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Musicians rage as airline breaks neck of precious instrument

Wu Man is a pipa virtuoso, Musical America’s 2013 instrumentalist of the year.


On Friday she was flying from San Diego to New Haven to play with the Kronos Quartet. Changing planes at Philadelphia, she was unable to stash he instrument in the overhead compartment of a small US Airways jet.

She sought permission to strap it into the vacant seat beside her. A flight attendant said she could not do that and offered to stow the pipa in the clothes locker. Opening the locker, the attendant dropped the pipa, breaking its neck.


The pipa is both rare and personal to its player. Its material value can be measured in tens of thousands of dollars. Its emotional value is priceless.

Wu Man arrived in New Haven distraught. Arrangements were made to find a substitute pipa and she played the concert, by local accounts, sensationally.

Kronos protested to the airline and received the following tweeted reply: @kronosquartet I’m sorry about your instrument. Plz fill out a Passenger Property form  so we can resolve this. ^SH


It’s just one outrage after another with some of these airlines, especially on US internal flights. Be warned. Be careful.

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  1. Didn’t she carry the pipa in a case of some sort ? Anyway, what a tragedy!

    • Instrumentalist says:

      Cases are intended to protect the instrument from knocks during transportation. They certainly do not offer much, if any, protection against drops from great heights!

      • Gary Moore’s super-rare 1959 Les Paul was in a hard case in the back of a car in London when it was hit from behind by another vehicle. Unfortunately, the case wasn’t enough and the neck was badly damaged.

        Awful situation. This is why I travel with my cheaper set of drums so my expensive bubinga drums stay safe in my studio.

      • If the flight attendant dropped it while getting ready to put it in a locker it doesn’t seem it would have been from a great height. Wasn’t it in a case? A terrible thing , I’ve been fortunate when traveling with my guitar, no damage so far.

      • If the case is that black thing in one of the pictures, I don’t blame the airline. There are many options nowadays for protection for instruments.

        For an instrument which is probably irreplaceable and that costs that much, I wouldn’t trust it’s life on whether or not it ends up in an overhead or not.

        Many musicians have metal flight cases with padding that hold their cased instruments.

        I’ve worked in Aviation and am a musician.

        Also on the matter of communication between airline and passenger.

        Where has proper professional correspondence gone?

        Send an email or make phone calls. Have we come to an age where a tweet is enough? I believe twitter is unprofessional and I don’t like that a well known chamber group would use that communication method.

        Doesn’t make either side look very professional.

        • Music Fan says:

          Sometimes large companies like an airline will respond quicker to a tweet or a FB post because it is a public complaint. Otherwise, it gets lost in the shuffle.

        • Doesn’t look as if it were strapped into the case or braced. IF it were strapped it would have had to go over the strings or neck possibly weakening the neck for the break. Airlines will only pay a small part of the value of anything lost or damages anyway. I hope she had it insured.

    • Grannie Cool says:

      You can see the pipa IN the case with its neck broken in the second picture !

  2. This is very worrying and points up the difficulty that airlines face in defining which instruments (and their cases – which can add substantially to size and weight) can be carried free of charge and which need to have a seat bought for them. Size of aircraft, differing bin dimensions and the increasing prevalence of code shares all further complicate the issue. The proposed changes to EU regulations due in 2015 may help the travelling musician but the airlines are having major problems wording clear and workable policies. When in doubt, the advice still has to be to buy an extra seat and ensure that it is correctly booked for cabin baggage and not as “Mr A Cello”.

    • How many musicians earn the kind of money that will enable them to routinely book a second seat for their instrument? They carry enough extra alcohol on board, for example. Those bottles weigh a lot more than a cello case.

      • Eduardo Fernandez says:

        Exactly. You might buy a second seat in a low-cost airline in a short flight in Europe. But probably not on a long flight with normal prices.

      • John Petrozino says:

        If you’re a professional musician, you work it out in your contract!

        • Not all professional musicians make the sort of money that the promoter is willing to do that. In fact most do not.

