American Airlines Calls Police to Kick Off Music Student, Says 737s are Too Small for Cellos

The federal government requires airlines to allow musicians to bring small instruments onboard as carry on items and to allow the purchase of an extra seat for larger instruments. Here are the instrument policies of US airlines.

You can buy an extra seat for an instrument. You can buy an extra seat for a doll. You can even buy an extra seat for yourself if you want and when tickets are super cheap it can be one of the best deals in travel.

Nonetheless last year American Airlines kicked off a passenger and his cello as a safety risk, because “it could not be strapped into the extra seat and it was touching the floor.” American’s joint venture partner British Airways once efused transportation to a cello because it lacked an ESTA (visa waiver authorization) to travel to the U.S.

Now it seems American refused to fly a DePaul University School of Music student home to Chicago because her 10 pound cello – that was fine on her outbound trip – was deemed too large for a 737 departing from Miami.

She was kicked off the plane, and in a photo the captain appears to gloat over it (Update: a crew member on the flight says the captain was indicating he was fine after being bumped by the cello.)

The woman had been booked to fly home on American Airlines flight 2457, a Boeing 737 on which she had purchased a seat for herself and a seat for her cello. Reservations was made aware of the cello at the time of booking, and she flew with the cello on her outbound.

She arrived at the Miami airport 3 hours in advance, “checked in her luggage, went through security check, and boarded the plane normally.”

Police were called. She was removed from the flight. And she says she was told she would have to buy up to first class or she couldn’t fly home on American. American apparently requires first class on 757s and regional jets for cellos but not on 737s.

“So basically you either have to be rich to purchase the tickets, or just settle in Miami,” Tang said. “I don’t know how are musicians supposed to travel to comply with those ‘regulations’. But clearly AA is just playing around with customers.”

American Airlines claims that Boeing 737s are too small for cellos.

American Airlines does offer a single daily Boeing 757 and a single Boeing 767 on the Miami – Chicago route. And those aircraft are larger than 737s. However the coach seats on those planes are not larger (since they haven’t been flying 737 MAXs on the route, and there’s only one converted Project Oasis 737 flying so far with less room between seats). Although if it were a MAX it might be reasonable to suggest that the cello wouldn’t be able to fit into the lavatory.
American Airlines Boeing 737 ‘New Interior’ Coach Seats

The only thing I can come up with here is that American requires certain musical instruments to travel in bulkhead window seats and the passenger hadn’t booked that.

  • American is clearly giving the passenger incorrect information about what the problem is.

  • If they made their booking via reservations, the agent on the phone failed them as well.

American now says there was a “miscommunication” over the requirements for the cello to fit on the plane and they “apologize for the misunderstanding.” The passenger was put up at an airport Holiday Inn overnight and flown home on Friday. (Although she was taken to the hotel shuttle bus by police, she was put onto the wrong bus and initially wound up at the wrong Holiday Inn.)

Delta has an explicit rule against cellos having a SkyMiles account. I defended that practice on the Colbert Report in a segment that never gets old, largely because of the brilliance of taking the story of an airline and a world-famous cellist and turning it into a commentary on same sex marriage.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. That Captain is a douchebag for gloating over this. Probably another guy with small hands.

  2. American allowed me to travel with a cello on an American eagle plane. I can’t imagine that plane is more equipped. Plus if the requirement is only heavy planes can carry cellos, then AA has basically cut musicians off from most markets in the USA. Regardless, if the picture truly captures the event, the captain should be fired. Regardless of how angry (rightfully so) the passenger got, it is the captains job to take the high road.

    On another note… AA has done away with “first class check-in” at Miami. Another major deval for executive plat. Spent 20 min standing behind rubies, sapphires and anyone else who AA hands out priority to like peanuts. When I asked… the rep said, “we don’t want to distinguish anymore between different elites.” They certainly distinguish between $12000/100,000 miles and $3000/25,000 when it comes to everything else. Maybe gold’s can now get 8 SWUs.

  3. @Charles303, Bratty – a crewmember says the Captain was indicating he was alright after being bumped by the cello. While I don’t have a way of adjudicating between the claims here, I’ve updated the post with that other side of the story.

