Alitalia Destroyed a 300 Year Old Viola, Says You Shouldn’t Trust Checking Bags With Them

Myrna Herzog flew Rio to Tel Aviv via Rome on Alitalia on January second, arriving on the third. She checked a 17th century Lewis viola da gamba reportedly worth $200,000. The incident caught the eye of ‘United Breaks Guitars’ musician Dave Carroll.

That strikes me as a dumb move, however she says Alitalia had “promise[d] that the instrument would be only handled BY HAND.” Of course it arrived in Tel Aviv looking, in her words, like “it was savagely vandalized, seems that a car ran over it.”

Her version of the story,

Herzog reluctantly allowed the instrument to be placed in the hold at the boarding gate after being told there was no space on the flight, and assured it would be taken by hand and treated as a fragile item. Herzog expected that, like pushchairs which are handed over at the door of the plane, her viol would not be subjected to undue stress.

However, during the layover in Rome, the instrument was not handed back to her but instead routed with the rest of the luggage to the plane for the second leg of her journey.

She took precautions as well, “the instrument had a German Gewa hard case bearing several red tags of “Fragile”, without bridge, soundpost, pegs, strings or tailpiece, to ensure safety.”

She says she’s made trips like this for forty years. She feels she ought to be able to bring the instrument onboard at no additional cost and store it in the plane’s closet. (“Why can’t we have our cellos inside the crew wardrobe, where they fit so well?”)

Alitalia’s response amounts to ‘sorry, but it’s your fault’.

  • She didn’t buy another seat for the instrument
  • She signed a release
  • She’ll get the minimum she’s legally entitled to

“We regret what happened with Mrs. Myrna Herzog and we are carrying out all necessary investigations.

“However, generally speaking, we would like to remind that for all bags exceeding the size limits allowed for cabin bags (8kg and 55 cm high, 35 cm wide and 25 cm deep), such as the musical instrument mentioned, it is necessary to purchase an ‘extra seat’ during the booking procedure in case the passenger intends to avoid checking-in such delicate and/or valuable items. The extra seat, which is normally dedicated to passengers, allows to secure the item with the appropriate procedure.

“According to a preliminary investigation, no such request has been presented by the passenger neither during booking nor at the time of departure from Rio de Janeiro. During check-in operations, according to the information available at the moment, the passenger was presented with the possibility to buy an ‘extra seat’ but she refused and signed the limited release form (a disclaimer of liability) after being informed that the best solution for such a delicate item was to bring it with her in the cabin.

“That said, Alitalia deeply regrets what happened to Mrs. Herzog and will proceed, having established the facts, with the reimbursement in compliance with the international regulations in force.”

She could have purchased an extra seat for her instrument. She should have. It’s unwise to trust Alitalia with it as checked baggage, no matter what promises she thinks she heard them offer in Rio.

Takeaway: As with all things you have to rely on yourself – not an airline – for anything that matters.

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. It’s beyond retarded to believe anything worth $200,000 can be safely left in care of any airline. Ever. Period.

    She has learned a valuable, yet expensive, lesson.

  2. Yeah, I can’t believe that someone in possession of a $200k instrument would balk at buying an extra seat to ensure its safe conveyance to the destination. It is almost as if the instrument were screaming, “you don’t deserve me.”

  3. I have a group that travels with a cello. It is standard knowledge that you buy a separate seat. And our cello is hardly of historic importance. I agree with others and Alitalia… her fault.

  4. The instrument was handled by hand. Repeated bashed by hand onto the concrete. Even if it wasn’t something breakable I would not check anything worth $200k.

  5. What a shame. What does the hard case itself look like? I mean when it was delivered at final destination. Looks like the case was opened, piece taken out, tromped on, and replaced.

  6. Seriously tho, who would check a 300 year old anything thru any airlines baggage system anywhere in the world? If one owns something that is 300 years old, they must have a clue.

  7. Ages ago, I travelled to Europe when I was 17 with a crappy $1,400 double bass, and I bought a seat for the LAX -> FRA Lufthansa flight. If I knew better when I was a teenager (and when the stakes were relatively small), there’s not much excuse here.

    I’m aware that life as a professional working musician can be threadbare. But something tells me that if you can afford a $200k instrument, you’re not doing that badly…

  8. That said, it’s a crap thing and it sucks that Alitalia is so formulaic in their response.

    I tried to look up what “reimbursement in compliance with the international regulations in force” means, and it seems to apply to MC99, which gives a maximum liability of 100,000 SDR (special drawing rights.) According to currency converters, that translates to $142k. So, she will be out some money (and litigation fees, perhaps), but the whole thing may not be a loss.

  9. @Andrew: What really sucks is that you have the retarded idea that an airline is liable for lost / damaged luggage to the tune of $142,000.

    Maximum liability is decided by terms of any treaty, but in general it is virtually never more than $2,000 unless you have declared a higher value and obtained insurance.

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