who checked the condition of the cello upon arriving at Dulles from Germany, believes a TSA agent at Dulles removed the cello and bow, rechecked for the flight to Chicago, and didn’t properly seat them in the case. When the lid closed, it snapped the bow in two. Later he discovered that the neck of the cello was cracked.
“They must have taken it out completely. It’s a rather tight fit, but it’s not rocket science,” he said. “They had to open and close it in a completely brutal way.”
A TSA spokesman said the agency reviewed the checkpoint video and could not determine that the inspection resulted in the damage.
The Heinrich Knopf bow cost $20,000 and the Goffriller cello, made in 1710, will have to be sent for repair for two to three months. He says he’ll have to play his concert schedule around the world with borrowed cellos.
After he posted about his broken bow on Facebook and a blog for musicians posted his account, the head of TSA’s Dulles Airport operation contacted him, apologized and asked for details of his trip so video of the baggage inspection could be analyzed. TSA encouraged him to file a claim, with a statement from his bow maker on the cost. “I was pleasantly surprised,” Mr. Gerhardt said.
Close. Meanwhile, after 50 years of playing the same instrument, Mr. Harrell has decided to sell his $5 million Montagnana cello, made in 1720 in Venice. He has a cello made in 2008 that he says he loves playing, and will be in concert with it for three nights starting Thursday with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
He can’t understand why he must keep fighting for the rights of his wooden traveling partner. “Someone behind a desk got irritated,” he says. “Cello Harrell was punished, and also its companion.
A version of this article appeared March 14, 2013, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: When Flying, Are Cellos People Too?.