  4. Common sense tells us the crew member’s claim about the captain is laughable. Thumbs up is the sign for being okay. V is the sign for victory or triumph.

    Strange that this purported violation was recognized only after the lady boarded and was seated. When she was kicked off, two other passengers took her seats. Perhaps removing Hu and cello was a way to relieve an oversold situation or to get standby passengers on the flight.

    The Facebook post says Hu’s checked luggage was not removed from the flight. Isn’t it against FAA regs to fly luggage without the passenger?

  5. Blatant violation of FAA regulations, which mandate that airlines must sell tickets for cellos and accomodate them. Obviously cellos can fly on 737s – they can on every other airline, so everything about this is BS. I’ll be sure to remind all my cellist friends to not fly AA.

  6. In terms of the captain gloating the only place I see that mentioned is from the husband who wasn’t even on the plane. I don’t see any mention of that in any other media where the woman herself was actually mentioned, so I’m highly skeptical of that claim. They did show her the rules which specifically stated the cellos would have the be in the bulkhead seat, so it seems per their rules the cello could not go into the seat she bought. She claims she told the ticket agent about the cello but who knows. In the end the airline is still at fault because no matter what they clearly let her board with this thing and she should have never been allowed on the plane with it if there was an issue. She even pre-boarded early with their permission so the people at the gate are at fault. Also, its not clear to me why the police needed to be called? Was she resisting getting off the plane? I know she was demanding to see the rules but there is no indication she refused to deboard.

  7. Maybe if musicians, musical performance artists, and musical organizations such as symphonies, operas, and studios would band (no pun intended) together and boycott the “unfriendly” airlines while promoting “friendly” airlines via all forms of media, there may be a change in policy enforcement, as well as better education among airline personnel. Fine thr airlinesfor Faa policy violations. It seems the only way to fight these tyrannical actions is to hit the airlines where it hurts: the pocketbook.

    My guess is that the flight was overbooked, and it seemed for AA personnel easiest thing to do was to eject a (presumably) meek, demure young Asian woman and her passive musical instrument.

  8. You’re a travel blogger, purporting to know everything commercial airline. So why didn’t you do a bit more research and report on what the FAA and the FAR’s say regarding the carriage of cabin cargo. It took me all of 5 minutes on Google to find this little morsel on the FAA website. It reads, in part:

    “Other safety requirements contained in
    FAA regulations that carriers must follow
    when transporting a musical instrument
    at a seat include that the item is
    restrained to the inertia forces in 14 CFR
    25.561; it is properly secured by a safety
    belt or other tie down having enough
    strength to eliminate the possibility of
    shifting under all normally anticipated
    flight and ground conditions; it does not
    impose any load on seats or the floor
    structure that exceeds the load
    limitation for those components; its
    location does not restrict access to or
    use of any required emergency or
    regular exit, or of the aisle in the
    passenger compartment; and its location
    does not obscure any passenger’s view
    of the ‘‘seat belt’’ sign, ‘‘no smoking’’
    sign, or required exit sign, unless an
    auxiliary sign or other approved means
    for proper notification of the passenger
    is provided. See 14 CFR 121.285(c) and
    14 CFR 135.87(c). Also, when assigning
    a seat that will be used to transport a
    musical instrument as cargo in the
    passenger cabin, carriers must not
    assign a seat where the instrument may
    obscure other passengers’ view of safety
    signs that are required to remain visible.
    In the event a passenger purchases a
    seat for his or her musical instrument
    and it is later discovered that the
    location of the assigned seat is such that
    the musical instrument may obscure
    other passengers’ view of the ‘‘seat belt’’
    sign, ‘‘no smoking’’ sign, or required
    exit signs, carriers should work with the
    passenger to determine if any other
    available seat in that class of service can
    safely accommodate the musical
    Because carriers must comply with a
    number of safety requirements, we
    encourage passengers purchasing a seat
    for a large musical instrument to
    provide advance notice to the carrier
    that the seat is being purchased to
    transport an instrument and to follow
    that carrier’s policies regarding the
    transportation of the musical instrument
    in the cabin.”

