In Memoriam: Owner of Cello That Was Banned From Earning Miles

The stellar career of being an award-winning classical cellist which spanned greater than a half century has come to an end, as Lynn Harrell passed away at 76 years of age in Santa Monica in California on Monday, April 27, 2020 — yet another day when the music died…

In Memoriam: Owner of Cello That Was Banned From Earning Miles

Lynn Harrell. Photograph by Christian Steiner.

…but in the frequent traveler world of miles and points, he was best known for being the owner of a cello which was banned by an airline from earning miles.

The original article — which I wrote at The Gate on Friday, November 16, 2012 — comprises the next section in its entirety unedited.

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:

The Delta Air Lines SkyMiles membership number was edited out even though this image of the letter was posted with it intact. Source: The official weblog of Lynn Harrell.

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?


The family, friends, and colleagues of Lynn Harrell are in my thoughts — and I hope that his work is an inspiration to future cellists who will continue the tradition of bringing beautiful music into this world.

Photograph by Chad Batka.

9 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Owner of Cello That Was Banned From Earning Miles”

  1. Mike says:

    That’s some BS if someone buys multiple tickets they should be able to earn the miles for the paid and flown ticket regardless if its a person, object or if your over weight and purchase 2 tickets for yourself you should earn all of the miles for the tickets. Not only are they doing a great service for the fellow passenger by not occupy more then their own seat which intrudes on other passengers they have also spent money on a valid seat which deserves earning loyalty miles.

  2. Carl WV says:

    I think T&C and ” technically” go hand in hand. I also think it really doesn’t matter now. RIP.

  3. colleen says:

    Topical, actually. If we’re being encouraged in this COVID pandemic to “just purchase an extra seat” for social distancing if we desire it (looking at you @garyleff at View From The Wing ), where should that seat’s frequent flyer miles go?

  4. Carl WV says:

    Yesterday TPG posted on the policies of different airlines, Some allow it for extra space or an instrument. etc. Some allow it for instrument etc., but not for extra space. Some don’t allow it. Some let the extra seat earn points for you, and some don’t.

    Definitely a mixed bag,

  5. DavidB says:

    Thanks for reviving the story and acknowledging Lynn’s passing. I thought it worth closing the FlyerTalk thread yesterday with this coda.

    1. Carl WV says:

      Nice musical reference. I think Lynn would appreciate it.

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