A musician who was on her way to join the Missouri Symphony Orchestra on Sunday to play for the summer season said she wasn’t allowed to board her United Airlines flight with her centuries-old violin. And after an ensuing scuffle with airline staff, her attorney says a lawsuit is likely.
According to the violinist, a supervisor at the United ticket counter at Houston’s Bush Airport told her she had to pay $50 to check her instrument, reports KPRC.com. But with a violin she says is hundreds of years old and worth tens of thousands of dollars, that was not happening, so she told the employee she wanted to carry it on.
“She was rude from the beginning saying, ‘These are the rules. All you can take with you are some personal items on the plane. And the instrument is too big and it’s not going to fit,’” the traveler told the news station.
Her ticket was a Basic Economy fare, which doesn’t let passengers stow luggage in the overhead bin, though United’s policy makes an exception for “small” musical instruments. It’s unclear exactly which instruments are considered “small.”
Under federal law, airlines must accept musical instruments as carry-ons, but a few conditions have to be met first: Airlines don’t have to prioritize musical instruments over other carry-ons, so they can be stowed only if there’s space available by the time the passengers board. If an instrument is too large to fit in the cabin stowage, it must be checked.
She said she asked for the supervisors full name, and the woman tried to remove the luggage tag from her bag to get her name as well. The violinist claims the supervisor threw herself on top of the suitcase in an attempt to remove the sticker from it, and a tug-of-war ensued.
“I start screaming, ‘Help, help, help, can somebody record what’s happening because this lady’s trying to take my personal suitcase from me,’” the violinist said.
The incident ended when the supervisor threatened to call airport security, she says, before walking way. She ended up booking a ticket on another airline on Tuesday.
United said in a statement that it was reaching out to her to “get a better understanding of what occurred and to offer her assistance,” and has refunded her airfare, and discussed the incident with its Houston employees.
But the passenger’s attorney now says a lawsuit is likely, calling the incident a “physical attack,” reports the Associated Press. Though her hands haven’t shown any immediate bruising or redness and the “odds of injury are low,” the stakes are high for her professional career, he said.
“You don’t grab a surgeon’s hands, a pitcher’s hands or a professional violinist’s hands,” he told the AP. “She knows she has to stand up to United and say you can’t treat professional musicians this way. I don’t understand why airlines, especially United, can’t simply deal with an issue and not turn it into a confrontation.”
Of course, this is far from the first dust-up between an airline and a musician: Back in 2009, United was the subject of a catchy complaint song written by musician Dave Carroll after the airline broke his $3,500 guitar.
More recently, in 2016 American Airlines apologized for preventing a musician from bringing her violin on board.
And just a few months ago, a cellist said he was kicked off an American flight after crewmembers told him his instrument wasn’t allowed on the plane, even though he’d purchased a seat for it.