Sometimes major airlines seem like they're intentionally looking for bad publicity. Consider Jingjing Hu, a cellist and student at DePaul University School of Music. This summer, she had arranged to play at a Florida music festival and so needed to travel there with her cello. The cello is reportedly worth $30,000 so she was understandably reluctant to check it through baggage claim. So she did what musicians who play large instruments have always done, she bought it a seat of its own on the plane, in accordance with American Airlines policy.

Her husband, Jay Tang, says in a Facebook post that he purchased the tickets for Hu and her cello back in April, that he bought the tickets directly from the airline and explained to them that she would be carrying a cello. "I was told it is absolutely allowed and she won't have any problem," he writes.

And indeed, she didn't have any problems on her flight from Chicago to Miami. But on Friday she was supposed to fly home. She checked in, arrived at the airport with her cello, boarded the plane, settled the cello in its seat, and buckled herself into her own seat. Only then did a flight attendant inform her that she would have to get off because the plane, a 737, was too small for the cello.

According to American Airlines representative Alexis Aran Coello, this was an error on the part of gate personnel. They apparently thought the cello was a "bass cello" although there is actually no such thing. (An upright bass is a much larger instrument.) In fact, she should have been allowed to remain on the flight.

Instead, she was told that a second plane would be departing one hour later, and she could take that flight. So she got off, but then it turned out that the second flight was also a 737, and she was told she couldn't bring a cello onto that flight either. At that point, airline staff also called the police, "because my wife was 'not being understandable,'" according to Tang's Facebook post. With three police officers surrounding her, he writes that she was told that she had only one option--to buy business class seats for herself and the cello. A quick look at American Airlines' last-minute fares for travel from Miami to Chicago suggests that two business class tickets would have cost somewhere between $900 and $2,500. Tang writes that his wife was told unless she paid for these more expensive seats, she simply could not fly home. "So basically you either have to be rich to purchase the tickets, or just settle in Miami," Aran Coello says she does not know whether anyone said this to Hu, or why they would have.

More than 2,000 shares.

Tang's post about the situation went viral. It has been shared more than 2,000 times. A hashtag about the incident became the most-searched hashtag on the Weibo, which is sometimes described as China's version of Twitter. Meantime, Tang contacted the news media, and some ran stories about his wife's predicament. 

A few hours after the original post, American Airlines discovered that it could fly Hu home after all, even if she didn't spend thousands on an upgrade. She would have to wait until a flight the following morning and they would put her up in a Holiday Inn for the night. Hu and her cello are now home safe. 

American sent a statement to my Inc.com colleague Chris Matyszczyk attempting to explain what happened. It begins: "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." The airline goes on to say that it rebooked the passenger onto a larger plane the following day and put her up at its own expense.

That's fine, so far as it goes. But it leaves some questions unanswered. Another passenger observed that the seats vacated by Hu and her cello were immediately filled by other people, which makes it seem probable that the flight was overbooked. If so, American could likely earn more by replacing Hu and her cello with other passengers and moving her to a different flight. And speaking of earnings, why was Hu apparently told that the only way she could get home was to spend the money on two business class seats?

What would have happened to Hu and her cello if the incident hadn't gotten so much media and social media attention? Aran Coello says the decision to rebook Hu and pay for her hotel night was made by gate personnel at the time of the incident. She says they wouldn't have been aware of social media or media attention and in any case the post didn't go viral until Friday afternoon when Hu was already on her way home. On the other hand, Hu's husband says in an update to his post that she was only offered the morning flight and hotel room hours after he posted his account to social media and began contacting local news outlets.

Finally, will Hu spend the rest of her career performing only around the Midwest? Or will she ever dare to get on a plane with her cello again?

Published on: Aug 6, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.