          • John Petrozino says:

            That’s an issue in and of itself. The point is you make the proper arrangments and if a promoter didn’t want to pay for my instrument’s seat, then they can find another musician! But if what Christina is saying is true, then it’s completely moot, anyway! You need to find a way to make it work or don’t do the gig; it’s that simple.

          • PK Miller says:

            Not everyone is in a position to do this. As I commented long ago, for every Pavarotti (substitute stratospheric artist of your choice) who decided what he was going to sing, where and when he was going to sing it, IF he was going to sing it at all, there are thousands more who haven’t that luxury. In my professional opera singer days, I was offered a Faust, in St. Louis, if I recall correctly. My fach is wrong for the part. I am a true Heldentenor. AS dramatic role like Cavaradossi would be one thing. But I dared not refuse the gig because I was a neophytic poor starving artist and neophytic poor starving artists take what they can get! Like I said originally,Josh Bell, or Yehudi Menuhin could BUY the bloody airline for pocket change, have their violins hand-carried across America or through the Swiss Alps. But not everyone is in the position to do this. It’s the situation of the friend whose oboe was smashed into 4 pieces. They would not allow her to take the oboe on board w/out buying a ticket for it which she could not afford. She would not stash it in the overhead compartment for fear it would be tossed around & broken. She thus, checked it w/airline’s assurances they’d take good care of it, knew how to handle precious, fragile musical instruments etc.

      • Christina says:

        This has come up lately as a problem as some airlines have not allowed passengers to purchase a second ticket for their cellos. Honestly–wouldn’t allow them to buy a second ticket!

    • My instruments that I’ve carried on hundreds of flights as a touring musician are worth 100 times what 99% of other passengers bring on a plane. To me it’s too bad if someone has to check a roller board full of clothes if it won’t fit overhead. Harsh but that’s the reality of a touring musician. I do everything possible to not take up too much overhead space including spending hundreds of $’s for the smallest, strongest cases.

  3. Inho Hwang says:

    She dropped the instrument, so it is her fault! How could this be the airline’s fault? And plus, if she uses the airline, you she have bought or made a hard case for that instrument. My friend sent his cello in a harden case as a baggage. When he found the instrument after China to US flight, the instrument was fine. When you travel, you personally have to take care of the instrument. Airline takes care of the baggage quite well. It is wrong to claim that the airlines should take more individual care for each and every baggages because there is just no need for that. Most baggages don’t need much care. If you put your instruments in a hard case, there would be no problem. This is not airline’s fault. It is that person’s fault.

    • Inho Hwang says:

      Ops, the airline attendant dropped the instrument. My mistake. But even so, she should’ve used a harden case for her instrument.

    • That’s the point; from my understanding of the article, she did.

      • Yes, you have to take responsibility for your instrument but having a hardcase doesn’t guarantee anything. I have friends who have put their cellos under which have come out broken when they pick them up at their arrival location. I also have a friend who repeatedly packs his guitar with socks and things so that if it gets checked it HOPEFULLY won’t break. Even with his hardcase and all the precautions, he still has to worry because those instruments are very fragile and the hardcase may or may not say it. I know I personally have to tell just about every stewardess that my viola isn’t going underneath on every flight I get on. I refuse to do it because despite having an extremely durable case you just have no idea what will happen and I don’t trust the people who put the loaders. I’ve watched them literally toss instruments onto the loading belts. The issue is that most people on US Airlines are insensitive to the fact that instruments are not normal luggage; it’s not just a bunch of shoes and clothes. And they not only don’t understand that, but most of the time don’t care.

        • (That’s in response to Ingo Hwang, not jules. Oops)

        • Jill Spriggs says:

          This is a problem that crosses airlines. And even if instruments are carefully packed in hard-shell cases it doesn’t mean the airline would take reasonable care of it. Here’s a YouTube video of what happened to one musical groups’ guitars:

    • Alejandro García Iglesias says:

      She didn’t dropped the instrument, it was the flight attendant who did, so it IS airline’s fault.
      I did flew with my sitar in it’s case, and the case inside of a very solid wooden box i built myself. I can tell you it’s very sad to see a broken box after coming down of the plane, even though the sitar and it’s case themselves were fine, but i had other personal things inside of the box, and it’s not a funny situation having to get another suitcase and repack your stuff. Of course, nobody cared except one employee of the airline who got me a “lost” suitcase.
      I really hope situation improves for traveling musicians.

