Dave Carroll Versus Airlines
You’re on a flight. Now airborne, you and your band are moving across two countries, 11 states and 3 time zones to play a show in Omaha, Nebraska. Despite your protests and your vocal concerns, United Airlines staff insists on company policy and compels you to check your guitar bag before boarding.
Now, $3,500 and all of your career is riding in the bottom of a Boeing 747. As your psyche plays havoc with your mind, you wait nervously through turbulence. Images of heavy suitcases sandwiching your Taylor Guitar against the steel belly of an unforgiving airship play through your occipital lobe like an inflight horror movie.
Don’t worry, all along the way, the pleasantly robotic staff of United Airlines have all recited the same insincere tropes they use to placate every passenger who has entrusted precious luggage to the daft and indifferent hands of their team.
Once airborne, every minute trickles by like rests on music sheets: quietly, ominously, slowly. When finally, the plane lands, you vacillate your gaze between outside and your bandmate’s faces for some relief. But no, the worst is yet to come.
“Oh my God, they’re throwing guitars outside.”
A voice shatters the small peace afforded by the taxiing plane.
Like a portrait lifted from the darkest parts of your nightmares, you and the remaining members of the Sons of Maxwell watch in frozen horror as the silhouettes of your instruments are hurled like rubble from a blast site.
You rush from the gate to check in to baggage claim and watch as the landslide of luggage tumbles into the conveyor belt.
When that familiar shell of your former guitar case finally limps into your arms, you pray the loose rattle is just in your imagination; just a figment of the nightmare you’re having on a plane in a universe where all went well.
But no, you’re awake; this is real. You’ve just experienced part one of the story of Dave Carroll and his epic battle with United, who has just thrown the first punch in a war for justice that still rages on to this day.
Guitars Versus Airlines
Airplanes. They’re nobody’s favorite place, but of all those aboard any given flight, luggage itself should be the most afraid for their journey ahead. Roughly 2 million pieces of passengers’ luggage arrive late, are damaged, or are pilfered every year. And short of a hard shell flight case, most guitar cases are not prepared for the rough skies before them.
Dave Carroll, as we’ll soon find out, may be one of the most famous victims of this, but his story is not the most costly. In 2013, Dave Snyder suffered an airline encounter with his $10,000 guitar after they required him to check the bag, which, while in transit, was reduced to wood chips. His Gibson ES-335 was produced in 1965 and, in good condition, would value at something close to $20,000. In spite of his requests and protests, he was forced to check his bag at the gate and was then assured he was in good hands with the Delta baggage crew. When he landed, he discovered his guitar bag was crushed and the precious piece inside was ruined by the all-too-familiar candor of the baggage claim system.
Delta has since compensated Snyder for the damages and has proven significantly more cooperative than United, as we’ll soon find out with Dave Carroll’s story. Meanwhile, the happy ending for Snyder continued in kind as Gibson Guitars itself heard of the mishap and gifted him a 50th anniversary reissue of the 1963 Gibson ES-335 guitar, plus a free repair of his ES-335.
For this, and Snyder’s own account, it would seem Delta is more invested in fixing problems when they occur. This coincides with a recent article by Forbes that cites Delta as number 1 in an article titled: The Best And Worst Airlines In America In 2019. That list ranks a series of other airlines as follows:
- Alaska Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- United Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- American Airlines
- Allegiant Air
- Spirit Airlines
- Frontier Airlines
Not all tragedies take the trajectory of Snyder’s, nor are they resolved with this degree of ease. As with any industry, airlines are still fraught with inconsistent policies and mechanized approaches to unique problems. But if you take a little time to learn from trials and tribulations of fellow musicians, as well as to prep yourself with an airport-ready flight case like our own hard shell flight cases, you can avoid jeopardizing your precious instrument and ensure better tours in the future.
For Dave Carroll who, back in Nebraska in 2008, was still processing the fallout of a broken Taylor guitar, prevention was no longer an option. And what awaited him still was a year’s worth of phone calls, client mismanagement, and frustration that would turn justice into a vendetta. The likes of which, he himself would say, are not worth repeating.
You Versus Airlines
Traveling is different for different people. Jetsetters know which airliners have the most amenities while backpackers can tell you the cheapest times to fly. Musicians are a culture of flyers all their own: prone to regular trips but not immune to the budgets of bookies. The complicated maze of traveling as a musician is a labyrinth even David Bowie would struggle with.
