A Juilliard School cellist says WestJet’s baggage policy is out of tune with the needs of musical travellers after the airline refused to allow his cello in the cabin, even though he bought an extra seat for the instrument.
Cellist Nathan Chan said he was traveling home to New York after visiting family in Vancouver for the holidays when his journey quickly hit a sour note.
The young musician said he booked his airline ticket through American Airlines, but discovered that his trip, which had a stopover in Toronto, included a flight that was operated by Canadian airline WestJet.
“I’ve didn’t really anticipate any difficulties because I’ve never had any problems with American Airlines,” he told Metro. “But when I reached the airport, I attempted to check in … and they said they don’t allow cellos on board because they don’t have a special restraint system for it.”
He said the WestJet employee told him he would have to forfeit the US$250 ticket that he had already purchased and check the cello, meaning the instrument would travel in the airplane's cargo hold.
For Chan, that wasn't even a remote possibility.
The fragility of his antique cello and bows, which together cost about $140,000, means storing it in an area that isn’t temperature controlled can be very harmful, he said.
“I was really stuck in a big predicament,” he said. “The whole point of me purchasing a seat for the cello was to ensure the safety of the musical instrument.”
Fortunately for Chan, he said his family in Vancouver was able to return to the airport and keep the cello for him while he travelled to New York alone. His sister, who is also studying in New York, later brought the cello with her on another flight with a different airline, at a cost of nearly $1,000.
“What was extremely ironic was that my flight was full, and the seat that I had purchased for the cello was empty,” he said. “A regular human being could have sat in it but because of the policy, it was just wasted.”
A frustrated Chan described the WestJet's policy as “bizarre,” adding that he travels at least once a month for performances and has never encountered any problems from airlines not allowing him to bring the instrument as carry-on luggage.
On other airlines, Chan said he requests a seatbelt extender and secures the cello in the window seat. He then sits in the centre seat to avoid the instrument blocking anyone in an emergency situation.
“That’s the way I’ve done it thousands and thousands of times,” he said. “But for some reason, WestJet has this particular policy that is very different from others.”
Now Chan is trying to get a refund from American Airlines for the extra ticket he bought, but a month later, he said he is still waiting.
He said he hopes speaking out about his experience helps inform other musicians about WestJet’s baggage rules, and hopefully encourages the airline to reconsider its policy.
This isn't the first time WestJet has refused to allow a passenger to bring a cello as carry-on luggage. In 2012, renowned American cellist Paul Katz wrote in the Boston Globe about his experience flying WestJet and being forced to check his antique instrument, which he said survived the trip without any damage.
In an email, WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer said the airline has no immediate plans to change the policy.
While the airline regrets that Chan did not have a positive experience on his flight, Palmer said WestJet is not licensed to carry anything in its seats that requires a specialized strap or other device to attach it to the seat.
He said WestJet’s website states that passengers may not buy seats for musical instruments.