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23 August 2010

Qantas - war on violins?

Jon Rose Image: Jon Rose  


Dear Sir/Madam,

I am a professional violinist; I fly regularly on Qantas.

Yesterday, I tried to check in on QF 791 from Alice Springs to Sydney with my standard violin. I was told that the violin case was too long and would have to go in the hold. I have been a freelance violinist playing worldwide for nearly 40 years, travelling on most major airlines, and this has never happened before. I asked to see the manager; he was polite and considerate, but informed me that this was the new three-week-old Qantas policy. Treading the frugal and precarious financial line, as do most performers in the arts these days, I could not afford to miss the flight and pay for a ticket on another airline.

My regular violin case measures 78cm x 25cm x 15 cm and weighs in under 5kg. The total dimension of my violin case and contents under the Qantas total measurement system = 118 cm. Qantas total measurements for all domestic carryon luggage is, according to your website, 115 cm and 7 Kg. Thus, my violin is way under regarding your weight restrictions and precisely 3 cm over in your total dimension restrictions.

So, my violin traveled in the hold, while wheel-on-bags weighing many times more, at least three passengers carrying on 1.5-meter poster tubes, and one gentleman carrying on an enormous pair of flippers (much longer than my violin case) were let on without so much as a wink and a nod.

The purser on the flight, Stan Chabasinski, himself a violin owner, was very understanding about my predicament and went out of his way to insure that my violin was unloaded and handed to me at the exit of the plane on disembarking, so the instrument would not be damaged on the cart or baggage belt. My violin may not quite be in the Strad evaluation class, but it is worth a fortune to me, as I earn my livelihood with it.

The chances of finding another violin-playing purser on a Qantas flight are unlikely. However, the chances of again dealing with a Qantas check-in staff member who knows nothing about violins is high. So I'm in the position of either having to give up playing the violin for a living or giving up Qantas for good. It's difficult to estimate, but up to perhaps 5,000 other Australian professional violinists and students might have to make a similar decision. Certainly no international violinist, string quartet, or orchestra coming to perform in Australia will now take a chance with your airline. The ramifications of the following recent examples will have a flow-on effect for arts festivals of all sizes and musical genres - word travels fast in the music world.

Yesterday, I heard a ridiculous story, whereby Dene Olding, concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, had to cancel a flight because Qantas would not let him take his violin (a Joseph Guarnerius violin made in 1720 and probably insured for several hundred thousand dollars) into the cabin. I understand he was allowed onto a later flight if he signed a piece a paper that stated he was a member of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, an organisation that he left many years ago but is in theory sponsored by Qantas.

Emma Dean's violin horror story has already been well documented in the Daily Telegraph.

Markus Hodgson, operations director of Musica Viva, has told me of another astonishing story whereby a daughter of a colleague was told by a Qantas check-in employee that she must buy another seat for her violin (not a cello!). Pressured and probably inexperienced, she acquiesced, only to be told, once in the cabin, that her violin must go in the overhead locker, as it would be a safety hazard. Anyway, Musica Viva, as one of Australia's main tour management organisations in the field of classical music, is clearly concerned about this new Qantas directive, which is potentially discriminatory. Musica Viva has violinists flying in and out of this country all the time.

I called the Australian Chamber Orchestra for their view on the situation; after all, the national carrier is one of their chest-beating sponsors. Apparently, 'It is an issue'. By that, I assume more bureaucratic forms have to be filled out by already overworked staff, indicating all personal info, instruments, flight schedules, etc., so that each violin and viola playing member of the ACO can have their exemption, i.e. get on the plane with their musical instrument.

Today, I heard via mobile phone at Melbourne Airport from a violist colleague, employed for an overseas engagement by Opera Australia, that a special dispensation had had to be negotiated with Qantas management in order that he could travel to Europe with his viola. This is all so last minute and stressful for the musician-and amateurish behaviour from Qantas. Yesterday, he wasn't going; today, he is going; tomorrow (I guess), he may not come back. No matter what you think of the music, this opera took over five years to produce, and Qantas are making arbitrary decisions as if they were flicking the remote on commercial TV, trying to find something to look at or someone to blame. Besides - most violinists are freelance and don't have Opera Australia management going into bat for them.

