For DePaul music student Jingjing Hu, her cello — worth nearly $30,000 — is priceless.
“Maybe I’m exaggerating, but it’s more than our life," she told NBC 5 Friday.
So, for her trip to Miami to perform in a music festival, she and her husband booked two seats: one for her and a second for her prized cello. Hu said she called American Airlines and verified with the agent that both her departing and returning flights would be able to accommodate the cello in a set.
“When I flew from Chicago to Miami, I didn’t have any trouble with that," she said. The flight crew gave her a special strap to hold the instrument in place.
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But after boarding her return flight Thursday she was told she needed to get off.
“She said your cello is too big," Hu recalled an America Airlines employee telling her. "This aircraft is too small to hold your cello."
Hu was cleared by security and American Airlines representative to board the plane on her return flight, and given the strap again even though it was a slightly smaller plane, she said. But after securing the instrument, it appeared the airline had changed its mind.
Federal regulations allow musicians to carry oversized instruments like cellos in the cabin when passengers purchase an additional seat.
American’s own policy makes this clear on their website: as long as the instrument doesn’t weigh more than 165 pounds and meets unspecified "seat size restrictions based on airplane type."
Hu’s weighs less than 10. Still, she says she was escorted off the plane by law enforcement.
This isn’t the first time it’s happened. Last year an American Airlines passenger was booted from a flight because the airline said his cello--also in its own seat--posed a security risk. The airline later said that was an error and apologized. The airline said it rebooked Hu for another flight the next morning on a larger aircraft and provided her with hotel and meal accommodations.
American Airlines told NBC 5 in a statement there was a "miscommunication" about whether the cello met the requirements to fit onboard the aircraft.
"We apologize for the misunderstanding and customer relations will be reaching out to her," the statement read.
A tearful Hu finally made it back to Chicago Friday where her husband, Jay Tang, was waiting.
“I don’t think we did anything wrong here and I think the way they handled it was humiliating," Tang said.
Hu says she hopes to get a sincere apology from the airline and hopes other musicians can learn from her experience.
“You had so many chances to tell me 'you cannot board' yesterday," she said. "You never told me until I sat down."