By Travel columnist
updated 2/16/2005 5:42:27 PM ET 2005-02-16T22:42:27

Kathie Zettervall’s daughter buys an extra seat for her cello. But when she tries to make a connection to a regional carrier in Detroit on her way to an audition, her instrument is denied boarding. Is the cello luggage, or a paying customer? And what is Northwest Airlines’ policy on oversized instruments, anyway?

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Q: Our daughter is cellist. When she has flown with her instrument in the past and checked it in, it has been damaged. So it is cheaper for her to buy a ticket for the instrument and carry the cello on board with her.

She flew from Austin, Texas, to Champaign, Ill., yesterday on Northwest Airlines for an audition. When she made a connection in Detroit to a regional carrier subcontracted by Northwest, the airline wouldn’t allow her cello on board.

She got rescheduled on Delta to fly to Cincinnati and then on to Champaign. She got two meal tickets for her trouble — one for her, one for the cello. Kind of funny, a meal ticket for the cello, which kind of acknowledges that the cello is an actual traveler. But also kind of pathetic.

Today she is going to have to reschedule her flights back to Austin, because the first flight segment she has a ticket for is on Northwest again. What recourse do we have with Northwest for putting her through this? She read all the rules she could find before booking, and she should be allowed on board with her cello.

— Kathie Zettervall
Oak Hill, VA

A: If Northwest Airlines takes your money for a cello to fly, the cello should be able to fly.

I checked the airlines’ contract, and there are no special provisions for musical instruments. The only notation on air travel with a cello is that since 9/11, the Transportation Security Administration has asked cellists to remove and check their endpins.

Your case hinges on whether the cello was considered a passenger or luggage. If it’s luggage, then the rules are clear. If you are flying on one of Northwest’s so-called “airlink” affiliates, you have to check your carry-on luggage as you board your flight. Passengers are only allowed a carry-on personal item such as a purse, briefcase, or laptop computer in the cabin.

The reasons behind that limit are sound. Your daughter was flying on a small regional jet, probably a Saab 340 turboprop. Space is limited.

But technically, the cello was a paying passenger. Under Northwest’s terms and conditions, the instrument is entitled to denied-boarding compensation. Not that it would ever take a vacation on its own, but rules are rules.

I contacted Northwest just before your daughter’s return flight and asked about the cello. To its credit, the airline made sure its ground crew in Champaign were aware that the instrument was a paying passenger. Your daughter and her cello were allowed to board the plane and return to Austin.

Your daughter also filled out the paperwork for involuntary denied boarding compensation. It looks as if she will be receiving a refund on 200 percent of the money she spent on the tickets, up to $400.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him anoteor visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story.

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