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British Airways would like to know the age of your instrument (before telling you to sod off)

Our friend and village neighbour Steven Isserlis wrote to his national carrier a while back, wondering why it refused to credit his cello with air-miles for a fully-paid seat and did not allow him to pay for the seat with his own accumulated points. Virgin, United, even Delta, he pointed out, now permit that.

British Airways replied with a set of rules, ending: I’m afraid membership to the Executive Club is only available to individuals over the age of 18.

Steven, quick as a flash, wrote back: I can assure you that my cello is over the age of 18 – in fact, he is 286 years old; so I do not see that as a valid reason for his not collecting BA Executive Club miles.

And this is what he got by way of airlines assurance:

Dear Mr Isserlis

 Keith Williams has asked me to thank you for your letter about using your Avios.

I hope you will understand, due to his responsibilities, it is not always possible for him to personally respond to every letter he receives.  As a member of his Executive Assistant’s team, he has asked me to reply on his behalf.

I am sorry you remain unhappy with our set guidelines.  It is always a concern when we have not met our members expectations and I would like to offer you my apologies for this.

While I thank you for your comments and suggestions, I’m afraid I am unable to comment on the terms and conditions applied by other airlines. 

Unfortunately, there is nothing more I can add to the information and advice you have already received, and the matter is now closed.

Moral of the story: if you’re playing an instrument in Britain, don’t fly the flag.
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  1. Assigning gender roles to a cello? Steven should be ashamed of himself!

  2. British Airways must be feeling the economic crunch big time. After all, oil and gas prices have been excessive for a decade or so, because of these Middle East and Central Asian wars and the impact on the oil and gas futures market of non-user traders, and, people no longer have the money to travel the way they used to. So, Mr. Isserlis who has done his part to uphold Britain’s place in the classical music world has been dissed by BOAC, Britain’s claim to infamy in the blue skies. (Freddie Laker, were he still alive, would agree with the characterization, would he not?) Maybe Maestro Isserlis’s 286 year-old friend should consult with Maestro Harrell’s Mr. Cello, and, as you suggest, not fly the flag.

    • “Excessive” oil and gas prices are not going to go away. It’s not just politics – there’s some solid geology involved.,9171,2110452,00.html

      • Anna: Your point is well taken, in that no one is discounting the limitation of world oil supplies and the impact it must have on market price- or, as you say, “there’s some solid geology involved”- ultimately that is where it all ends, and the article you cite makes the point, though it is somewhat dated- you might look at: for a more recent discussion of price and supply.
        The U.S. is now pumping much more oil from North Dakota and Texas and is believed to have sufficient developable natural gas reserves to make it self sustaining for a good number of years, but my point that the market price has also been inflated by the trading of oil futures and other market manipulation (as well as by the huge draw on supplies caused by the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, whether or not disputed by traders (Goldman Sachs, for one) is held by credible energy market experts who have so testified before Congress on this matter.

        • Ed, futures have little to do with it, as with crop prices. The shouting at them is daft – in effect they protect us from sharp rises and falls of price. They protect producers as well as consumers from uncertainty, and allow us all to ‘hedge’ our bets.
          If BA hadn’t a clue what oil prices would be in a year or five years, fares now would be much higher to allow them to cope with the uncertainty and possible spikes. By buying in advance, they know what they will pay and can trade accordingly. We also know that a flight to London or to Paris costs roughly X now, and probably will next month, and the month after… which is a huge planning benefit.

          Likewise with food, from the other end – farmers can do a deal to sell forward crops they have yet to grow. That gives them a certainty of income, meaning they know they can afford to buy a new tractor to plough the fields with, or whatever, rather than doing the work and then finding at harvest that there’s no demand for their wheat this year and they make a massive loss.

          On a much smaller scale, when you buy your concert tickets in advance, you do a similar thing – you’re paying out now for something yet to be delivered, because you want guarantee (as far as possible) of getting that thing on the date you want it, without risking the price going up because of high demand / sold out gig. Of course, you might call it wrong, and the hall is empty with the box office selling off tickets at rock bottom to get people in, and so you made the wrong call… but the certainty is, in some places, worth having.
          Likewise an orchestral musician wants to know what their salary will be for the year before they find out exactly how many concerts there are, or whether their band got a grant that year… they sell their services forward, rather than negotiating ‘spot’ prices at each concert. The certainty allows an orchestra to plan and manage, and allows players to know what they’ll be getting.

          Sorry, a bit off topic, but thought I’d jump in.

        • Ed, see below. It’s true that peak oil has gone out of fashion but we probably are facing a slow, painful oil crunch. Even the International Energy Agency has begun to admit this, every now and then. The doomers and gloomers have been saying so for years, anyway. I’ve been following the topic since the group of houses we live in has central heating powered by oil that will have to be replaced soon, and the other owners still think this is going to go away. I’d place high bets that it’s not. If you want some numbers, from the source of IEA no less, there’s a recent review of global supplies here and of OPEC (the Big Black Box) here: Sorry for staying off topic!

  3. I am afraid that airlines are basically allowed to create their own policies, and they are able to enforce them without any kind of arbitrage, unless you try to sue them. In my mind (I am a violinist), I feel that if one PAYS for a seat on an airline, and unless it is a hazard or goes against INTERNATIONAL laws, whatever that item is, it should be allowed to travel AND accumulate points / miles for rewards as long as those accumulations are then used for reward on the same item that accumulated it.

