Skip to main content

Aviation: Hand-luggage Restrictions

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of hand-luggage restrictions operated by airlines on professional musicians and on the United Kingdom’s music economy.

My Lords, there are no government restrictions on musical instruments and their accessories carried by passengers into the cabin of an aircraft. The Department for Transport advises passengers that it is best to contact the individual airline before booking, as they may need to make special arrangements such as buying an extra seat for large instruments. Charges and fees imposed for the carriage of instruments are commercial decisions for the individual airline concerned.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply; I am sure that he has looked into this matter with great care. However, there have been terrible cases where valuable and cherished instruments were smashed up in the holds of aircraft as a result of musicians not being able to take them on board as hand luggage. It may not be possible in every case for the Department for Transport to enforce the clear set of guidelines which it issued in 2009, but can it not at least name and shame the airlines involved?

My Lords, the first point that my noble friend made was about damage to instruments. The key point here is that the musical instrument is absolutely vital to a musician. Musicians and their instruments are as one and, if they lose their instrument or it is damaged, their ability to perform at the highest level is severely reduced. My department is well aware of the issue, but if airlines want to acquire a bad reputation for looking after musicians, they do so at their own risk.

My Lords, I should declare an interest as a member of the Musicians’ Union and as a very part-time musician. Does my noble friend agree that musicians need airlines to be consistent in understanding the problems of travelling with musical instruments? I know that my noble friend has had a meeting with the Musicians’ Union but can he explain why musicians from other countries do not seem to experience similar problems and why professional musicians are treated less favourably than sports enthusiasts?

My Lords, the noble Lord suggested that airlines in other countries do not have this problem, but they do. One difficulty for musicians is that they can fly out from, say, Heathrow with one airline which accepts their instrument but when they try to fly back with the same airline on a return ticket they find that they cannot get back. One solution might be to regulate but the difficulty there is that we will go for the lowest common denominator and that might discourage the industry from coming up with an innovative solution. During my meeting with members of the Musicians’ Union, I urged them to take the opportunity to talk to airline and airport operators to try to come up with a solution to the problem or at least to improve the situation.

I should like to ask the Minister to ensure consistency. Does he agree that an international trans-airline industry policy is needed? I declare a mild interest in that I am a patron of the English Concert, which, like many other English orchestras, depends for its existence on overseas recitals. At the moment, large instruments such as tubas and cellos have to have an extra seat booked for them and orchestras understand that. However, it is with smaller instruments such as violins, flutes and oboes that there is total inconsistency. Although an orchestra may have informed the airline that an orchestra is being conveyed, that information is often not passed on to the check-in people and therefore a musician may be turned away, being told that he cannot take the instrument. That leads to total chaos. Will the Minister try to enforce at least consistency?

My Lords, I am not prepared to promote regulation by central government. It is for the airline industry to come up with consistent standards and we are not going to regulate on this. The noble Baroness touched on the position of orchestras. However, orchestras do not have this problem because they have significant buying power and sometimes hire the whole aircraft. The real problem lies with individual musicians, perhaps going to a show in southern Europe on their own, as they have very little buying power or clout.

My Lords, leaving it to the industry looks to be a somewhat forlorn hope. After all, the Minister has just illustrated that an airline can disagree with itself on how it treats musicians according to whether they are going out or coming back. We know how long it takes for regulations to be drafted, let alone appear before the House, but if the Government at least indicated that they were prepared to take some action in this area, surely that would be a stimulus to the industry to tackle what is obviously an acute problem.

My Lords, if an airline disagrees with itself then it will acquire some very bad publicity. We have seen that in the press on several occasions recently as regards not only musical instruments but other problems associated with check-in as well.

My Lords, on behalf of non-musical as well as musical travellers perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he is confident that it will not be too long before the electronic security check-in machines that we all have to go through at airports will allow us not to have to take off our shoes, belts and other articles of clothing, because this machinery is more efficient.

My Lords, considerable progress is being made on the development of screening equipment. I hope we will see significant improvements in the coming months.

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a good point; it is one that I put to the Musicians’ Union when I was talking to it. One problem is the environmental conditions in the hold. Understandably, musicians want to carry their instruments in the cabin rather than place them in the hold.

My Lords, I discussed this issue last night with the manager of a London orchestra and she said that there are generally no problems with scheduled flights, but that all the problems arise with the low-cost airlines. She also made the point—I wonder whether the Minister will give it serious consideration—that the instrumentalists frequently see large items of hand baggage taken on planes that are far outside the regulations. The Government should deal with that.

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point about low-cost airlines. This morning, when I looked at the appropriate websites and did a Google search, it was very telling how different the story was for a very large airline as compared with a low-cost one.