    You place the entire onus on AA when most of how cabin cargo is accepted is dictated by the FAA and FAR’s.
    You do no one any favors (save your own bloated ego) when you don’t even bother to do your homework before publishing such bogus, one-sided garbage.

  9. @Neil Emerson – how on earth do FARs excuse American for telling a customer they’re being kicked off because a Boeing 737 won’t permit instruments in seats when they absolutely will?

    I do not say – anywhere in this post – that the passenger, in their particular seat, should have been accommodated (although some effort to reseat them working with other passengers would have been appreciated). Instead (1) the airline gave out incorrect information about their procedures, and (2) called the cops. That – to me – deserves criticism.

  10. Don’t you suppose AA themselves would know the exact specifications of their own aircraft? Different aircraft gauge and specs require different rules that most certainly have to conform to FAR’s. And all airlines have their own policies that they’ve adopted to be FAR compliant…and then some. While I will agree, calling the cops is severely over-reacting, this entire story was based on a 3rd party recount of an incident that they weren’t even witness to. I’m guessing she’s traveled with her cello before? When did she board? Did she make prior arrangements with her reservation? Inquire about in cabin cargo? Make appropriate seat selections for the bulk-head? How do you know that the cabin crew didn’t in fact try to accommodate her? The entirety of your story is based on a 3rd party Tweet.
    And then there is this…from you…’She was kicked off the plane, and in a photo the captain appears to gloat over it (Update: a crew member on the flight says the captain was indicating he was fine after being bumped by the cello.)’
    It is absolutely clear…you have an agenda. It is also clear that you are no journalist.

  11. Gary makes a good point that I forgot to mention in my comment. If the cello had to be in an exit row, those passengers should have been asked (not told) if they would switch. I love exit rows and normally would be very reluctant to move to a regular coach seat. But if it was necessary to keep someone who had purchased tickets in good faith from being kicked off, I’d switch. I bet others would, too. The failure of the crew and gate agents to explore this accommodation is additional evidence that there is more to this story than meets the eye.

  12. @Neil Emerson – don’t I think AA would know the specifications of their own aircraft? Obviously not because they do allow cellos in the non-emergency exit bulkhead window seats contra what the passenger was told.

    AA gave the passenger incorrect information. That’s pretty indisputable.

  13. @John: Spot on. I would have given up my seat for three hours.
    @Neil: Gary has to report the “gloating captain” news because it was mis-reported elsewhere, so he addresses it directly so that we aren’t wondering if he did any research before posting the article.
    @AA: AA had too much incentive to boot the customer and the cello. I would say a Maximum $10,000 for each seat, overbooking penalty is appropriate. AA had no problem taking the customers money for the tickets, and then decides they really want the seat, and changes the rules to take it. They can say they didn’t, but the net effect is, they did. Pay up.
    @Gary: What was the reason for the police? Why the language barrier? Does AA have no interpreters available? I could understand Spirit/Allegiant/Eastern without an interpreter, but if police are called, AA better be speaking the same language as the customer, and trying to avoid the Negative publicity generated by their actions.
    @Captain: 24 hours of classroom sensitivity training.

  14. As a member of the court of public opinion, I’ll second @leef33’s proposed remedies.

    Given all the advance notice the cellist (passenger) gave them, it’s ridiculous that AA gate and airline personnel didn’t inform her about any restrictions before she hauled her cello on board the aircraft, and then resorted to calling the police to remove her.

  15. AA is so much bs here…. And this the the 1st time this has happened ?? 737s have been around for a while.

    So stupid….

  16. Not a word in the story about her hitting the Captain in the head with the cello on the way out and causing him to bleed.

  17. Coming across stories like this regarding AA, post merger(s) amazes me about the lack of customer awareness and service. I truly believe that Mr Parker is in over his head and as the old saying goes, “bit off more than he can chew”
    IMO, Mr Parker needs to go and AA needs to bring in an adult to run the show. When a fish begins to stink, it starts at the head

  18. FALSE ARREST… the customer is a victim of false arrest. Although typically the captain has the right to eject a passenger, he does not have the right to arbitrarily do so. If it is determined that the cello could have been secured on this plane, then AA likely perpetrated a criminal fraud upon the police department, under the guise of asserting their FAA authority and law enforcement should arrest and interrogate the flight attendant in charge as well as the captain to make sure a fraudulent police report or arrest was not committed. Any one at AA mgmt involved in this decision should also be interrogated, but the individuals on the plane, who have authority from the FAA to summon law enforcement, should be arrested given the probable cause surrounding the events. If necessary, provide immunity, but get to the bottom of this issue quickly to prevent recurrence.
    The customer was in fact arrested and if she had presented much more of an obstacle could have been booked…like Dr Dao.
    I would be interested to read the taxpayer funded police report for AA’s version of events. But, given their string of apologies, I have an idea they know they messed up. Fools!