For that, we’ve broken down our advice for musicians into 3 stages of travel troubles to better streamline your travel advice. Our hope is that you can prevent damage wherever possible, but feel empowered to stand up when damages do occur. These stages are as follows:
In this section, we provide you with information and means to avoid putting your guitar in jeopardy of any kind. We’ll examine your legal rights as a traveler, as well as what means you have to avoid flights and situations that would be less-than-kind to your instrument.
In many instances, prevention is unavoidable. For that, this section focuses on working with airlines and insurers to rectify damage if something happens to your guitar in transit and to offer solutions on the fly.
As with so much of the world, the system is flawed and sometimes you must take action into your own hands. In this section, we examine methods to ensure issues like this do not happen in the future, on behalf of airlines and with regard to other guitarists. Meanwhile, we consider what options you have when working with the airlines is no longer an option.
In all instances, what’s most important is that you and your instruments both arrive safely wherever you’re going. And without a doubt, luggage processing is one of the most perilous journeys for any precious item to undertake. For that, here are our suggestions for avoiding damage to your instrument:
1. Ship Whenever You Can
The best advice is always to ship your instrument if time permits. Shipping provides quality means for insurance as well as assistance in packing and securing your instrument. Rather than panicking and scrambling to find a fix in the airport, this is the best way to do due diligence and pack your instrument effectively. It is, however, unlikely that your schedule will allow for this so, in all likelihood, this’ll be something reserved in only unique instances.
2. Shoot for Quality Over Cost
Good airlines have good reputations for good reason. United destroyed Dave Carroll’s guitar and for that and many other reasons, does not rank highly on most lists for quality airlines. To that end, do your best to fly with companies with better reputations like Delta or Southwest.
3. Avoid Planes Whenever Possible
Flying has become such a ubiquitous form of intercity travel that people forget what amazing means we have to overcome distance. We of course acknowledge the tour van, but would also like to point out wonderful alternatives like Amtrak, Megabus, and Greyhound. These are all wildly inexpensive means to travel intercity and all afford a hands-on approach to your luggage handling. When you factor in the check-in times, the delays, and often large distances airports are from city-centers, you’ll find in many instances that driving, bussing, or train-ing can often save you time. Plus, being on the road is good for the soul (and the environment)!
4. Be Prepared To Argue For Carry-ons
“Carry-on” means what airlines and, more importantly, airline employees want it to mean. It is as simple as that. A purse the size of a picnic basket counts as a ‘personal item’ but a skateboard must be checked? Guitars are no exception and despite their abundance in travel, airlines and airline employees still scramble daily to find what their personal policies are for these objects. For you, it’s important to research in advance and learn what airlines allow for musical instruments as a carry on, and then to have that literature handy for when people contest you at the gate. You are covered by US law and it can be useful to have that information handy when it comes up (You can find that legal order here: FAA Modernization and Reform Act in section 403)
5. Brace For Impact
If you are left with no other option and have to check your guitar, make sure you’re prepared with a flight-ready hard shell case. Our line of hard shell flight cases are tough-tested and designed to withstand even the most aggressive baggage handlers out there. Custom designing the interiors and utilizing advanced cushioning and shielding materials means no matter what’s going on outside, your guitar is safe on the inside.
Now this is a good rule of thumb for any musician, traveling or not: get your instrument insured. Your guitar is in danger every moment it is not safely stowed away in its case. Paying a little extra monthly is a small price to pay to know that your instrument will be repaired or replaced by your insurer should something occur. Places like Anderson Musical Instrument Insurance Solutions offer up to $30,000 worth of coverage for rates as low as $165 a year. Do your own math and weigh your options, but for many who end up with broken guitars, insurance covering the cost in lieu of a lengthy battle with airliners is often significantly preferable.
Photo by I G
Despite your best efforts, sometimes the worst is just bound to happen. In instances where your guitar is damaged, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and work with the system. For those moments where your guitar is already damaged and you have to rectify the situation, here’s some helpful advice from fellow musicians:
1. Take Pictures
This one may be obvious, but it’s an easy one to overlook in a moment of frenzy. So before shifting and moving around, whip out your phone and snap a few photos of the damage where it occurred. In fact, feel free to grab footage of the bag on the baggage carousel before removing it. Be sure to include shots of all sides of the guitar before removing it from the case. Then, follow with shots of the guitar once it is removed. The more shots the better.
