When I was reading the editorial today regarding the new air passenger protection regulations you used the term “interestingly” when mentioning damage or loss of musical instruments. This is more than interesting. Many groups and organizations have been lobbying for a long time to get airlines to acknowledge the importance of musical instruments to a professional musician.
An instrument is a tool of the trade for a musician and their means to making a living. Often these instruments are worth thousands, and in some cases irreplaceable. They don’t make 100-year-old instruments (obviously). Replacing or repairing one that is damaged beyond repair is sometimes impossible. Even new professional-grade instruments can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.
Arriving at your destination with a gig in a few hours or the next day with a lost or broken instrument can have a devastating impact. Not to mention the bond an artist often has with their instrument. It often becomes not only part of the performance but part of the artist themselves. We are talking about a huge difference between a suitcase full of clothes and a tool of the trade, which in some cases is an irreplaceable tool.
The new Air Canada regulations will allow a passenger with an instrument to be part of the advance boarding in zone 2, allowing the musician to have a better opportunity to find space on board the plane. This is a big improvement, but one they don’t exactly advertise. It also can be in addition to the two pieces of personal carry-on luggage each passenger is allowed. I tested it out this week and the ticket attendant started to give me a bit of hassle but relented with a grunt of affirmation when I pointed out that (a) I could board in zone 2 even though my boarding pass said zone 3 and (b) that the instrument did not count as carry-on.
And of course we’ve all heard the horror stories of damaged instruments and the abuse they have often taken at the hands of irresponsible baggage handlers (“United Breaks Guitars”). There are some great baggage handlers out there, but unfortunately there are also some who just don’t care. Instruments that are carelessly thrown around can sometimes be worth more than the baggage handler’s wage for a month or two. If an airline is going to be in the business of moving people and their belongings, they need to be ready to take full responsibility for that trust being placed in them.
In addition to all of this, touring musicians spend thousands on air travel and usually spend considerably more time in airports and flying than they do on stage. It may sound glamorous touring the world but the stress of travel today and worrying about whether your instrument will arrive in one piece, well it just adds to the stress of an occupation that can be stressful enough.
So, I say it is more than just an “interesting” development, it is a critically important development for all travelling musicians plying their trade and trying to make a living. Now if we could just fix the copyright laws and make sure artists are compensated fairly!
Rob Oakie is executive director of Music P.E.I.