  4. Bethany says:

    This is outrageous

  5. Ellen Manthe says:

    The fact that the seat was vacant and she could have secured the instrument beside her is what is most disconcerting. One thing on a full plane, but no one was going to suddenly appear in the seat mid-flight. There must be a way to stow instruments on the smaller aircraft used so often today. Musicians frequently fly with their instruments, and shipping them ahead is not practical or usually possible. Please fix this situation.

  6. Sharon Fowler says:

    My son travels by air and is a professional tuba player. He puts it in storage, but it is in a very hard case that he pulls behind him when walking. It has numerous FRAGILE- MUSICAL INSTRUMENT signs on it and has never been damaged. It is brought out of storage to him through a special door at the airport. Carrying it on a plane without a hard case to protect it is ridiculous. Stupid airline, but I have to wonder about the musician as well.

    • Ted Seitz says:

      We all travel with a hard case. Tubas don’t have the vulnerability for breakage that ancient wooden instruments have. Dents can be prevented by a hard case, but there’s still no protection from hard impact. It’s the same as if your SUV hits a brick wall. The passengers don’t hit the wall, they hit the edge of the passenger compartment; but they’re killed or injured nonetheless.

    • Kathleen says:

      Sharon Fowler: I have to say (as a trombonist) that I’m with Ted—brass players have it somewhat easier taking their instruments on planes because the metal instrument doesn’t have the same vulnerabilities as a wooden one. I know bassoonists who carry on their instruments, at any cost, because of the pressure changes during flight that could damage the instrument. This often makes their flight costs twice as expensive as they would be normally.

      I agree that a hard case at the very least is essential and that musicians need to take as much responsibility as possible for their instrument when they travel, but that is no excuse for airlines to be careless. People who fly pay a lot of money to do so, and sometimes flying is the only feasible way to get where they need to go in the time they need to get there. A multi-million-dollar airline should be capable of getting a musical instrument from one place to another intact.

  7. PK Miller says:

    Flying itself is a nightmare enough today. My Partner will soon begin his annual 4-week residency at the Paris Conservatoire and dreads the flight more and more every year. The hassles of negotiating the hassles and Homeland INsecurity (sic!), being at JFK 2 hours before flight time and waiting around, which he is not good at (nor am I!).Tim is fortunate that his “instrument” is his voice. We had a friend & colleague whose cello was badly damaged by a careless airline employee when she did the ostensible “right thing” and checked it. She could NOT afford to buy it a round trip ticket. We’re talking a journeyman type of player not a Bell or Menuhin who could buy the bloody airline itself for pocket change. Another’s oboe was irreparably damaged by another careless airline employee. An airline mechanic friend says one would not want to watch airline employees loading/unloading baggage. It would make you ill. It’s a major problem for ANYONE who is not a big name soloist who, indeed, could buy their own jet or buy the airline itself and have at their disposal 24/7. Shipping ahead has its own perils. The US Post Office is not noted for its sensitive handling. I swear, if you mark it “fragile” “Handle With Care” they will play catch with it. A CD I sent to my nephew and his family in Iowa arrived 2 weeks late, badly cracked.

    It’s a lack of accountability, and the hiring of the least common denominator, all protected by militant unions. And it’s the deterioration, absolute VACUUM of customer service in this country. We pay more and more for less and less. Tim says I would be appalled at what the airlines charge for a bloody Pepsi!

  8. Grannie Cool says:

    This is far from the first time this has happened to musicians. This guy fought long & hard over his breakage & was NEVER reimbursed. He now has a book as well as his “hit” video !

  9. Sounds like an excellent opportunity for someone to design a better type of instrument case! There is obviously a market.