  19. @leef33. She was not arrested. And all the comments about probable cause — what is that about? Was there an arrest warrant? Is there a criminal trial?

    AA made a mess of this and owes the passenger more than an apology .

  20. @CNY: If AA did nothing wrong, why their belated apologies for the “miscommunication”? And, wouldn’t they welcome a detailed investigation to prevent employees from leveraging law enforcement improperly, thereby damaging their brand and reputation.
    You can add attempted extortion to the charges against AA. They told the customer she would have to pay for a first class ticket to bring the cello. The judge can decide if the charge sticks, even if it was an honest mistake, but the fact they did it is enough to bring the charge.
    After reading previous comments from people familiar with AA, Cello’s, and FAA/DOT rules on accommodating musical instruments like Cello’s, and assuming the customers version of the story, that she flew from Chicago on a 737, the fact that dimensionally, the 737 seating is the same as a 757 or 767, it is clear that the police need to investigate AA for effectively filing a false police report, and, based on that investigation, be prepared to prosecute the flight attendant, the captain, and the airline.
    Only under threat of prosecution will airline employees take their job seriously and not call police willie-nillie for whatever ulterior motive introduces itself and triggers them to play the trump card of being the ultimate authority on the airplane.
    AA’s press release/tweet response, supporting their decision, without knowing the exact size of the cello, or physically verifying the facts in this case, indicates they don’t even know what happened. It’s not working, AA. You’re giving Spirit/Frontier/TWA a good name.
    And, yes, she was arrested, as in she was stuck at the airport to find another flight, and not free to take her assigned seat. Had she resisted, she would have been arrested and booked.
    And what about the subsequent flight? Did AA know that no seat would be available for the Cello? How? Was everyone checked in and wtg to board? Did AA attempt to book her onto another airline, like Delta, United, etc, that very night? An airline that could accommodate a “10 lb” Cello? Had they done that, had management been notified immediately, and, assuming management cared (a big assumption) they probably could have. Nothing adds up with AA’s story.

  21. Since we cannot know the mindset of the captain, let’s ignore any speculation re: his hand gesture(s).

    @Neil Emerson —> I have seen cellos fly on 737s, 747s, 757s, 767s — probably even 727s, though that was an awful long time ago. Don’t think I’ve seen any on 777s or 787s, but I would have to presume they are allowed. (I have cousin who in a concert cellist, which is why I’ve witnessed so many cello flights.)

    A cello does NOT “…impose any load on seats or the floor structure that exceeds the load limitation for those components; its location does not restrict access to or use of any required emergency or regular exit, or of the aisle in the passenger compartment; and its location does not obscure any passenger’s view of the ‘‘seat belt’’ sign, ‘‘no smoking’’ sign, or required exit sign,”

    As far as I can tell, the only thing that the “breathing” passenger did was not book a window seat for the one with the wooden personality. (Perhaps there weren’t any available, perhaps there were — who knows?). But if she was in C or D, and the cello was booked into B or E, how hard would it have been for the FA to inquire of the individual if they would give up the window and take the aisle? And if they added that, per regulation, the cello had to be in a window seat??? I am POSITIVE this could have been handled far more diplomatically, peacefully, and with ALL passengers arriving on time with none of the fuss and trouble of involving the police, the later recriminations and apologies for misunderstandings, etc., etc., let alone the bad PR, and on and on and on…

  22. American Air looks like they were trying to avoid overbooking fees by kicking her and cello off flight – claiming “rules”. Gee they should check the “rules” before they book and before they board. This isn’t miscommunication. Need more regulation…not less….

Comments are closed.