United Breaks Guitars: Poor Customer Service in Song

We often say that you judge a company not by what it does right, but by how it fixes things when it does wrong, and United Airlines did a big wrong to musician Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell. While sitting on the tarmac at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, they looked out the window and saw the baggage handlers throwing their guitars around. That was the beginning of a long and painful ordeal with United, but why don’t we let Dave tell the story?

Dave has written a more detailed version of his ordeal on his website, but after months of fruitless effort, United’s excuses for not doing right by their customer boiled down to these:

  • Dave didn’t report to the Omaha airport within 24 hours while he was driving to places that weren’t Omaha .
  • It was an Air Canada issue, but Air Canada already denied the claim because Air Canada would not pay for damage done by United baggage handlers.
  • Someone from United would need to see the damage to the already repaired guitar. 

Now, there is no problem with United or any company having processes in place to protect itself from fraudulent claims. Having such policies and following them ultimately helps everyone by (at least theoretically) keeping costs down, but when a plane-load of people witness United baggage handlers throwing luggage around and that luggage ends up damaged, for the company to not own-up to its responsibility is more than just poor customer service, it is amazing arrogance. 

Dave’s response was the creation of the video you just enjoyed, which got the airline’s attention. Robin Urbanski, a spokeswoman for United, issued a statement saying in part: “This has struck a chord with us, and we’ve contacted him directly to make it right.” 

Nice pun, but hardly the mea culpa that this warrants and it certainly does not put United in a good light. We know that this is merely one of thousands of baggage damage complaints—the US Department of Transportation says in April 2009, United ranked 10th among 19 carriers, with 13,517 “baggage reports” among 4.03 million passengers—but this one is getting attention because it happened to a musician with the resources to create a music video about it that took off on the Internet. What if it had not been Dave Carroll, musician? What if it had been Dave Carroll, penniless college student? It seems that without the exposure this incident received, nothing would have been done, a fact that makes United look even worse than it did to those people watching the baggage handlers at play outside the aircraft. 

Like any other company that takes peoples belongings and cares for them for a period of time and for a price, United has a responsibility to keep those belongings safe, and that include keeping them safe from abuse from United employees. When they fail in that responsibility, they have a duty to make it right. We will see if they really make things right for Dave and his band, but what really matters is whether they will make things right for all the other passengers whose baggage is mangled and manhandled by United employees.