2. Report To The Baggage Handling Desk Immediately.
It’s their job to handle cases like this so, unfortunately, you will have to play their game. You’ll likely be asked to fill out a damage-to-property report and answer a few questions. In some instances, this team will actually sort out your issues on the spot, often even offering replacement luggage or compensation if it’s an easy-to-solve circumstance. This is not always the case, but whether they fix it there or later, working with baggage claim is an essential step. When coordinating with them, here are a few elements to keep in mind:
- You have up to 24 hours to report a claim for domestic flights and seven days for international flights on most carriers, though policies vary by airline. Southwest and JetBlue require claims within 4 hours while Frontier offers a more lenient 12 hour window. It’s easier to do this in person and to have everything documented on-site instead of spending time on the phone and uploading claim documents online. Plus, you might be offered a replacement bag on the spot if you’re not too picky about a new bag.
- Keep your baggage tags attached to your case. Often, the airline will eventually need them.
- Remember, you’re working with people; baggage employees’ entire lives are dealt in the shared experience of travelers’ misery. If you want their help, you’ll want their respect. This is true anywhere in the world, but absolutely essential here. Cooperation and kindness are your best bet for a happy ending.
- Get your details in order. Know the cost of your guitar, your case, and any other items damaged or in need of replacement. Should repairs happen fast, you’ll want to know you have everything taken care of and that you don’t have to go through all this again.
- Take notes. Write down names of airline representatives and details discussed, and of course, keep track of your claim number to use for updates online as well as for reference.
3. Coordinate With Your Insurance Provider
Obviously this only applies if you have either instrument or travel insurance, but it is important to make sure your plan for repair and replacement is approved by your provider lest you end up paying out-of-pocket. Once again, make sure you know all the items that were damaged, offer pictures, and even consider referring a repair shop you’d prefer to administer repairs.
4. Call the Airline
“Airlines are responsible for repairing or reimbursing a passenger for damaged baggage and/or its contents when the damage occurs while the bag is under the airline’s control”, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection division. This edict says for flights within the United States, the maximum liability for a lost, delayed or damaged bag is $3,500. The limit on international flights, per the Montreal Convention, is about $1,600, the agency says. Make sure that you have your claim number handy and then find yourself a good book, because you’re going to be on hold for quite a bit.
Part III Retribution
In the event that none of this advice is of any help, sometimes it falls on you to be a purveyor of justice instead of a victim of the system. When any business steps out of line, it’s up to the patron to alert other consumers to the misdeeds of this organization. Not necessarily to penalize them, but to ideally reform them and hopefully prevent other travelers from experiencing the same injustices. Here are your tools to that end:
1. Leave Negative Reviews
It may seem petty but this is important on all sides. Airlines have a social media team whose job it is to regularly patrol their comments on streams they sponsor as well as any other public comment forums. Write out your case and present it across any and all travel and music platforms you find. You’re likely to get attention which hopefully results in quality changes. In many instances, people actually get actionable responses here sooner than through customer service lines.
2. Leave Positive Reviews
Just as important as it is to alert travelers to bad business practices, it is equally important to que businesses and patrons to those that handle these situations with authentic care and visible grace. When you highlight thoughtful industries, you are encouraging humanitarian policies both in those better businesses and to their competitors, which in turn can correct this industry as a whole. Plus you might just make someone’s day!
3. Legal Action
If, in 3-4 weeks, you don’t see any actual effort on the part of the airline, you might consider court action. For international flights, you have a two-year limit to pursue court action while, for domestic flights, you’ll have to work in small claims court based on individual rulings from state to state.
4. Write A Famous Song
This instance is likely not for everyone, but for Dave Carroll, this is how he turned a bad situation into the best thing that ever happened to him. When we last left Carroll, he had embarked on a journey of hierarchy, corporate mismanagement, and perennial failure on part of United Airlines. But a chance moment of creativity sparked at his own personal rock bottom turned what would be a tragic experience into triumphant one.
United Breaks Guitars, Dave Breaks United
Dave Carroll had done everything right. He had stayed in line, called the correct numbers, and reported to baggage claim. So when it was finally clear that United was never going to willingly work with Dave to rectify this situation, the stage was set for one of the most amazing civilian reactions in internet history:
Act 1: Cooperation
“For nine months I tried to get the airlines to take some responsibility,”
Dave recalled in an interview about his exceptional song.