    Sounds simple, easy and logical — right? But then you have issues such as below of what is appropriate or not:

    1) Why aren’t pet’s allowed to be buried on human cemeteries? Is it hygenically wrong if everyone is already dead to start with?
    2) Why aren’t you able to walk into a top-notch Michellin 3-star restaurant wearing flip-flops? You are still going to pay the same for that meal, if you have a proper reservation?
    3) Here in US, you cannot gamble or drink until you are 21 but you are allowed to die for your country (military service) and vote when you are 18.
    4) And so on…

    One last point: As one can see from a link below, in 1929 (Warsaw), and then in 1999 (Montreal) there were conventions held that resulted in general international agreeements about lost luggage compensation:

    So I am sure that something like this can be looked at (inclduing the guranteed allowment of larger instruments onboard).

    My sympathy goes to all my fellow colleagues who have to deal with this!

    Misha Keylin

    • Misha,
      I’m sympathetic to the idea that if you pay for an object to travel then it should be allowed (with obvious restrictions). But I see no reason why any airline should be forced to give loyalty points – their own voluntary scheme – to whatever you decide; it’s their own scheme, and they can run it as they wish. If they all ran things the same it would defeat the point anyway! Would you next insist that they all offer the same reward values, which you deem to be ‘fair’, or are you only keen on legislating that they have to all offer the same points for the same seats?

      Regardless, in Mr. Isserlis’ case, I’d bet that most of the time he doesn’t pay for the travel anyway, and that concert promoters do: should they not be afforded the benefit of these magic points rather than the artist and his instrument, since they are paying for the seats?

      • “But I see no reason why any airline should be forced to give loyalty points”

        Why not Anon.? It’s the airline that’s arbitrarily deciding that you need to book a seat for a precious instrument by their own insufficient baggage policies. Therefore, if you need to book a seat for an inanimate object then the inanimate object becomes a passenger.

        And before you say that’s just silly, corporations are customers. They are inanimate objects.

  4. Only flew British Air once, they lost my bags. Never again they managed to blow me off for the value several Armani suits.

  5. Lesley Forsyth says:

    Air Canada told my daughter that since her cello was too old, ie 313 years old, it did not qualify for frequent flier points. This was followed up by an additional comment that it was an inanimate object!

  6. bratschegirl says:

    The airlines have discovered that it is more profitable for them to “sell” these miles to “partners” like hotels, florists, etc. etc. than it is to live up to the spirit of the programs as they originally set them out. When they can start figuring out ways to deny human passengers the right to accumulate and redeem them, they will do so.

  7. Larger instruments such as cellos should not be allowed in the main cabin at all. Far too dangerous.

    • Actually, a large instrument is far less likely to become a dangerous projectile in an airplane (because it’s too big to go sailing over the seats or up the aisle in the case of a sudden stop or drop) than a flute or violin.

  8. Norman,

    permit me, I don’t get all the excitement about Isserlis’ cello not earning frequent flyer miles.
    First, it should be pointed out that whenever Maestro Isserlis takes a flight for purposes of business (i.e. for a paid engagement) this is directly or indirectly covered by his fee. Talk about some of the presenters he has appeared for and they can sing you a song about negotiations drawn out (needlessly) on that point.
    Secondly, how is Mr. Isserlis tax treatment if he receives frequent flyer miles twice (i.e. also for what technically is a piece of luggage).
    Thirdly, if Mr. Isserlis so much insists on receiving the frequent flyer miles for his precious Vc., then maybe it would only be right and proper for the airline to protect itself by taking out specific insurance for that purpose, borne by Mr. Isserlis.

    Frankly spekaing, it would be much more in order to highlight the plight of rank and file Cellists, that face the problem of getting their cello on board at all.


  9. If a cellist is flying with his cello next to him and the aircraft has a three seat configuration, as is normal in economy class, how comfortable is the passenger next to the cello?

    • In a three seat configuration, the cello is put next to the window so it doesn’t block anyone from exiting their seat in an emergency. And the owner sits next to it. Not a problem.

  10. This debate is going to keep surfacing, since it is a dumb situation, with lots of not-quite logical reactions.
    There’s no moral issue to it – if airlines don’t want to issue air miles, then that’s up to them.
    It would be slightly to their benefit to sell full price tickets to cellos, since they weigh less than humans and so lighten the payload. BA for instance charges £40 for luggage overweight by up to 10 kg. If a person weights (say) 80 kg, and a cello about 10kg, then charging the same rate gives the airline a “freebie” of 70 kg, which might be worth £280. And that is ignoring food drinks and service. If they were sensible, airlines would offer a few air miles to incentivise cellists to switch carrier, but they don’t, in fact they discourage them – but they welcome obese passengers at no extra charge.
    Cellists can complain about this, but to little effect so far. I disagree with Peter above (a different Peter from me). If big-name players such as Isserlis and Harrell make a fuss, people read and discuss, even though – yes perhaps – someone else is paying. If Mr Nobody of 3rd desk in Smalltown Symphony complains, no one will care. So what’s the principle ? I like to think Isserlis and Harrell are using their reputation to publicise an issue on behalf of all cellists, not just staying quiet because they don’t feel so much pain (in the wallet).
    The tax comment is, I think, a red herring. Air miles are valueless unless used to claim a discount on tickets etc. Unless we also declare loyalty card discounts on baked beans and petrol to the tax man, then there is no issue (but I’d love to be put right on this).

  11. Think globally, play locally? Just Say No to flying? Doesn’t seem to solve the problem… still, if those prices keep going up, it might pay off. In reply to Ed above: The Forbes article you cite is about West Texas Intermediate. Where I live, Brent is more important, and Brent prices have been rising for years. The discrepancy in prices between WTI and Brent is larger than it has ever been! I dunno which of those prices is more important for kerosene cost. This link says Brent is “good for making kerosene”.

    All the best to y’all.

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