  10. As a professional musician I travel with a classical guitar often. There are a few things that experience has taught me about airlines and musical instruments: (1) Have a good sturdy case for your instrument! Many companies now make custom cases constructed from materials like carbon fiber that are light weight yet really protect your instrument. And they are made to order to fit you instrument … no matter how “unusual” it may be. Anyone working with Kronos has surely seen such cases, as most were initially made for string players, though now many of the companies making such cases make them for virtually any instrument. You measure your instrument to find which basic size option best accommodates your instrument, then you take precise measurements and make tracings of your instrument, all of which you send to the manufacturer, and they build the case around your instrument’s specs. Karura, Accord and Hoffee are just three of the many companies building such cases they run from about $750 to about $1500 depending on size and options (obviously a string base case costs more than a violin case). (2) get insurance for your instrument and case (if you have one of these custom cases). Companies like Music Pro offer very reasonable rates: about $150 per $20,000 of coverage for worldwide 24-7 coverage for repairs and/or replacement. The reasons for getting specific instrument insurance from a company specializing in such coverage (and not just a rider on your home or apartment insurance) are both the obvious facilitation of replacement of and/or repairs to your instrument, but also because the insurance companies will use their lawyers to chase the airline for the full value of replacing or repairing your damaged or destroyed instrument. When the airlines realize how much their negligent treatment of our valuable instruments really costs their bottom-line, they will treat our instruments with the care they deserve. (3) Always carry your instrument to the plane, never check it curbside or with other “checked” baggage. This limits the amount of handling by baggage handlers, who are harried at the best of times. If your instrument will not fit overhead or under a seat, then it will be checked in the cargo bay by those stowing the baggage plane side, often as you watch, and will be retrieved where you de-board the plane, like a checked baby carriage. While this doesn’t give you a 100% guarantee that no damage will happen to your instrument or case (I had an Accord Carbon Fiber case destroyed in front of my eyes as I waited to retrieve my axe after gate checking it because it would’t fit inside the passenger cabin of a small commuter flight, but the instrument had no damage at all), generally gate checking minimizes the chances of damage, by limiting the amount of handling. This is the worst case scenario, the best case scenario for instruments that won’t fit over head is when a sympathetic flight attendant offers to place your instrument in a safe place like the clothes locker. Had Wu Man’s pipa been in a secure hard case the drop described when placing it in the clothes locker would not have harmed the instrument. As sad as this story is, it is hard to not see some of the responsibility being Ms Man’s, had she carried her instrument in a sturdy case it would have easily withstood the drop described. While the airlines routinely treat our instruments poorly (like all checked baggage) we have to be proactive in protecting what we hold so dear …… our instruments, if we expect them to survive the rigors of the road

    • Nothing in the article mentioned the type of case used. I would be very surprised if a musician such as Wu Man did not have the best possible case for her pipa.

      Regarding insurance: Insurance may protect the monetary value of an instrument but of course that is only a small part of an instrument’s worth. Again, I’m sure Wu Man’s pipa is insured, but that doesn’t lessen the blow of having your instrument broken.

      • Nick Aanson, Ph.D. says:

        Most musicians are very attached to their instruments. My pipa is in a hard case and I always carry it onboard, and I’ve never had problems with it so far (but I never fly US Airways, either). From the pictures, it appears that Mme. Wu’s pipa was in a soft case. I’ve seen many professional pipa players in China using the soft cases because of the weight. I always cringe when I see a pipa in a gig bag. My pipa is “only” worth about 1/5th of Mme. Wu’s, but I am very careful with it.

        It seems to me that stringed instrument players seem a little more personal about their instruments. No offense intended to brass or wind instrumentalists (I play winds as well), but this is just my personal experience.

    • This is not necessarily true about dropping. I have an expensive, hard case for my cello and it has been dropped (not from a great height) and still been damaged. The shock of impact can be enough. One such incident that occurred in January saw a member of my string trio knock the case over onto its front as it was standing upright. The result of impact was the fingerboard got knocked off. Not a severe injury to the instrument, but inconvenient and frustrating,

  11. No one is immune. A brilliant young bassist from Eastman arrived recently in Houston for his graduate audition at Rice University with the neck broken clean in half and snapped off from the fingerboard.

    The instrument was in its case.

