British Airways Refuses to Let a Cello Fly — Because it Didn’t Have a US Visa

UK citizens don’t need a visa to travel to the US. They need an ESTA, which is like a visa but is permission to travel under the Visa Waiver program.

It gets more Orwellian of course because visa free travel doesn’t usually incur a fee. But the $14 ESTA fee is meant to promote tourism. Somehow charging tourists more is supposed to make them more likely to come.

But in perhaps the strangest rigid application of rules, British Airways stopped a musician from flying with their cello because the instrument lacked an ESTA.

She said she informed GoToGate about the instrument, which was booked in its own seat under the name “Chuck Cello”, who told her to contact BA directly about the booking.

“I rang BA about a month before the flight and spoke to a customer service agent in one of their call centres. They told me the second seat booked for the cello followed airline policy, that there was nothing further for me to do and I should check-in as normal,” said Ms Bevan.

But when she got to the airport, British Airways couldn’t check in the second seat. Because Chuck Cello didn’t appear authorized in the US ESTA system. Because the cello isn’t a person.

She waited 2.5 hours at the airport, after which it was no longer possible to check in for her flight. So she was offered new tickets at a cost of nearly $5000. Instead she bought new tickets to fly the next day on United, which upgraded her cello to first class.

British Airways says the passenger simply did it wrong.

“This was a highly unusual incident which arose after the customer booked a seat for her cello as a named passenger.

“This is what triggered the requirement for an ESTA from the US government. The ticket the customer booked through a third party website was non-refundable.

“We offer musicians a discounted rate to book a ‘musical instrument seat’, and on, we advise customers to contact us to discuss arrangements.”

Of course the passenger says she did just that, and BA said everything was fine. I’m often amazed at the problems I face with my own bookings, so much so that I marvel how someone that doesn’t pay attention to this stuff all day every day can manage to get from point A to B. In this case they couldn’t.

While it’s easy to understand how BA’s systems locked out the seat, it’s reasonable for the passenger to have relied on the guidance from a British Airways agent about the British Airways processes. There was plenty of time to sort out any problems with the booking in advance, when the musician contacted the airline.

And it seems fairly straightforward at the airport, since that wasn’t done, BA could have checked the woman in and cancelled the outbound flight for the cello (while preserving the return portion of the booking). They could have then blocked the cello’s seat. Is that complicated? Sure. But supervisors were involved and over the course of 2.5 hours, it seems like that could have been done.

Or perhaps the cello should have just been declared an emotional support monkey.

You can buy a ticket for a cello, of course although Delta won’t allow a cello to have a SkyMiles account. I defended this practice three years ago 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 »

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  1. @Gary, why is your video blocked on copyright grounds? Also, I do not understand why this person would have to pay $5000 to fly on the next flight the next day? When denied boarding due to visa issues (or a SNAFU), shouldn’t the put put you on the next flight for free after the issue is cleared up?

  2. @Ken @Nupur.
    I presume you have some data points for those sweeping statements that you can share based on your first hand experience?
    And no, I am not a BA apologist, just interested to see how you back your claims.

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