It’s getting worse: ‘Airline made me leave my cello behind’

It’s getting worse: ‘Airline made me leave my cello behind’


norman lebrecht

January 26, 2016

Cellist Nathan Chan writes to us with a simple message: ‘Cellists: Never. Fly. WestJet’.

Here’s his horrible experience:

nathan chan drew alexander forde
When I read about the latest debacle between violinist Ari Vilhjamsson and Norwegian Air and the success that followed in having the company change their stance on instrument transportation, I thought it was important to share a travel experience I had this past January with my cello and WestJet.

I always purchase a seat for my cello because of the fragility and risk associated with checking in a cello and having it damaged (either from baggage handling or non-temperature controlled climate in the cargo hold, among others). This holiday, I booked a red-eye flight from Vancouver to New York through Toronto using American Airlines… but the first leg was operated by WestJet.

WestJet has a super strict, no cellos in extra seats policy that put me in a difficult and hopeless situation. I discovered this while checking in, and was given an ultimatum. Check the cello or abandon the extra ticket.

Let me explain the “thinking” behind this company-wide policy, as described by WestJet representative Robert Barron. They don’t allow cellos on board because they do not have “specialized tie downs” for the instrument. They claim that this is for the “safety… of the instrument”.

If this be the case, I have no idea why they’d want to put it in cargo, where there is turbulence combined with lack of temperature regulation.

The industry standard for strapping in a cello is to use a seatbelt extender to loop the belt through the handle of the cello, as shown here:

cello airline

In what was a very stressful moment, I had to abandon my instrument and leave it with family in Vancouver and board the plane on my own. This was a “sold out flight”. I hope the person on the standby list wasn’t mad that there was an empty seat on the plane due to WestJet’s frustrating policy.

Because of this, I’ve had to spend nearly $1,000 to have a third party fly the cello to me in New York using airline companies that allow cellos as cabin baggage. I filed for a refund through American Airlines but still have not been issued a refund for the abandoned seat.

I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage a discussion to enact change on a company-wide level with WestJet that would greatly enhance its musical travelers’ experiences as well as show the best of intentions in adapting with the current needs of modern transportation.

With best intentions, I would urge that WestJet reexamine its policy regarding musical instruments. When a company like WestJet that specializes in service encounters customer discomfort over a purely business-driven policy, especially one that stands as a distinct industry outlier, it is necessary for that company to reexamine the policy in question. WestJet’s closest competitor, Air Canada, not only allows instruments in extra seats, but even offers a 50% discount. Click here.



  • MacroV says:

    When I read these stories I can’t help wonder how the airlines – through their trade associations – can’t come up with standard policies on musical instruments. They do, after all, on size/weight of carry-on bags, baggage fees, and other matters.

    • Max Grimm says:

      Maybe it’s just as well that they haven’t come up with a standard policy…if they did, it might end up being cheaper to buy a new cello at your destination every time you fly.

  • Gerard Le Feuvre says:

    I am the only widely travelled cellist I know who used to be a baggage loader. I can tell you that the temperature and turbulence are the least of your worries. Trusting a non musician to load your cello and handle it, is something you should never do. The standard of care required to keep a cello intact would be similar to the standard required for an old person. No one compares old people to baggage, without being utterly rude or insane. Shame on WestJet

  • Chris says:

    While I am not a professional cellist, I have travelled with my cello many times on international flights (including many long-haul ones). Every time, I checked it in with my Stevenson case (strings loosen slightly to reduce pressure + extra padding), and so far have not had any problems. The cold temperature does affect the cello, but once it is warmed up again, it’s as good as before. Just sharing…

    • bratschegirl says:

      Then you’ve been extraordinarily lucky (and should seriously start wondering when that luck is going to run out). I’m happy for you and your cello, but your experience is far, far outside the norm. I travel regularly with a US youth orchestra. The cellists brought their instruments the first few times the group toured, carefully packed and often in flight cases, and every time there was serious damage to at least one cello. I’m talking about cracked tops and broken necks. Airlines promised faithfully to hand-carry them on and off the planes and never put them on baggage belts; guess where they *always* ended up? I’d no more check an instrument than I would a child (with the possible exception of the one who kicked the back of my seat for 10,000 miles…).

  • Bryan says:

    Unfortunate story…

    They claim that the reason for this policy was for the “safety of the cello” which makes absolutely no sense because checking in the cello as luggage would increase the risk to its safety hundreds of times more. Therefore, that reasoning is completely invalid. Then what exactly is the reason for that policy? If there is no valid reason, then they must do the logical thing- get rid of such an unreasonable policy. All of these people who hold authoritative positions in airline companies should simply do what’s humanly reasonable, instead of being stubborn for their own pride’s sake.

  • Shaun P says:

    Anyone with half a brain would ensure that they could take their cello on-board before booking the ticket. Just saying…

    • Tor F says:

      That is absolute rubbish. Anyone with half a brain would know this. I have had 2 well publicised experiences where this was precisely what I did. Once with Qantas and once with Etihad – both were problem flights for instruments in approved cases for in cabin transport. It entirely depends who you get at the gate and their degree of knowledge of both instruments and the regulation.

  • chanel says:

    He is at fault here for he failed when he booked his ticket, to research the airlines’ musical instrument carriage policy. As westjet doesn’t have a regulatory exemption with transport canada to allow a musical instrument to be affixed to a seat. I fail to see how westjet failed here, when their policy is laid out clear on their website?

    • Toto Phi says:

      Perhaps, but WestJet is clearly also at fault for not adopting logical and reasonable measures already in place at other airlines, notably including their closest competitor.

    • Max Grimm says:

      He – like many, if not most people – neglected to research the conditions of his travels. One should always become familiar with every airline’s regulations when having two or more airlines listed on the itinerary.
      Especially regarding baggage, normal or special types, one should be aware of the “Most Significant Carrier Agreement”. In Mr. Chan’s case, WestJet was the most significant carrier, the segment of the trip flown by them being the longest and therefore WestJet’s rules applied, not American Airlines’, even though he booked through American Airlines.
      If any part of the blame is to be placed on an airline in this case, it should be placed on American Airlines for selling Mr. Chan a seat for his cello, although the airline that he would mostly be flying on and whose rules would be in effect, doesn’t allow cellos in the cabin.

  • Alex Silver says:

    Sorry, but in the event of clear air turbulence, I don’t want your cello flying around the cabin because it has not been suitably restrained in a seat. WJ does not make the rules up, Transport Canada does, and ALL restraining devices HAVE to be Transport Canada / FAA approved.

    However, if it fits in a bin, that’s a different story.

    US DoT regulations CLEARLY state that if it fits in a bin, it stays in the bin. It’s a first come, first serve deal. Airlines are not allowed to remove one persons items for the benefit of someone else’s belongings, essentially saying that your stuff is less important than the next guy who bordered after you’s stuff.

    Sorry, WestJet, (and Air Canada), but that is not on.

    I’ve had that experience with a $2,500 custom thin acoustic/electric guitar in a soft case, which easily fits in an overhead bin, even on the Q400’s. My hubby and I place our carry-ons under our seats and only use the bin for the guitar, which, when placed at the back of the bin, still allows for a roll on bag in front of it.

    Some flight attendants get all wiggy about it, but then have no problem when another couple jam and cram 2 enormous roll ons + carry ons up there, taking up twice or more of the cubic volume available to ALL paying guests.

    • Scott Fields says:

      Any airplane that is equipped to carry fat people is equipped to secure cellos in seats. A seat-belt extender is attached to to the seat belt and threaded through the cello case handle. That whopping 12-kilo case isn’t going anywhere.