His guitar was refused boarding! Is the airline in for a lawsuit now?

Petra van Nuis and her husband, Andy Brown, are professional jazz musicians. Naturally, they wanted to baby his rare Gibson guitar when they bought tickets for their flight from Chicago to New York for his Lincoln Center performance. It’s a 1965 Tal Farlow model, one of 217 ever produced.

“Over the last 25 years, my husband would either gate check his guitar in a heavy duty flight case or use a soft bag and pay extra to board the plane early to make sure he can get the guitar in an overhead,” she told us. “American’s priority boarding features were always helpful with this.”

His guitar gets first class treatment

When booking their New York trip, van Nuis noticed that the cost for a first class ticket, which included priority boarding, wasn’t much more than economy, so they invested a few extra dollars for more comfort, and she believed, better protection for his “baby.”

She explained,

Van Nuis and Brown’s had no difficulties with their first flight, their first time ever flying in the first class cabin. But trouble ensued when they made their return to Chicago

“We made sure we were at the head of the line to board in Group 1, and we were the third and fourth people to have our ticket scanned,” van Nuis said. “Halfway down the jetway, a male gate agent yelled for my husband to come back and ‘check the instrument.’ We calmly explained our situation, telling him the main reason for buying our first class ticket was priority boarding, and that we certainly didn’t want the $10,000 irreplaceable instrument under the plane in a soft case. We also pointed out that neither of us had carry-ons and that certainly the guitar wouldn’t take up more room in the overheads than two carry-on suitcases.”

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Gate checking the guitar

Van Nuis claimed that the agent was forceful and aggressive. Feeling that they had no other choice, and needing to get home for a performance that evening, Brown checked his instrument at the gate.

“When we boarded the plane, the flight attendants asked us why we were upset,” van Nuis told us. “They were quite helpful and immediately said there was plenty of room in the overheads.”

As the boarding process continued, van Nuis contacted the gate agent but he refused to give them the guitar. She said that once boarding was complete, there was still ample space for the guitar in the first-class overheads, as well as a completely empty overhead at the beginning of the main cabin. The flight attendants also contacted the gate agent, telling him there was plenty of room, but he refused to get the instrument. As the gate agent left the plane, van Nuis asked for his name, but he refused to disclose it.

“Needless to say, the ensuing flight was a nail-biter,” she said. “Riding underneath an empty overhead bin that we had paid hard-earned money to have access to was beyond ludicrous. In 25 years of flying economy with the guitar, we’ve never encountered such a situation.”

The musicians were worried, but the guitar arrives safely

Fortunately, the instrument arrived back in Chicago unscathed. Nevertheless, an upset van Nuis was determined to get American to compensate her and her husband for their stress and suffering due to the worry over the condition of the rare guitar that was refused boarding.

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After coming home, van Nuis looked into the matter online and found Federal Register Volume 80 Department of Transportation 14 CFR part 251, whose subparagraph 3 regarding small instruments as carry-on baggage states:

Each covered carrier shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other small musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage, if:
The instrument can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft cabin or under a passenger seat, in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the FAA; and
There is space for such stowage at the time the passenger boards the aircraft.

What’s American’s policy on carrying musical instruments?

Van Nuis also reviewed the policy stated on American’s website. “Both state that my husband is allowed to board the plane with his guitar in a soft bag if it fits in the overhead and there is room on a ‘first come, first serve basis,’ van Nuis said. “We believe third and fourth tickets scanned seem about as close to ‘first come, first serve’ as one could be.”

So Van Nuis began peppering American’s customer relations department with emails. She sent five of them, and the airline responded with four emails and one phone call. “We were met with several tactics which I felt were forms of corporate bullying,” van Nuis explained. “Scripted pat responses that avoided directly answering any of our concerns and also calling us rather than writing back (I put a stop to this after the first phone call stating I wanted everything in writing).”

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Putting our list of executive contacts to work

Van Nuis emailed the Department of Transportation and was assigned a case number. She also discovered our website and took advantage of our list of American’s executive contacts. She sent an email to one of the executives on our list and asked several questions about the airline’s procedure that ending up with her husband’s guitar being refused boarding.

An executive team member responded to each point in van Nuis’ email, explaining implausibly that ultimately it came down to the gate agent using his discretion and assuming it would be a full flight.

The executive team member added:

You’ve provided us with valuable information such as the date and city pairs that will help us identify who was working on that flight and that is how our managers will address this specific agent… Although we are not entitled [sic] to provide any compensation, as a gesture of goodwill, I’d be happy to provide a $100 voucher for your experience.

We wish we could have pulled some strings with American Airlines, but unfortunately, while the guitar was denied boarding, the airline apparently did not violate any DOT requirements. We’re happy van Nuis was offered a $100 travel voucher, but once a consumer escalates a complaint to the DOT, we really can’t get involved.

Did American Airlines provide van Nuis and Brown enough compensation?

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Mark Pokedoff

Four-time Emmy-award-winning television sports production specialist and frequent traveler. Longtime freelance writer and travel blog enthusiast. Proud papa of four amazing kids who have been upgraded to first class more than all their friends combined. Read more of Mark's articles here.

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