    Southwest Airlines absolved itself from all blame. . . as the instrument was “in its case.”

    • Linda Grace says:

      And yet…Southwest Airlines was very helpful to me last week when I was traveling with a viola. Though last on the plane on two legs of the trip, the stewards rearranged the overhead baggage on both flights so that the instrument would fit in the overhead bin.

      • I think what is scary is that people have such different experiences with the same airline! It makes it hard to know who to fly.

  12. Mark, was the Bass insured? If it was, the bass will be replaced or repaired and the airlines will not be able to run their usual B.S. by saying the instrument was ” FRAGILE OR IN A CASE” , as they often do. While this won’t help with the availability of the instrument for the audition, and that is a terrible situation, if enough musicians make claims via their insurance companies, the airlines will be economically forced to deal more carefully with our instruments. You are right that no one is immune, and nothing in this life is perfect, after all, planes even crash and no case will withstand that. But we as musicians can be more pro-active about our instruments. The A.F of M. has been actively involved in this in recent years and I have personally noticed some changes. For example airlines used to routinely expect you to leave your instrument on the tarmac, even in inclement weather and some gave you no ticket to proof you had checked the instrument when availing yourself of the gate check option. When I would question them about this, and ask if they would check their car without proof, they would shrug and say that was the only procedure available. Well U.S. airlines (for the most part) no longer do that. If the weather is bad they often let you bring the instrument on the plane and then personally hand it to a baggage agent to stow in the cargo bay, and the red tickets that they give you to put on your instrument now have a part that tears off which contains a # corresponding to the # on the ticket attached to you case. So if you have to make a claim you can prove that you did indeed check your instrument with the airline you traveled with. The situation will only get better incrementally, and even that will only occur when it becomes clear that it is in the economic self interest of the airlines to avoid damaging and/or destroying our instruments!

  13. This is an unfortunate story. I too wonder if the instrument was in a hard case. It’s hard for me to believe it was. As far as the response tweet, I think it was appropriate. The airlines will not carry insurance to cover a rare and priceless instrument, but will repairable by the proper expert. We take risks when go out into the world to perform. This sometimes happens.

  14. She should’ve used a hard case. Unfortunately, people drop things. I’m not entirely sure why it’s the airlines’ fault.

  15. bratschegirl says:

    US Airways is legendary among string players as the worst of the worst in terms of how it treats instruments. A colleague of mine, a violist whose case fits easily in an overhead bin, was forced to check the case and bows and hold the viola, wrapped in a blanket, on her lap for the duration of a flight.

    I have traveled with orchestras on commercial flights. When instruments are checked, no matter the precautions taken, flight cases/extra padding/etc etc, almost invariably there is damage; sometimes minor, sometimes dreadful. Airline staff will tell you they walk the instruments to and from the plane, and instead you see them tossed onto the conveyor belts. TSA staff open cases, put instruments back in the wrong way round, and force the cases closed, rendering brass instruments unplayable.

    This is terrible for the instrumentalist. I also feel terrible for the flight attendant, who seems to have been trying to do the right thing and find a way to keep the instrument inside the passenger cabin. Why on earth didn’t she have the player carry it to the closet? Better for the player not to turn it over to someone else, better for the airline not to create responsibility where it didn’t have to.

  16. Francis the Talking Mule says:

    It’s not difficult: The flight attendant dropped the instrument. Therefore the flight attendant is responsible for the damage. Period.

    Flight cases are nice, but they’re not foolproof. I use a Calton flight case for my mandolin, and yet I know a mandolinist whose instrument was broken because of a 2-foot drop inside a Calton. There’s no way to prove that a flight case would have prevented this damage.

  17. M.D. Ridge says:

    I haven’t traveled with my “good” guitar in many years, ever since American Airlines put a forklift through the hard case of my limited edition Guild six-string, ripping the back right off both the case and the guitar! They would not let me stow it in the clothing locker; they made me put a FRAGILE tag on it; and then disclaimed responsibility because it was identified as FRAGILE. They did pay to repair it, but the repair took six long months, and the guitar was never quite the same again.

