Travel is an inescapable part of life as a freelance conductor, and over the years I have flown hundreds of thousands of miles on Northwest Airlines, the only airline with service from Cardiff to Pendleton.
My history with Northwest has not always been a happy one- I used to call them Northworst in honor of their frequent mysterious cancellations, perpetually missing bags, and often down-right mean cabin crews. However, over the last five years, their standards had improved incredibly. By and large, my flights had been taking off, I’d been landing with my baggage in the same city as me, and the in flight service had remained at more-or-less pre-9/11 standards, with a marked increase in courtesy and personal warmth, while that in the rest of the industry had sank to ever new lows.
So, it was with a groan of despair that I read that they are being gobbled up by Delta, the worst airline in the western world. I’ve written about Delta before- their treatment of musicians traveling with valuable and fragile instruments has long been so horrible that in 2006, the American Federation of Musicians called for a boycott.
Thomas F. Lee, American Federation of Musicians President wrote:
“…The AFM, over the past two years, has worked diligently and crafted proposals that create standards applicable to all airlines. This would ensure that musicians would only need to be familiar with one policy that applied to all airlines. And this policy could be reviewed by the airline industry and the AFM if modifications were needed.
Although the airlines have never expressly agreed to the terms of this policy, most have cooperated with musicians when there has been a need to stow expensive, fragile instruments. Regrettably that is not the case with all of the airlines.
I have received many complaints that Delta Airlines officials and representatives have consistently prevented musicians from carrying instruments on board. While I have no way of knowing whether every allegation is true, I have received enough complaints to convince me that Delta is either not properly instructing its personnel regarding this matter, or that it simply has no interest in the problems facing musicians. Not surprisingly, there have been many reports of instrument damage from Delta’s placement of instruments in the cargo area.
The Federation has spoken with Delta’s representatives, but without success. It appears that Delta has no concern about instrument damage. Ads a result the AFM, its members, and all musicians must take a different approach to this problem. We must publicize this unfair treatment.
I am asking all musicians and performing artists to boycott Delta. The AFM will continue to attempt to convince Delta to change their policies. In the meantime, we must use our economic power to demonstrate to Delta officials that their policies will not be tolerated and that we will count on the power of 100,000 members to spread the word that Delta is unfair to musicians…
…It is not our desire to damage relations with our brothers and sisters who work for Delta. However, when Delta officials ignore the problems that musicians encounter, we are left with no choice but to bring this to the public’s attention. Please do everything possible to assist your fellow musicians in this effort.”
Delta finally changed their outrageous practices about a year ago, and the union called for a lifting of the boycott-
“We’re extremely pleased that Delta has finally responded to the needs of our members and has instituted this policy,” AFM President Thomas Lee said. “Delta’s refusal to allow people to bring their very delicate and often very expensive and irreplaceable instruments on board instead of having to check them has been a tremendous hardship for AFM members and all musicians. We’re pleased that Delta recognized that these instruments are valuable possessions and should be treated that way, and we applaud their decision.”
Bravo to the AFM!
Now, I suppose I should be cheering Delta on for finally coming around, but as someone whose instrument was horribly mangled by an airline, I find it hard to just forget the treatment I had at the hands of Delta over the years. It wasn’t so much the fact that their instrument policies were unfair, but that they treated me with such contempt and hostility when enforcing them. I know everyone has travel horror stories, and listening to other people’s is like listening to people talk about their health problems at length, so you can move on to your next blog here if you like…
My last experience with them was in the summer of 2006. I boarded a flight at London’s Gatwick airport to fly to Cincinnati and on to Seattle for the Rose City International Conductors workshop. The plane pulled back from the gate then sat parked on the tarmac for 10 hours while they looked all over Europe for a spare part to fix a malfunctioning brake pad. It turns out that Delta does not believe in keeping spare parts on hand in their largest European hub, so they had to fly the part over from Atlanta. The next day, with me now in perilous danger of missing a chamber music concert that evening, we boarded a replacement aircraft bound for Atlanta (yes, in Delta’s world it is faster to send a replacement 777 from Atlanta than to find a brake caliper in London, and yet they say their financial troubles are not their fault), where we would be re-routed and pulled out, only to sit again for 6 hours without taking off. At this point, I was becoming apoplectic as the hours were slipping away and I was likely going to miss my gig, leading to the cancellation of the concert- a modest fundraiser for a local charity that a friend in Seattle had organized.
Anyway, I knew of the British Airways direct flight, which I could still catch, and told the flight crew who told the captain. He asked to have me taken off the plane and transferred to BA, but the Delta ground operations person over-rode him. I had never in all my life seen a pilot defied on anything, and he seemed stunned and furious, but the station manager we completely unapologetic and downright vicious. Long story short- I missed the gig, they cancelled the show, and I finally made it to Portland three days late, with no apology from Delta. At the end of it all, our cabin crew, who had been imprisoned with us for two days on the Gatwick tarmac, were wearing paper bags over their heads as they didn’t want to show their faces as Delta employees any more.
In fact the last insult really shows you the kind of company Delta has long been. Just before we finally left, a Delta rep came on board with compensation claim forms. You see, the EU has passed strict compensation rules, and the rep informed us we were all entitled to claim $800 compensation for our cancellations and delays, and that he hoped that would make up for some of the hard feelings. However, Delta’s corporate office simply refused to pay any of the claims for compensation that their own staff had told us we were entitled to, and the UK enforcement body said they couldn’t enforce the law because the costs were too high. On my way home, I had my last Delta row when a gate agent wouldn’t let me bring my bow on board because it was too long to fit in the size-wise box.
Anyway, my boycott is ongoing, and I really feel for the thousands of Northwest employees who’ve worked so hard to raise standards there the last five years. I fear thousands of them are going to lose their jobs.
Read more about Delta’s track record here and here. Here is the complete text of the AFM’s announcement lifting their boycott. Here’s some post 9/11 background from Janelle Gelfand, and her more recent piece on the subject from the time of the boycott. I must quote her on Delta’s pre-9/11 history with musicians-
This is nothing new. I first wrote about the situation for the Enquirer in June, 1997, when Delta stopped the entire Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the gate. After a “heated exchange” with symphony management, a few Strads and Guadagninis were allowed in the overhead. Many other local musicians have been stopped at the gate here, including CCM profs, prominent string quartets arriving to perform in Cincinnati and the entire Walnut Hills High School Orchestra.