Leaving on a jet plane…

On my recent trip to Australia I flew Qantas and, with one notable exception, I was very happy with the service of the flight and on-ground staff – both in the air and on the ground.

So, I’m at the departures desk at Darwin Airport to check in my baggage and pick up my boarding pass for flight QF0271 from Darwin to Singapore (Changi). Although this is a Qantas flight number, and I purchased all my flights through the Qantas website, this flight is operated by Jetstar (JQ061).

The guitar in question…

On checking in to this flight I was told by the check-in operator that I would be unable to take the travel guitar onto to the flight as the plane was ‘completely full’ (which turned out not to be the case by the way). I tried to explain that I only had one item of cabin baggage and that I had never had any other problems with other carriers. I also pointed out that the instrument was not in a flightcase and that it was likely to be damaged if it was put in the hold.

What other passengers were taking on board as cabin baggage…

I also asked for advice on what I needed to do to sort out the problem the operator basically told me to ‘go away and sort it out’. While this was not done in a particularly rude manner, the desk person was pretty abrupt and unhelpful. I would have thought that a referral to a supervisor or even the flight cabin crew as to whether they would consider that the item would be too bulky would have helped – just one phone call.

If this wasn’t bad enough, after checking the instrument in via the ‘bulky items’ facility and rather hoping that this would be handled separately  Imagine my horror when at Heathrow the instrument came out on the standard baggage carousel amongst all the huge (and heavy) cases that travellers use when travelling to the other side of the world. Luckily the instrument wasn’t damaged so I didn’t have to sort out a claim for compensation. I did have a very brief conversation with a Qantas customer support person in the departure area at Darwin, but while she was friendly, she was unable to help with this problem at that point.

This is the first time that I’ve been unable to take my travel guitar in as cabin baggage and I’ve flown all over the world with this guitar. Even United Airlines in the US – which has something of a reputation – didn’t hassle me. On this JetStar flight, most of the other passengers were taking two large bags – while I had just one small guitar case (see photos above).

I’m a professional musician who works mainly in the UK but, as I am an Australian citizen, I am planning to start working a proportion of the year in Australia, and as it’s such a big country, this will entail flying between various states to appear at festivals and so on. I am aware of the space contraints on flight’s and so for many years I have been flying with a Shapelywood Leisa travel guitar which is a very high quality acoustic instrument with a total length of just 81 cm.

The issue of taking instruments on planes is something of a ‘hot topic’ in recent years with some carriers making a point of being ‘musician friendly’ (UK’s EasyJet for instance). In fact US Congress has just passed legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration to create a uniform policy regarding musical instruments on air planes  Specifically – “Any instrument that can be safely stored in the overhead compartment or under the seat may be brought on board as carry-on luggage.” This certainly would apply to the instrument in question – which is not only designed by the luthier to be so, but long experience with other carriers as proved this to be the case.

Up until this point I’d been extremely happy with Qantas. However, my advice to others in a similar situation would now have to be that musicians travelling with an instrument should think twice before flying with any carrier if Jetstar handle any of the hops. As Dave Carrol – who famously discomfited United Airlines with his “United Breaks Guitars” video – points out. Customer service in the age of the internet is judged on how an organisation handles the ‘special’ cases.

I did contact Qantas when I got back to the UK, though I’m not sure what I expected to get out of this. An apology would’ve been nice. Or perhaps, some kind of statement procedure or strategy that musicians can use when flying the Aussie flag carrier to prevent this kind of thing happening to them. I’d even be happy to distribute to UK musicians via the MU Journal’s correspondence page, my blog and through the various publications I write for. Even if the only advice is ‘Don’t fly Qantas’ if you want to take an instrument into the cabin then this at least would be a useful – and honest – response.

Instead, what I got was “Thank you for getting in touch and I’d like to let you know we were concerned to hear about your dissatisfaction with your Jetstar flight.” Which was good (ish), and then “As Jetstar is operated as a separate company to Qantas, you will need to write to them directly at: Jetstar Customer Care GPO Box 635 Sunshine VIC 3020“. It would seem that Jetstar has such a low budget that they can’t afford email (or is there another reason?).

I did actually write to the Jetstar Customer Care address and received a response along the lines that they were sorry I wasn’t happy with the their service and reiterating their cabin baggage dimensions. Perhaps they should read Dave Carrol’s book – “United Breaks Guitars – The power of one voice in the age of social media“, they may well find it a good read, especially as it happened in their industry.

Oh well, rant over. I’ll still fly Qantas but I’ll think twice (or thrice) before booking a flight via JetStar…

Next Blog I’ll go back to documenting the ‘happy-go-lucky’ life of a free range musician in the UK and elsewhere…

About Brian Heywood

Brian Heywood is a free range musician who specialises in edgy roots / country / celtic fusion music. Previous work has received comments such as "... aggressive, top notch fiddling set off by periodic guitar explosions." - Tom Nelligan, Dirty Linen Magazine (USA), "Just when it seemed as if newer electric British roots bands were getting thinner on the ground - Very welcome and very good." - fROOTS Magazine (UK) and Steve Barnes Fairbridge Festival Artistic Director (Australia) - "... a rocking band - I was delighted with the audience response."
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