Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Transport of Musical Instruments
Cecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue, which perhaps is unusual and one which, in the main, people do not feel is one that affects them. However, for those whom it does affect it is a serious issue. This is the matter of airport security and airline regulations in general having become much tighter since 2001 and the effect this is having on musicians and their ability to get from A to B with their instruments intact.
I have been on quite a learning curve since I began investigating this on behalf of a group of European creative artists whom I met recently at a conference. My sister is an air hostess and she told me of an experience she had in the past week where members of a band were allowed take their instruments to Edinburgh and when they phoned ahead to ask whether they could bring them to Belfast as hand luggage, they were told there would be no problem. However, when they were departing there were told they could not do so and that they would have to put them in the hold at a cost of thousands of pounds. Ultimately, when the instruments arrived at the destination one of them was broken.
A number of issues arise.
They pay for a seat for their instruments if their instruments are large. If they are lucky, they get as far as security before being asked for a passport for their instruments because they have been assigned seats. Not many 1609 Stradivarius cellos have passports, however, because the boxes which one can click only go back as far as 1900. When they look for air miles or meals for the instruments' seats, they cannot get them. Julian Lloyd Webber was one of the more high profile people to be told when going through airport security, after finally booking a seat, that the spike at the bottom of his cello was a security risk. It was taken from him. The security officials also wanted to take the strings off the instrument. Anybody who knows anything about instruments is aware that one cannot take the strings off a professional's instrument and expect him to put them back on and that everything will be hunky dory within a short space of time. The instrument takes time to settle.
Given my background as a musician, I have a great interest in this issue. There are significant inconsistencies in the security arrangements at different airports. A traveller may be allowed to keep his or shoes and belt on in one airport only to be required to remove them at the next. This is a real problem for musicians who need to travel globally. I have come across a number of people whose violin bows have been broken because security staff thought they were hollow. Nobody asked how much the bow cost in the first place or who would pay for a replacement.
In 2008, a Canadian singer, Dave Carroll, was travelling to Nebraska for a tour when his Taylor guitar was broken by United Airlines baggage handlers in Chicago. He wrote a song about discovering that his $3,500 guitar was severely damaged, the video for which can be seen on YouTube. The song is very entertaining if one does not own the instrument in question. United Airlines has used the video as a training aid on how not to treat instruments.
I would like the issue of musical instruments to be included in the review currently conducted on the liquids ban. If the instruments are small, it should be permissible to take on board an instrument as well as a piece of hand luggage. This is allowed at security checkpoints in America but each airline decides whether travellers can carry one or two pieces of hand luggage. Obviously we want good security but in many cases, security staff are checking the instruments themselves and will not allow the musicians to intervene to show the instruments have not been adapted. Staff are unprofessional at times, which is leading to the destruction of a lot of instruments. The onus should be on the airport to have on hand fully qualified specialists who can deal with musicians' inquiries and carry out security checks. If such personnel are not available, the musicians must be able to show security staff that their instruments are not dangerous weapons.
A method similar to the existing facility for requesting special assistance should be put in place. If one needs a wheelchair at the airport, one can tick a box. Where we need an instrument to be dealt with safely, we should be able to tick a box under the special requirements heading.
The matter needs immediate attention because music is at the heart of our culture. If our talent cannot travel the world to entertain audiences in the confidence that their instruments will be transported safely with them, how can we share our culture? It is not an Irish problem; it is worldwide. Significant efforts are underway in America aimed at ensuring that the instruments of professional musicians and composers are transported safely from one country to another. I ask the Minister of State to raise this issue at EU level in order to facilitate a co-ordinated worldwide approach on the issue. I am sure anybody who travels extensively would appreciate any attempt to achieve unity and commonsense. Nobody wants to be a victim of terrorism or to have something planted in a piece of luggage in the expectation it will not receive special attention. However, we should not expect a valuable instrument to be ruined simply because somebody is not trained to deal with it.