American Airlines Kicked a Woman off a Flight and Called the Police. Here's Why the Airline Made a Mess of Things

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Never assume that your outbound journey on an airline will be subject to the same joys as the one coming back.

The crew will likely be different. Their moods will likely be different. And consistency in airline service isn’t so easy to find.

This is something DePaul University music student Jingjing Hu found to her cost.

On Thursday, she was flying back to her home in Chicago from Miami. 

She had perhaps her best friend with her — her cello. Hu had been performing in a music festival. 

Airlines allow musical instruments on board, as long as you buy them a seat and strap them in.

Musical instruments are like children, but infinitely more melodic and much quieter on planes.

As her husband Jay Tang described on Facebook, this was where the music became hard to listen to, as the mood, dynamics and tempo of the trip were derailed.

Hu was suddenly told that her cello was too big for a Boeing 737.

Accelerando

This was just before the plane’s doors were about to close.

Yes, she was already on the plane, having been through all the palaver of security. She was also allowed to pre-board and says she had been given a belt by cabin crew to strap the cello in securely.

Worse, as she was escorted off the plane, her cello allegedly brushed the pilot. He apparently felt hurt by this.

She took a picture of him as he displayed what some might take as a V for Victory sign, as Hu was ushered away. 

The airline insists he was signaling to ground staff that there were now two free seats on the plane. Airlines rarely miss a money-making opportunity, do they?

Could that have played a role here? The two seats were quickly filled.

Rallentando

This, though, was merely the first movement of many. 

Hu said she’d been told that she could catch the next flight, a mere hour or so later.

Alternatively, she could purchase a First Class seat. Well, two.

Ah, but that flight wouldn’t let her and her cello on. It was also a 737. And there, at the gate, there were three police officers. The airline had called law enforcement.

Then she says she was taken to a Holiday Inn — first the wrong one, then the right one — and only put on a flight the following day.

Even at this point, she says she was denied pre-boarding.

Sforzando

Of course, so far we only have her and her husband’s side of things. Could it be that she’d begun to show frustration at some point in this mess?

It would have been hard not to, perhaps. 

“You have so many chances to tell me that you cannot board yesterday,” she told NBC Chicago. “You never told me until I sat down.”

On Facebook, Tang offered dark motives for his wife’s expulsion: 

AA is just playing around with customers. They just kick off passengers when they oversell their tickets using FAA regulations as an excuse. I could have been told those regulations when purchasing the ticket. My wife could have been told those regulations when flying from Chicago to Miami, at check in counter in Miami International Airport, at the gate or even when boarding the plane.

American Airlines rules allow an instrument on a separate seat if it weighs less than 165 lbs. Hu’s cello weighs 10.

My own calculations suggest that the seats on an American 737 are actually more or less the same size as those on the 757 and 767 which also fly on the Chicago-Miami route.

So she should have been allowed on the second 737, never mind the first.

Espressivo

I contacted American to ask for its side of this troubling farrago. A spokeswoman told me: 

A passenger on flight 2457 from Miami to Chicago was traveling with her cello.  Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication about whether the cello she was traveling with met the requirements to fit onboard the particular aircraft she was flying, a Boeing 737. We rebooked our passenger on a flight the next morning on a larger aircraft, a Boeing 767.

A miscommunication.

And somewhere, the University of Euphemisms announced that its work was done.

The airline added that it had provided hotel and meals for the “inconvenience.”

My sources suggest the airline believes the problem may have begun with a customer service manager, not a Flight Attendant. This manager suddenly decided that the cello was inappropriate for the plane.

Or, rather, had decided the cello was actually a bass violin. 

The rules do say that cellos should be in a bulkhead window seat in an exit row.

Tang told me his wife was booked in 23A and 23B, not bulkhead seats. But the airline had told him and his wife in advance that there would be no problem. And the cello was strapped into the window seat, so it wouldn’t be in anyone’s way.

Tang said the airline told him it would perform a “deep dive” into the issue. He says it hasn’t contacted him since.

The customer service manager — if that’s the person at the heart of this — was clearly, though, a touch mistaken. There was nothing wrong with the size of the cello.

Some might wonder whether the pilot and/or the Flight Attendants would also have known the cello rules — or at least got the plane moving.

Instead, a scene.

Misterioso

When it comes to cellos, American has a discordant record.

Why, though, didn’t it dawn on the cabin crew and the pilot that Hu had been allowed onto the plane and, presumably, told there was no problem with her instrument? After all, she’d already been given a belt to strap it in.

Indeed, Tang says he’d made all the appropriate calls when booking to ensure that her cello was permissible.

At the core, then, is another example of airline personnel enforcing rules — worse, in this case, seemingly not even knowing precisely what they actually are.

Which can cause a little frustration for passengers. 

I’m sorry. I mean mishappiness.

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