At the airport, while my guitar gently waits
For the past five years now, I’ve been traveling to Barcelona, Spain, to pursue studies in classical guitar. I always have my guitar with me, and lugging it for a long-haul flight can be very inconvenient. But musicians need to take great care of their instruments. We need to carry them on board. Have them checked in and you risk having them damaged by not too caring baggage handlers.
There is no direct flight from Manila to Spain. I have to take at least two connecting flights. This means I have to transfer planes twice. If the guitar is checked in, the thought of it being transferred from plane to plane in two major airport hubs is a guarantee for sleepless flights. Will it be returned to me in one piece, or will it end up anywhere but in Spain?
For those reasons, I face the beginning of each trip with great trepidation. The uneasy feeling begins at the check-in counter, where questions concerning the guitar are raised. It’s often a tense moment, but airlines like Qatar Airways, Saudia, KLM, Thai Airways and Emirates are flexible. They would allow me to board with my guitar.
Once on board, a flight attendant would take it and store it in an overhead compartment or the business class coat room. The flight attendants followed that routine on my Etihad Airways flight to Manila in December.
It was a different story when it was time to fly back to Europe via Abu Dhabi on Jan. 8. The Etihad ground staff at Naia was much less considerate toward their passengers, compared with their foreign counterparts. The fuss began at the check-in counter. The clerk wouldn’t let me take the guitar with me.
This was a huge surprise. I pointed out that I flew to Manila last December on Etihad. I was allowed to hand-carry my guitar. The clerks obviously didn’t believe me and I was referred to their officer-on-duty, who merely repeated what the clerk had told me, that the guitar isn’t a hand-carry item. I reiterated my point to her and that the airline’s policies seemed to be inconsistent. Her reply: The crew on that flight had made a huge mistake.
She was adamant, yet she made a call on her cell phone to double-check the airline’s policy. After around 20 endless minutes, she got off the phone and told me I had to check in the guitar and pay $60 for the extra baggage weight. She gave no assurance about the airline’s liability and responsibility in case the guitar got damaged or lost.
My father, a lawyer, called and spoke to her over the phone. He told her the airline must take responsibility. All she could tell him was that he had to talk to the airline’s legal department because she was not from that department. Yet she maintained she would try to “help,” and she got back on her phone. An hour passed; finally, the officer-on-duty got off the phone and said to me, “There’s nothing I can do.”
That was all she could say. So, in the end, I decided not to board the flight.
Strangely, this officer advised me to file a complaint at the Etihad website. My encounter with her was baffling. She was an expert when it came to making a show of authority. Yet she displayed no expertise in providing useful information, or any form of assistance that could have lessened my anxiety, of which she was the cause.
The next day, my father and I visited the Etihad Corporate Center, but no one there could address our concern. Instead, the staff helped us connect by phone to a Filipino officer stationed at their Abu Dhabi headquarters. The officer was friendly and apologetic. He advised us to file an online complaint and he encouraged us to request compensation. He did believe that the Etihad ground staff at Naia was at fault.
Again, he recited the airline’s policies to us. And to our astonishment, he said it was only through an “act of kindness by Etihad” that I was allowed to board with the guitar on my flight home to Manila last December. This led us to conclude that, unlike its ground crew abroad, Etihad’s staff at Naia isn’t in the habit of committing acts of kindness toward its passengers.
And on that final note, we were charged $500 to rebook my flight.
The guitarist — be it classical, acoustic or electric — has no peace of mind when he travels. There’s always that gnawing feeling of having to explain yourself at the check-in counter. Not all of us are rock stars who get the royal treatment from airlines. Many of us are part of the vast OFW community; the musicians who perform on luxury cruises and hotels abroad. Their musical instruments are the tools to earn a decent living.
I was left wondering then if this experience at Naia is merely another social ill, and was the result of the misplaced prejudice certain people have toward other people such as OFWs. Most OFWs are from the lower economic class. It’s why they make the painful sacrifice of working abroad in the first place — to provide a better life for their families
I’m not an OFW, but I have this underlying suspicion that the airline staff would be more lenient with a foreigner or a wealthy passenger. As with OFWs, students aren’t on their VIP list. Working-class musicians aren’t on it, too. And, sadly, we don’t have the time to deal with spineless ground crews who can’t make their own judgment calls. Seldom do we have the funds for rebooking fees, extra baggage fees or for purchasing new instruments to replace lost or damaged ones.
The websites of most major airlines have guidelines for passengers with musical instruments. But, due to its size, the guitar for them is a gray area. A few other airlines provide boxes that are designed to keep checked-in instruments safe. But we’re still not assured they won’t be lost in transit.
If they insist that we check in our instruments, then we need the assurance of a prestigious airline like Etihad that it would be liable in case the worst happens. People easily sympathize with athletes who are forced into early retirement because of serious physical injuries. Few realize how musicians like us could suffer the same fate if we lose the tool of our trade.
Adrik Cristobal, 25, is a classical guitarist currently taking up his master’s with Italian maestro Carlo Marchione. When not holding the guitar, he enjoys watching WWE, NBA and experimenting on his homemade fried chicken and kebabs.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.