Last week, Alaska Airlines made violinist Steve Tada trade his priceless violin's protective case for a cardboard box for a flight from Seattle to Juneau.
Tada, the concertmaster for the Juneau Symphony, was not alone in his experience. Local groups such as the Juneau Symphony and the Alaska Folk Festival, and others on the national level, have been concerned about a storm of recent complaints from musicians regarding the treatment of their instruments aboard Alaska Airlines planes.
Musicians long accustomed to carrying valuable instruments aboard as personal items were being told as they prepared to board that their instruments must be stowed without cases, or checked as baggage - and thus subjected to temperature extremes, possible theft and damage. And all too often, checked instruments were retrieved broken.
Such incidents are not likely to happen again, according to Alaska Airlines. The carrier announced this week that musicians will be allowed to carry on instruments that fit safely in overhead stowage.
"Basically the FAA has clarified the definition of our approved carry-on baggage policy and allowed additional leniency on high-value items," said Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Walsh on Thursday. "These (items) are exceptions to our carry-on dimensions."
Walsh said Alaska Airline's carry-on policy had been the same for years. Sometimes valuable or fragile items don't conform precisely to carry-on size limits, but are still small enough to fit on board aircraft, and airlines can make exceptions. These include delicate scientific instruments, human donor organs, fishing rods, valuable art - and musical instruments.
But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack customers saw much more rigid enforcement, Walsh said.
The change this week marks a new policy. Instruments that fit in overhead storage, such as violins, violas and small guitars, will be allowed on board. A musician still must purchase a seat for a larger instrument such as a cello.
Walsh said passengers will be allowed one carry-on and one personal item. An instrument would be a carry-on. A briefcase, purse or laptop computer constitutes a personal item. The policy will apply throughout the entire Alaska Airlines system.
It's good news to the Juneau Symphony and the Alaska Folk Festival. With upcoming classical music concerts and the week-long folk festival at hand, organizers were afraid that players would be unwilling and unable to attend.
Musician and folk festival board member Rex Blazer said he's flown with his violin about once a month for 15 years. The recently enforced restrictions made no sense, he said.
"An instrument is easy to search, it X-rays easily, it's skinny and fits in the overhead - it's nowhere near the weight of these baby carriers that people put on," he said.
"The FAA is blamed as the reason, but I've been flying twice a month since Sept. 11 and I haven't seen this on any other airline."
Blazer returned this week from the Folk Alliance conference in Florida, an annual national gathering attended by thousands of professional musicians, agents, presenters and recording industry representatives.
"Alaska Airlines was definitely a topic of discussion," he said. "People were really upset. A major booking agent, Helen Bommarito, was passing out a Seattle Times article on these problems."
Blazer said a letter was circulated from the president of the American Federation of Musicians to the U.S. undersecretary of transportation. The letter reiterated comments from Congress recognizing the special nature of musical instruments and urging the secretary to help work out the issues.
Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles wrote to Alaska Airlines concerning the matter, and the airlines responded March 26 with a letter saying that customers would be allowed to carry on size-appropriate instruments.
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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