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Smashed guitar, YouTube song ? United is listening now

July 07, 2009|By Christopher Reynolds | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Here, without rhythm, harmony or rhyme, is Dave Carroll's problem: Last year, while he was flying from Nova Scotia to Nebraska on United Airlines, somebody broke his $3,500 guitar.

Big deal, you're thinking. Who has time to keep track of all the things United breaks? (See bottom of story for some statistics, which suggest that several other airlines are worse.)

But Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell, have told their tale with rhythm, harmony, rhyme, not to mention some wicked humor, and their four-minute, 37-second complaint, "United Breaks Guitars," above, is racking up views on YouTube.

Before we tell you what United has to say about all this, here's a quick version of Carroll's saga, as distilled from his website. (Messages to Carroll's home phone and e-mail address went unanswered Tuesday night.):

In spring 2008, Carroll and company headed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Omaha, by way of (shudder now, frequent fliers) Chicago. Just after landing at O'Hare airport, says Carroll, one of his bandmates and another passenger looked out their windows and saw baggage handlers heaving around guitars with wanton disregard.

Carroll says he complained immediately to three flight attendants, but was met with indifference. Some time after arrival in Nebraska, Carroll says, he discovered that, sure enough, the base of his 710 Taylor acoustic guitar had been smashed.

But he had gigs to play, so he found a way to do that. As Carroll acknowledges, he didn't attempt to complain again until beginning his return flight a week later.

Over the following days, weeks and months, Carroll made many phone calls to United representatives in Chicago and (who didn't see this coming?) India, but basically he says United did nothing for him.

Meanwhile, Carroll spent $1,200 getting the guitar repaired "to a state that it plays well but has lost much of what made it special."

The capping blow, Carroll says, was an e-mail from a Ms. Irlweg, who denied his claim for compensation because he didn't complain in the right place, or at the right time. The airline wouldn't even give him $1,200 in travel vouchers, Carroll contends.

So he vowed a sort of musical revenge - not one protest song, not two, but three, with a video for each, all to be posted on the Web. Carroll says he told Ms. Irlweg all about it, but got the usual response.

The video was posted on July 6. In its first 23 hours, "United Breaks Guitars" had drawn 461 comments on YouTube, most of them maligning the airline, and one of them hearkening back to Tom Paxton and his tune of aerial guitar trouble, "Thank you, Republic Airlines." (The viewer counter appeared to be stuck at 3,441, but the video quickly went viral, with the Consumerist showing more than 24,000 views by Tuesday night.)

Among the comments: "Revenge is a dish best served with country accompaniment."

So what does United have to say about the song?

"This has struck a chord with us, and we've contacted him directly to make it right," said Robin Urbanski, a spokeswoman for United. (Urbanski also said she "loved" the video.)

Urbanski said a phone meeting had been scheduled for Wednesday, and that before the airline decides exactly what to do for Carroll, "we need to have that conversation with him directly."

Meanwhile, Carroll's website says he's written and recorded the second song, with video to follow soon. And he has all sorts of other plans for a third song, and various tactics to achieve a million Web hits, which he believes will give some sense of revenge.

In fact, he writes, "I should thank United?. If my guitar had to be smashed due to extreme negligence I'm glad it was you that did it."

By the way: In the U.S. Department of Transportation's tally of lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered baggage in April 2009, United ranked 10th among 19 carriers, with 13,517 "baggage reports" among 4.03 million passengers.

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