    I bought another guitar to use as a “shipper”—it’s quite a good one, but not my favorite; and I pack it up and ship it via FedEx to wherever I need it. (It’s deductible.) However, that’s within the US. Going to Europe or another continent would be a whole different problem.

    We are a litigious nation, but I really believe that unless we sue the airline in each and every instance of instrument damage, they won’t “get” it, nor will they pay attention. They do tend to pay attention to lawyers, especially when it will cost them money.

  18. Cheese and crackers! People and organizations need to stop being cheap and then whining or suing when things go wrong. If you have an irreplaceable instrument or a small child, buy them their own seats. Quit expecting the rest of us to make extra room for you “special” people and your stuff!

    • It isn’t “making room for special people and their stuff”. People with instruments small enough to bring on must do so in lieu of carry-on luggage. Their instrument is taking up the same space that either a backpack or small roller-luggage would. Also, in regards to seats… I am currently a music student (cellist( in university, but I do a lot of flying with my instruments. I buy a seat whenever I can (which is not very often, since one must obviously pay full price for the seat), but when I don’t, I expect the baggage handlers to treat my instrument with some modicum of respect and care just out of decency. I’m sure you wouldn’t like to see your suitcase being manhandled on its way to the cargo bay.

  19. Marguerite Foxon says:

    If I were in her situation, I would insist that I be the person who stashes it in the locker, and I be the person who takes it out. I would absolutely not let the attendant handle it.

    • Nick Aanson, Ph.D. says:

      WARNING – once have your email address, you WILL be spammed to death.

      • PK Miller says:

        Unfortunately Nick’s postscript is correct: sign ANY online petition and you will never want for email again! It’s as bad as making a donation to charity in honor of a friend’s deceased loved one and getting myriad solicitations every week. And yes, as to the former, is among the worst offenders. Many of my friends post such petitions on Facebook and I just ignore them now. I don’t know how we effect change on our own except for letter writing campaigns, even, gasp, lawsuits! Again, not everyone can afford to pay for a seat for their instrument. My Partner, who does a semi-annual residency at the Paris Conservatoire, is fortunate: his “instrument” is his voice and knowledge of The Melodie.

  20. To be fair to US Airways (not something I’m always inclined to do), this isn’t horrendous negligence on their part.

    The flight attendant wasn’t insisting that the pipa be put in an unsafe place; the clothes closet would probably have been as safe as an overhead bin.

    The flight attendant dropped the instrument by accident – terrible, but the sort of thing that happens in life.

    And US Airways – so far – doesn’t appear to be stonewalling or trying to shift blame.

    • One other thing – a caution, I suppose, for traveling musicians.

      The flights that US Airways runs from its Philadelphia hub (and that United runs from its New York/Newark hub) to nearby Northeast Corridor cities are very short and low-altitude and use very small aircraft. There will always be storage issues on these flights; the planes often have no overhead bins at all.

      Holding your instrument in your lap isn’t considered a safe option: if the aircraft should have to stop suddenly and hard, whatever is in your lap can become a projectile. (That’s why they want purses and other small carry-ons to be able to fit under the seat in front of you.)

      As I’m sure poor Wu Man is thinking now, she’d have been better off going in from PHL airport to 30th Street Station (or flying from San Diego to Newark) and taking an Amtrak train to New Haven. Bear this in mind when making your travel plans, folks.

  21. I guess part of it is that both musician and airline crew take extra care and effort to ensure the instrument does not suffer any bumps, knocks or drops and part of it is just luck. I bought a Greek Bozouki while on holiday once and it costs about $600 Euros. But it came in a soft casing which meant I had to hand-carry it. It wasn’t able to get into the overhead compartment as there were a lot of bags and stuff. The Thai Airways stewardess offered to help me put the instrument in the clothes locker and I told her to take extra care since it is very fragile. She did and I got my instrument back in perfect condition from Greece to Singapore.
    My heart goes out to musicians whose instruments are damage wile traveling as I play the violin and guitar and love musical instruments. I too felt like a bag of nerves whenever I have to hand my instrument into the hands of someone else to take care of.

  22. Samantha Lo says:

    United Breaks Guitar

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