In classical music, the rule of thumb goes something like: the bigger the band, the more string players there are - so we're talking, in terms of a symphony orchestra, of 40-50 violinists/violists, 8-12 cellists (who all have to buy an extra seat for their cellos), and 6-8 double bass players. Double basses are called trees in the business because they are big, the wood is comparatively thick, they always have cracks in them (character), and they are able to withstand the Arctic temperatures in the holds of intercontinental flights. Violins don't do well in the fridge. So I asked the Sydney Symphony how they will deal with the new Qantas plan for cultural compliance. 'Don't know really', said the man in the SSO office; 'They all left for an international tour this morning'. On Qantas? 'No, of course not; they fly Emirates!'

Let me spell it out. A violin is a very fragile instrument: strung under high tension, held together by wood glue, supported by a slender free-standing soundpost, and sonically enhanced with the almost mystical weight-bearing properties of the unseen bass bar. There is very little tolerance (in the engineering sense) between success and disaster. Changes in air pressure and variable temperatures in an aircraft hold can wreck an instrument.

If the instrument is to be shipped in such a case, all tension must be removed from the soundpost and bridge by a trained luthier. The instrument, at the other end, must be re-set by another expert (not the instrumentalist), and would not be playable for several days until it stabilised. Certainly no one playing contemporary music can afford this.

My wife is the American violinist Hollis Taylor. After 9/11, she experienced a period of instability when musicians in the States had no clear and consistent policy about travelling with their instruments (every violin case contains a gangster's gun). Eventually, the American Federation of Musicians worked with the major US airlines towards a consistent and fair policy: 'The Transport Security Administration instructs aircraft operators that effective immediately, they are to allow musical instruments as carry-on baggage in addition to the limit of one bag and one personal item per person as carry-on baggage on an aircraft'. Clearly, the TSA thought it appropriate that airline staff at the check-in would be allowed to use their intelligence - no one tried to board with a grand piano.

It appears that one reason for the chaos with Qantas's ill-considered policy is the insistence that businessmen and women don't want to wait for their luggage at the belt on their overnight deal-making visits between Melbourne and Sydney, hence the excessive weight in the overhead lockers. A problem. But trying to solve one problem by creating a new one, not allowing violins in the cabin of your aircraft, is not smart thinking.

Revenue aside, the reputation of Qantas is at stake here; the company cannot have it both ways, trumpeting on one hand that it supports Australian artists, and on the other hand, screwing the non-sponsored artist's ability to earn a living (and a tough one at that).

It would appear that Qantas middle management has unwittingly entered the arena of art criticism and curation, deciding who will and will not perform in Australia, and making and breaking careers of violinists, violists, and string students of many different genres of music, since only Qantas-approved artists can now travel on their planes.

I await your speedy response to this matter, as I will be flying to the USA and Europe with my violin again in September, October, and November. As an Australian citizen, I would prefer to fly Qantas, but…


Jon Rose

Jon Rose has created a body of radical music, and an alternative cultural context for the violin, its practice and its history


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Qantas "Interim Policy"

Hi John, great article. I have a letter from Qantas that states that ALL violins/violas are allowed on board until the end of August (until a permanent procedure of carriage for musical instruments is written by Customer Care). If you'd like a copy I'd be happy to forward one to you. cheers David

"it's a new policy"

Hi John,

very interesting to read your article. I first hit this 'policy' on a return flight from Coff's Harbour to Sydney last October, when i was told that i couldn't take my fiddle on board and it must be checked. I asked when this policy had been instigated and was told 'six weeks ago'. I politely pointed out that i had made five internal flights in the previous month and even taken a banjo in soft case on board with no objection. In June this year i travelled to Cairns with a banjo uke in a soft case and was given the same story - can't take it on board if it doesn't fit in the standard case sizing cage at the boarding gate. On both occasions i was "let off this time", and in the recent case was once again told it was a new policy that came in 'six weeks ago'. So, who knows what the pursers are being told about this 'policy' which has obviously been around for at least year (but only in the last few weeks!)

An American friend of mine returning to the states in May was also blocked by this policy and told at the gate that the case was too big and had to be checked. She's pretty smart. She took the violin out of the case, gave them the case to check and took the violin on board!