David Orkin: Man About World

You don't need a bottom to take up a seat

A large man and his companion were ahead of me in the queue at Heathrow to check in for a flight to Vancouver.

A large man and his companion were ahead of me in the queue at Heathrow to check in for a flight to Vancouver. Though the clerk asked for both of their tickets, she checked only the man's passport. As I reached the departure gate area, the man and his companion were once again just ahead of me: again, while both tickets were checked, only his passport was asked for.

With 10 hours' flying ahead of me, I waited until the initial boarding scrum had abated. My seat was in the row directly behind the man and his companion: generously, he'd taken the horrible centre seat and allowed his companion the one next to the window. With less chivalry, however, he had turned his companion upside down. Neck veins bulging and beads of sweat on his forehead, he was trying to fasten his companion's seat belt. A steward came to help. Eventually the operation was completed with use of a belt extension.

When the free headsets came round the man took one set for himself but not for his inverted companion. When the meals arrived, however, he asked for both the chicken and the beef: the stewardess hesitated briefly but then relented. Her uncertainty was because, as you have no doubt guessed, his partner was a cello.

So - who says it has to be a person that occupies an airline seat? Inanimate objects have their place too.

Many years ago, in a different life as a travel agent, I was contacted by a woman who wanted to take a double bass on a KLM flight to Rio de Janeiro. I told her that I'd have to check with the airline to see what its baggage policy was regarding double basses. Aghast, she explained that this was a very valuable instrument and she certainly wasn't going to allow it to go as "checked baggage". I said that I'd enquire about the possibility of her buying a seat for it as that was the only other option.

The airline's reservations department told me that buying an extra seat would be possible for a cello, but a double bass wouldn't fit on an economy class seat. It would, I was told, fit neatly on to a business-class seat. I rang the prospective passenger back and filled her in: she was disappointed and said that there was no way that she could afford two business-class fares. Half joking, I said that only one business class ticket was needed - she could travel in economy. There was a moment's silence before she said "Great idea!"

Back on the phone to KLM I had to use considerable persuasion to win its approval for the plan to carry passenger and instrument in separate cabins. The passenger rang again a few minutes later to ask if she could claim the double bass's business-class meal (rather than - or perhaps even in addition to - the meal she would be served in economy). The KLM agent - who was already sounding less enthusiastic - said one economy class passenger getting a superior meal to a couple of hundred other passengers would cause too many ructions. Sadly, the next day the double bass player rang to cancel and all my endeavours went unrewarded.

When the England rugby team won the World Cup last year the trophy was given a seat of its own on the BA flight back to London from Australia. Lucky the trophy wasn't a large string instrument: to quote BA's rules: "Large items such as cellos and double basses cannot be accepted in the First and Club World cabins as they cannot be safely secured in the new First and Club World flat-bed seats."

Current British Airways rules stipulate: "The cello will need to be stowed upside-down at a single window-seat-position Traveller cabin (or Club World cradle seat cabin) - excluding the emergency exit rows."

Airline regulations used to say that a double bass could be carried horizontally in the Economy section if five adjacent seats were paid for: one reason for this rule being changed was that few aircraft are now configured with five seats together with no aisle separating them. Trying to follow the letter of the law, airline reservations staff had been known to book three adjacent seats and two just across the aisle. Others, hardly any more in tune, have been known to ask if a double bass could be split into two single basses to make loading easier.

Other "extra seat" occupants include household pets, and single buttocks - for some larger passengers buying two adjacent seats is cheaper than paying a Business Class fare. (Though they need to check that the armrest between the seats folds up fully.)

So widespread is the habit that airlines have standard codes to help to identify exactly what a seat's non-human occupant will be - there are general codes such as EXST (Extra Seat) - sometimes used for obese passengers, FRAG (Fragile) and CBBG (Cabin Baggage), and more specific ones such as PETC (for pets), DIPB (for diplomatic bags).

If you do have to fork out to buy an extra seat for a cello - or a Rugby World Cup - it might occur to you to sign it up as a member of the relevant airline(s) frequent-flier scheme, and hopefully earn rewards (such as free tickets) for you both. Ask most major airlines and they'll say that their schemes are open only for humans: for example, the rules for United's Mileage Plus scheme state "... a member may not accrue mileage for the utilisation of services ... by any other person, animal, object, or entity". Apparently the American carrier Delta is less strict. A musician who wishes to remain anonymous told me that she enrolled her cello online and they have both taken advantage of miles accumulated to exchange for free return flights to play a concert in Europe.

Attempt to book air tickets for you and your lute and you're likely to find that most mainstream travel agents won't have a clue where to start. Stories tell of musicians who have taken advantage of airline staff's instrument ignorance by carrying on oversized instruments and, when challenged, saying they were violas (which are permitted as carry-on baggage). So contact a company such as Specialised Travel (020-8799 8300; www.stlon.com) which is used to arranging flights for everything and everyone from conductors to chitarrones, oboeists to entire orchestras.

And next time you fly, don't be surprised if, seated in the row in front of you, are a double bass and a cello wearing headphones and listening to a Vivaldi string concerto, oblivious to the wailing of their violin tucked up in a skycot in front of them.

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