Thursday, July 16, 2009

Carroll, Taylor, & United Profit When United Breaks Guitars ?

While I’m sympathetic to Dave Carroll, of the Sons of Maxwell, I'm not particularly swayed to righteous indignation against United Airlines by his supposedly viral "United Breaks Guitars" video.  He really SHOULD have opened the case when he arrived in Omaha, and, at the very least, taken pictures. I’ve known since I was a child that shippers always say that one should inspect packages upon receipt even if there is no outward sign of damage. Mr. Carroll does bear some responsibility for the outcome of his situation. I don’t know about you, but when I travel with one of my pianos on a plane, I damn sure open the case at the destination airport to check it. Frankly, I do the same even when I transport it myself in my car!

(One also has to wonder why no one snapped a photo with their cell phone on the tarmac at Chicago, showing the offending instrument throwing/throwers.)

FWIW, this article contradicts Mr. Carroll’s statement on his web site. He never actually saw *his* guitar being mishandled. By the time his bass player looked, Carroll surmises with no basis of proof,  that his guitar had already been thrown.

Also, the “we were on the road away from Omaha” is a lame excuse for having not contacted the airline immediately when the damage was discovered the day after they arrived in Omaha, at the sound check. Sounds like they did a week of touring gigs with his broken guitar in tow. Hard to be sympathetic for that. Especially in this day of cell phones, email, etc.

Sounds to me like Mr. Carroll and his gang were too lazy to bother to check things, too follow-up on things, and too focused on their career path itself and less on the material items like their guitars. (Personally, I have heard stories from roadies-who take meticulous care of player’s instruments-about how the performers then mistreat those same instruments.) Obviously, Mr. Carroll had other guitars to play which he then used. Did his audiences feel cheated because he didn’t play his $3500 Taylor? Would they even know? A consummate musician can make good music on even the worst of instruments, and somehow I doubt Mr. Carroll’s alternate guitars were cheapies from Sears. In fact, turns out that Taylor supplied him with replacement guitars, hoping to get some good publicity out of this whole story (which they have.)

Mr. Carroll clearly had the $1200 needed to repair the guitar. He was fond enough of it to keep it and use it in its less than perfect repaired state when he could have purchased a new guitar (and Taylor was giving him all these nice freebies in return for the publicity.) Also, he could have left the guitar damaged to offer as evidence to the airline. He doesn't say when he had the guitar repaired. I somehow doubt it was during this week-long tour.

I’m glad Mr. Carroll is past angry, because he’d have to save some of that anger for his own mistakes and tunnel vision. Somehow, though, he seems to have turned his misfortune to his advantage. United wants to make things right to Carroll financially, has apologized to him, and wants to use the video as training to change its corporate culture. Millions of people have seen the video, and now know of Mr. Carroll and his band. My heart bleeds.Not.

If he’d checked his guitar at airport in Omaha and filed a claim, I’ll bet he would have wound up with a substantially smaller settlement than he will now probably get from United (plus he won’t have all this great publicity for an up and coming singer and his band! Aw, shucks.

Gee, what a clever publicity ploy. So, did any of this really happen? Can we be sure? I’ve seen no evidence that this story is anything but invented or apocryphal. Perhaps United and Taylor are in on it? Taylor is making hay of the story. In a way, so is United. And clearly, so are Mr. Carroll and the Sons of Maxwell band.

Has anyone interviewed other passengers that were supposedly on this flight, or tried to locate the person who supposedly claimed “they’re throwing guitars?” All the news stories seem to have been about the “viral” nature of the video, and not the actual facts of the story. Anybody interview baggage handlers at O'Hare?

Also, there are always sides to a story. Were all the United agents and employees truly surly or dismissive? Was Mr. Carroll always polite and respectful to them? We're the baggage handlers really "throwing" guitars in an irresponsible manner, or was that simply one person's perception? I'm not even sure throwing luggage between handlers is wholly inappropriate if they are taking care to catch it and make sure nothing hits the ground or gets hurt. Probably not the best idea, but there are possibly extenuating circumstances. These low-paid baggage handlers are under a lot of pressure to get luggage moved quickly and efficiently. I know I've seen for myself, and also heard stories of UPS, FeDex, DHL and other carrier's employees moving packages via "airmail" - i.e. toss them to one another. Tell me you've never tried a potentially risky shortcut or two at work or home in a situation in which you felt confident and secure, and wanted to get something done faster. Sometimes you won, sometimes you lost. That's what taking a risk is all about. Sometimes, fate just steps in and intervenes in an unexpected way. I'd say Dave Carroll is trying to turn lemons of fate into lemonade, and doing it quite successfully. (United is following suit, as is Taylor.)

I pay a shipper (or an airline) to get my items safely from one place to another, unharmed. I also know that there is always some risk. No employer can be sure 100% of its employees do everything 100% correctly 100% of the time. I'll certainly opt for the company with the best record, but I can't expect perfection. (Stores build in losses from expected shoplifting, accidental stock breakage, and cashier errors when they budget, and factor that into the pricing.) Planes crash, trucks get into accidents, delivery people trip or stumble and packages get damaged.

Now, fact of the matter is, smart businesses compensate customers even when damages happen due to circumstances that are random or beyond their control. United is not entirely off the hook here, in my view. A smart company would have acknowledged and come to a quick settlement with Mr. Carroll right from the start-even if there was no clear proof the damage was their fault. This action on their part would have been the smart play.

Taylor played nice by providing replacement guitars for Carroll. Didn't hurt their bottom line, either. Win-win for them--they get to play nice company, and get huge coattails publicity from the "viral" video.

Also, it does seem a shame that Mr. Carroll had to endure such a runaround from United, Air Canada, et al. They should apologize for that, and should address the corporate culture that is responsible for it.

Yet, in the end, do I want the cost of my airline ticket going up because United has decided to settle every claim submitted, even a week later, and when there is no evidence or proof to back up the claim? That's a selfish question, and the wrong one. If we are to ask that question at all (and I'm not entirely sure we should) shouldn't it be if all of us, United's current and future potential customers, are willing, for the good of the entire community as a whole, pay slightly higher ticket prices so that United can compensate all claimants for damaged luggage regardless of circumstance? That answer might be, and dare I say, perhaps ought to be, yes. Much as I believe in personal responsibility, I also believe companies do better when they satisfy their customers by making sure they're always right (even when they're possibly not.) On the other hand, might a better solution be that we all agree that it is prudent to check our luggage for damage (especially when we have good reason to suspect a problem) and report it immediately or as soon as we can so that companies can properly process claims, and not have to pass on to customer the costs of paying unfounded claims?

Seems, based on the "virulence" of this "United Breaks Guitars" video, most people are siding with the upset customer (who failed his requirement fro due diligence.) Is this the choice we really want to make?

Was this truly a “viral” video as claimed, where “the public” forced an outcome on the despicable airline company, or is it a shameless sham? Food for thought.

Also, for the record, I once flew United on a vacation to Hawaii. On the return trip, they mis-routed a grass mat we had purchased for a few bucks as a souvenir. We reported it at our home airport, and the personnel were not dismissive of our claim in the least. United located the mis-routed mat, sent it back to our local airport, and had it delivered to our house by taxi, and sent a letter of apology. Admittedly, this was some years ago. Nevertheless, it represents most of my own personal experience with United Airlines, which have generally been positive. The missing grass mat was the only luggage problem I have ever had flying United. (I won't say I haven't had other problems with them, still overall, United has fared better in my esteem than many other airlines I fly.)


Adrian A. Durlester (aka Migdalor Guy)