Should a cello get frequent flyer miles?

For musical instruments, the world of air travel can be fraught with peril, confusion and little reward.

It's hard out there for a cello. Especially for one that's logged more frequent flyer miles than your average jet-setter, only to have those miles taken back by an airline that will sell the instrument a ticket, but then won't let it reap the same rewards bestowed upon its human travel companion.

"Cello Harrell," the beloved $5 million, 300-year-old instrument of Grammy-winning cellist Lynn Harrell, and its owner have both been banned from Delta's SkyMiles rewards program because the airline said it only gives miles to humans, even though Harrell has to purchase a seat for the instrument, the Wall Street Journal reported.

"An object doesn't have a loyalty experience," a Delta spokesman told the Journal.

Airlines have varied policies on the miles awarded to those who purchase two tickets, whether for a rare musical instrument or for someone who just needs more space, but  Delta says only a person can have a frequent flyer account.

That means that nearly half-a-million frequent flyer miles racked up by Cello Harrell and its owner were voided when Delta canceled both accounts last year. The cello collected miles for years, until Harrell received notice from Delta in 2001 that he was violating its rules. Delta agents, however, were the ones who suggested he open an account for the cello, the Journal reported.

Delta says that if agents did in fact suggest this to Harrell, "that's not a reflection of our policy." Cello Harrell does collect miles on United, but Harrell canceled its American Airlines account as a precaution.

Cellos have to have window seats as to not block passengers in case of emergency, and they require seat-belt extenders.

Related: US proposes 'musical instrument passports'

New York City-based cellist Caleigh Drane has brought her cello on board airplanes and said it is often a challenge. "I've had airlines tell me I've had to sit in the front row only, and they've kicked grandmas out of the front row," she said. "Sometimes the cello has to sit upside down in the window seat. And the cello always has to have its seatbelt on. Sometimes they use a bungee cord."

Whether anyone helps her with the unwieldy instrument is also up for grabs. "Sometimes the flight attendants will help me, other times they'll just stare at me like I have six heads, because they've never seen this happen."

Musicians often bring instruments aboard flights because when checked, thousands of dollars of damage can result from unfortunate accidents.

German cellist Alban Gerhardt's Gofriller cello, made in 1710, was damaged while traveling from German to Chicago via Washington, D.C. The neck of the cello was broken, and a $20,000 bow was snapped in half. The Transportation Security Administration had opened the cello for inspection at Dulles International Airport.

Gerhardt believes the cello was damaged during inspection. "They must have taken it out completely. It's a rather tight fit, but it's not rocket science," he told the Journal. "They had to open and close it in a completely brutal way."

The TSA told Gerhardt he could file a claim for the damages and offered to examine the details of the cello's inspection.

Drane has also had unfortunate experiences with cello inspection. "I've had bomb squads check my cello before. That happened to me in Mexico City. I had a bomb squad [officer] come and put latex gloves on and rub his fingers across my cello, which I was really not cool with."

The TSA recommends packing brass instruments in checked baggage. Stringed instruments, like Cello Harrell, however, can be taken on as carry-on items.

"If you have an instrument in your checked baggage, include short written instructions, where a security officer will notice them, for handling and repacking your instrument. Make sure these instructions are very clear and understandable to someone with no musical background," the agency advises.

But as with any piece of checked luggage, musical instruments can be misplaced or go AWOL.

Drane's cello once wound up in Los Angeles instead of Sacramento, where she was scheduled to perform. "When I was on tour in Mexico all the bassists didn't have their basses for the dress rehearsal before the concert, so we had to borrow basses from a local high school," she recounted. "It was hilarious because we were playing ... and the entire orchestra burst out laughing and we had to stop. We couldn’t keep playing. It sounded like a dying cat in a blender."


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