Cello and Its Owner Banned From Earning Miles — Or Is There More to This Story?

Delta Air Lines recently banned solo cellist Lynn Harrell from its SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program — as well as revoked all of his SkyMiles — as a result of his allegedly violating its terms and conditions of being a member.

To help mitigate the cost of purchasing two seats for every flight, a SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program account was opened specifically for his cello so that it may earn SkyMiles. Harrell claims that the SkyMiles “earned” by the cello were also used solely for the cello, as the SkyMiles “helps keep my fees under control and ultimately passes along lower ticket prices to those buying concert tickets.”

Cellos are not cheap instruments — nor are they small. They cannot fit under a seat or in an overhead compartment, and their delicate nature precludes them from being checked baggage, as demonstrated with the way United Airlines allegedly mishandled a guitar far less expensive than a cello. Also, one cannot simply go to the local cello store and rent or borrow an instrument as expensive as the one Harrell uses. Therefore, Harrell had no choice over the many years as a Delta Air Lines customer but to purchase an extra seat for the cello — and both seats were supposedly usually purchased at full price, although it is unclear whether those seats were in the economy class cabin or the premium class cabin. Regardless, logic would seem to dictate that the cello should earn frequent flier loyalty program miles.

According to a letter dated January 2, 2012 received by Harrell from the SkyMiles Audit department, Harrell was first warned about this practice of earning SkyMiles for his cello back in 2001:

Initially, I found this letter to be suspect at best, as Delta Air Lines is very conscious about protecting its brand — and the letter clearly uses stationery with logo devices not officially used by Delta Air Lines since April of 2007. However, a spokesperson at Delta Air Lines did not deny the authenticity of that letter, offering this official statement:

“Several years ago, we reached out to the customer to advise him that SkyMiles program rules state mileage cannot be accumulated for tickets purchased for musical instruments. Recently, our audit team determined that he had continued violation of the program rules and his accounts have been closed.”

According to the terms and conditions of the Delta Air Lines SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program, Harrell technically did violate the terms and conditions contingent upon its members. However — to be quite frank — I do not understand what is the difference between whether a cello or a human being occupies the seat, as long as it is paid — even if the seat is empty. What, exactly, is the harm done here? To me, Harrell had a perfectly legitimate and cogent reason for doing what he did: earned and used Delta Air Lines SkyMiles to reduce the cost of travel for both himself and his cello. Sounds perfectly reasonable, right?

Not so fast: there is one item which Harrell posted in his weblog:

“…I am sorry and perplexed that airlines like Delta are willing to turn down the opportunity to maintain long time customers and income (my career has been in full swing for more than 40 years!) for nothing more than the ability to make a quick one-off buck now by selling my miles.”

I am confused by this statement. Is Harrell suggesting that Delta Air Lines is profiting from his now-revoked SkyMiles — or is he publicly admitting to selling SkyMiles himself?

If Harrell actually sold any of his SkyMiles — or those of his cello — that would be an egregious violation of the terms and conditions of the Delta Air Lines SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program, from which he would deserve to be banned for life.

Assuming that Harrell never actually sold the SkyMiles earned from himself or his cello, do you believe that Harrell deserves to be banned from the Delta Air Lines SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program? Should inanimate objects be allowed to earn frequent flier loyalty program miles for its owner as long as the seat it occupies is paid — or, better yet — should a person be allowed to earn double the amount of frequent flier loyalty program miles if purchasing two seats on an airplane, even if the seat is empty for the entire flight? Does this issue matter whether or not it involves a world-famous accomplished cellist — or any other celebrity? Is it possible for Harrell and Delta Air Lines to reach a mutually equitable compromise and agreement?

FlyerTalk members are mixed in terms of their thoughts on this issue. What do you think?

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Comments (Showing 4 of 4)

  • millsdale at 4:39pm November 17, 2012

    I can see this from both angles, that cello is making DL a lot of money, but a rule is a rule. My thought is he should get off the sky peso horse and just go with AA or UA

  • chiefs1970 at 3:44pm November 18, 2012

    Our daughter also plays the cello and it had to have a paid or frequent flyer ticket in order to go on the plane. At one time, it had a frequent flyer number, but we never reached the 16 credits for a free ticket. Anytime that it flew, however, it could also be used to check two bags and that was helpful when she graduated college.

    Lynn Harrell is a very famous cellist and we flew to Chicago to see him perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I have to imagine that YoYoMa and his two million dollar cello are quite welcome on whatever airline he flies and most likely resides in a first class seat.

    Delta is missing the opportunity here to have a famous person fly on their airline, one who racks up twenty or more flights a year so they are essentially missing a two-fer on this.

  • alexbellamy at 8:02am November 19, 2012

    No. They are being silly for no good reason. Whilst rules are rules, whether a cello or a human, they are (sorry were) benefiting from his custom. Frequent flyer programs are not loss making enterprises so there seems no great business reason to ban him.

    Perhaps it’s just auditors being audiors without seeing the bigger business picture. I would guess this auditor may get a talking to.

  • aspenedelen at 2:22pm November 19, 2012

    It is crazy for Delta to not allow him to keep the miles that he paid for. I pay for a seat and gain those Skymiles for my two year even though he won’t be able to use them himself for a very long time. If he were now to get a free seat for his cello and subsequently use those miles that would be a problem.

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