News / Vancouver

Famed cellist angry Canadian airline's policy banning cellos from cabin still unchanged

Paul Katz says he is 'outraged' after WestJet refused a cello in the cabin during a flight from Vancouver, four years after he received the same treatment.

Juilliard-trained cellist Nathan Chan says WestJet refused to allow his cello in the cabin during a flight from Vancouver to Toronto earlier this month, even though he bought an extra seat for the instrument.

JIYANG CHEN PHOTOGRAPHY

Juilliard-trained cellist Nathan Chan says WestJet refused to allow his cello in the cabin during a flight from Vancouver to Toronto earlier this month, even though he bought an extra seat for the instrument.

A renowned American cellist says he is “outraged” after hearing that WestJet refused to allow a young musician’s cello in the cabin during a recent flight from Vancouver, even though he bought an extra seat for the instrument.

Nearly four years ago, Paul Katz says he received the same treatment.

“I get angry,” he told Metro. “I just think WestJet is so indefensible, and their attitude is so cavalier. They’re just so out of step with the whole airline industry.”

Renowned American cellist Paul Katz is “outraged” that WestJet refused to allow a cello in the cabin during a recent flight from Vancouver to Toronto, nearly four years after he says the airline gave him the same treatment.

Courtesy Paul Katz

Renowned American cellist Paul Katz is “outraged” that WestJet refused to allow a cello in the cabin during a recent flight from Vancouver to Toronto, nearly four years after he says the airline gave him the same treatment.

Earlier this month, Juilliard School cellist Nathan Chan attempted to bring his cello onto a flight from Vancouver to Toronto but was refused by the airline.

The 22-year-old bought his ticket through American Airlines, which allows passengers travelling with a cello to buy an extra seat for the instrument. When he arrived at the airport, however, he found out that the flight was operated by Calgary-based airline WestJet, and was forced leave the instrument behind with family and forfeit his US$250 ticket for the extra seat. (American Airlines has since reimbursed him for the forfeited ticket after Metro published a story about his experience.)

According to WestJet, the airline is “not licensed to carry anything in our seats that requires a specialized strap or other device to attach it to the seat.”

But Katz argues that WestJet seems to be one of the only airlines in North America with such a policy.

A member of The Cleveland Quartet, a successful but now defunct string quartet, Katz spent nearly 50 years touring the world with his cello in tow.

At the height of their touring career, he said he took his cello on more than 200 flights a year, mostly without incident.

It was only in 2012, on a WestJet-operated flight from Calgary to Los Angeles, that Katz said he encountered an airline policy that seemed off-key.

On that day, Katz had already secured his cello in the seat beside him— the tickets for which he had also booked through American Airlines— when a flight attendant informed him that the instrument would need to be stowed in the cargo hold.

Without knowing anyone in Calgary that could hold on to the cello for him, Katz said he eventually agreed to allow the airline to check the instrument.

When the plane encountered severe turbulence, Katz said his stomach was in knots throughout the flight, fearing for the safety of the priceless instrument, which was made in 1669.

Fortunately, when the plane landed, he said was brought to tears when he opened the case and saw the cello was still in one piece.

“My particular instrument is historic,” he said. “You just cannot take that instrument with that kind of historic significance and leave it to chance. When you own an instrument like that, I think of myself as a caretaker for the next generation. It’s a treasure for humanity and you feel a responsibility to take care of it.”

Katz wrote about his experience for the Boston Globe.

Soon after, he said he was contacted by an Air Canada flight attendant who told him she was shocked to hear about his experience. She told him that she would take the issue to the airline’s administration and, within a year, Air Canada announced a new policy allowing passengers travelling with a cello to buy an extra seat for their instrument at a 50 per cent discount.

In the U.S., an airline passenger’s bill of rights protects passengers wishing to carry a large instrument in the aircraft cabin to purchase an additional seat to accommodate the item.

After hearing about Nathan Chan’s experience, Katz said he is shocked that WestJet still hasn’t changed its policy.

“It seems so simple to me that WestJet would just, as a matter of customer relations and its own public image, do the easy thing and change its policy,” he said. “But I don’t know that there are enough cellists in the world to effect a big powerful business like that.”

Metro reached out to WestJet about its policy, but the company refused to comment.