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Bumping the Cello: An Exchange Between WestJet's Robert Barron and Paul Katz

Bumping the Cello: An Exchange Between WestJet’s Robert Barron and Paul Katz

Shortly after my “Airline Nightmare” story appeared in the Boston Globe, WestJet representative Robert Barron wrote a letter of explanation to the Globe.  It is reprinted here, with my personal reactions injected. – PK

Robert Barron – West Jet Customer Service Agent:
First of all, I’d like to say to Mr. Katz that I’m sorry he had such an unpleasant experience flying with us. All of us at WestJet are very proud of our company and its caring culture so we take it personally when we hear people are unhappy with us.

The second-last thing I would want to do is cause a guest any upset, but the very last thing I want to do is to jeopardize anyone’s safety. While many airlines do permit musical instruments to fly in the cabin, we do not as we do not have the specialized tiedowns to secure the instrument. This is not on for others’ safety, but for your instrument’s; in the event of severe turbulence, an ordinary seatbelt would not keep the cello from flying up to hit the ceiling.

Paul Katz:
My cello and I have been on over 4000 flights, including the most severe turbulence, drops of several thousand feet, a blown tire on takeoff  where everything fell out of the overhead bins, and even  an emergency landing with a foamed runway. The cello, with a seatbelt and single extension belt around and passed through the handle, is snug and immovable and a 0% safety issue. Your concerns are due to not knowing the size, shape and weight of the instrument.

Robert Barron:
Mr. Palmer (another WestJet spokesperson) is correct that seatbelts are rated for a person and not for objects. Transport Canada (the equivalent of the FAA) has very strict and specific regulations about almost every detail of air travel. As a company, we take our safety culture extremely seriously and when our Safety department or TC advise or regulate against a practice, we listen.

Think of how you sit in a seatbelt; the belt sits in the “fold” between your tummy and thighs. If the plane moves down, during turbulence, the belt resists your thighs moving upwards; if there is excessive forward motion like a rapid deceleration during takeoff, the belt restrains your torso. Now think of strapping a box into that same belt; if the plane suddenly moves down, the box will move upwards sharply in reaction; and in that rapid forward motion, the cello will accelerate out of the belt, certainly damaging it and most likely injuring anyone sitting nearby.

Paul Katz:
Respectfully sir, your comment betrays  your ignorance. A cello case is not a box. It weighs, depending on the model of the case, 12-25 pounds, is the height of an 8-10 year old kid, has shape that indents and usually at least 2 handles that belts can be passed through. If your belts are “rated”  to permit a 250 pound man to sit under one (and there were several on this flight,) there is no way on earth a cello could break loose.

Robert Barron:
We do allow guests to purchase extra seats and this is often done where a larger person wants the use of two seats, or where a couple wants to guarantee an empty seat between them for more space and comfort. If Mr. Katz was not informed of this when he made his booking I can certainly understand the anxiety this miscommunication would have caused.

Paul Katz:
What is your point here? A cello is smaller than an adult. Why do I need 2 seats? And if I understand WestJet policy, had I bought 2 seats for the cello, you would have bumped me anyway.

Robert Barron:
One lesson perhaps to be learned from this is always to check your airline booking for codeshare and interline flights; these are becoming more and more common, and not all airlines’ policies, allowances, etc., are the same. As Mr Katz learned to his distress, what is allowable on one airline may not be on another. It’s best never to make assumptions, especially when there are any special circumstances such as a disability, special diet – or a musical instrument – are involved.

Paul Katz:
This response, implying I am the problem, infuriates me! In the bewildering world of online purchases and codeshares, does the airline itself have NO responsibility? Why was I able to buy a ticket for a cello on WestJet if you don’t allow them on board? Why should you not program your computers to reject cello tickets? Airlines have programmed their computers to close Frequent Flyer accounts opened in the name of a cello, and yet you allow us to pay for a seat , arrive at the gate, board the plane, an then, after throwing us off, lecture us that we didn’t do proper homework!

Robert Barron:
Finally, I’d like to point out that the captain’s handling of the situation – personally bringing the instrument up from the hold – much better illustrates our way of doing things at WestJet. The captain obviously wanted to show how very seriously the care of Mr. Katz’ instrument was being taken, and by going out of his way (and past his job description) to do so, he is doing what WestJetters do every day – going that extra mile to give our guests a great travel experience. I’ve personally volunteered to fly to Calgary and back with a stranger’s pet at my feet so she could get both her pets home for Christmas. With our American Airlines codeshare we are hearing daily what a nice change from everyday travel WestJet is, and I’d encourage readers of Boston.com to give us a try.

Paul Katz:
Well, yes and no. The captain and flight attendants was initially on the rude side in demanding I check the cello or get off of the plane. However, one of the flight attendants did befriend me on the flight,  when she saw my extreme emotional distress. Engaging me in conversation,  she then  learned of the historical importance and monetary value of the instrument, understood why I was near breakdown, and concerned for WestJet’s liability, reported what she had learned to the captain. He indeed was attentive from that point on, brought me the cello, and visited a few minutes while I opened the case and verified that the instrument was OK. I hope he felt badly, that should be his natural human response. But truthfully I believe his primary motivation was that he feared a lawsuit and he  was relieved to find that he had dodged the bullet.

Robert Barron:
Happy travels and I do hope you will come back to WestJet someday.

Paul Katz:
When WestJet changes its policy and accepts cellos (as is standard international practice the world-over,) I promise I will be the first to buy a ticket! But for the moment, as your flight crew said to me when telling me I would need  to leave the plane, “Sorry sir, you will not be able to fly on any WestJet aircraft!”

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