For all of it, he held on and held out hope that United would do the right thing. But for every moment of patience and kindness on his part, United would generate new and creative methods of dodging “doing the right thing.” He was hung up on, passed through departments, and even once advised to return to O’hare airport to fill out a complaint in person. O’ Hare, the one-and-only Chicago airport hundreds of miles from his home.
At this point he had already spent $1,200 to replace the guitar. Even more cooperatively, he offered United Airlines could repay Carroll the cost of repair in flight vouchers.
This seemed to advance Carroll just a little further down the pipeline as a flurry of new emails and discussions formed around making this negotiation happen. When finally, the pivotal moment emerged, the high-flying United Airlines hit a new low:
In an email from Ms. Irlweg (whom he cites by name in his song) Dave was told that because he did not “open a claim” within 24 hours, the airline was not responsible for the damage and would no longer consider the flight voucher option or compensation of any kind.
All of his efforts, all of his patience, squandered in an act of indifference. A seeming rock bottom for Dave Carroll, this chapter, for United and for Ms. Irlweg, (the manager who reneged on the deal) would prove to be significantly more damaging to the airline than $1,200 in repairs.
Act 2: Creativity
As a creative person, Dave Carroll took this moment in stride; this instance becoming the flash in the pan for Carroll that neither he nor United fully predicted the outcome of.
Within a few hours of receiving his email from United, Dave Carroll had written a breakout song, simply titled ‘United Breaks Guitars’. Then, with the help of his close friends and some donations from the community, Carroll created an internet-breaking music video for a whopping $150.
Using simple cutouts, as well as the parking lot of the local fire station he volunteered at, Dave created a handmade and happy take on the horrifying year he had lost to United and their baggage services.
When the video was finished, he broadcasted it to his 400 friends on Facebook and assumed that would be the end of it. The following morning, Dave was happily surprised.
Act 3: Comradery
“When I woke up, it had exploded: 300 hits. By noon there were 5,000 and 25,000 by dinnertime. It was going viral at a time when I didn’t even know what a viral video was,” Carroll recounted happily in an interview about the success of his video. 4 days later, his video had rocketed to over a million views.
Soon after, Dave Carroll and his story were suddenly implored instead of ignored. Carroll was invited to speak on talk shows such as The Early Show and local news outlets. His tale regaled blogs and online news postings, and fellow musicians revered him for it.
For a month, “United Breaks Guitars” became the number one music video in the world. Eventually, even Taylor guitars found out about his situation and decided to show Dave some good fortune with a tour of the factory. At the end of the tour, they even offered him two guitars of his choosing to take home.
Act 4: Conquest
So, what became of United Airlines in all of this? This simple guitar player who would’ve settled for flight vouchers equal to just $1,200, had now struck an exigent blow to the once indifferent airline. According to the Times of London, United Airlines saw a 10% drop in shares directly attributed to this video. Estimates put that amount in something close to $180 million in losses. In an effort to make amends and to hopefully ease public perception, United finally offered their $1,200 in flight vouchers, as well as an additional $1,200 in actual cash to Dave Carroll for his trouble. Dave’s beef with United had seemingly come to an end, but Dave’s happily-ever-after would live on in a heartwarming string of good fortune for a man who’d just endured a wildly unlucky affair with baggage claim.
Act 5: Conclusion
In concert with his ongoing luck for the unexpected, Carroll seems to be further from the end of his story than ever.
He has since released a part 2 and part 3 to his “United Breaks Guitars” series, both with over a million views on Youtube. He’s signed a record deal and has even released a book entitled United Breaks Guitars; The Power Of One Voice In The Age Of Social Media,which recounts the impacts an individual can have on business. Dave Carroll continues to speak around the world and has since released a few solo albums including Perfect Blue and Raincoat in Vegas.
Dave’s situation not only proves the perils of baggage claim, but the importance of a flight tested case for your guitar.
Calton Cases and Airports
United may have broken Dave Carroll’s guitar, but they are not unique in their treatment of luggage. Your case will see multiple conveyor belts, handlers, planes, and environments all throughout any given trip. These seemingly endless variables will be out of your control, but what is in your control is a quality case for your guitar.
A tailor-made, hardshell case is the pinnacle of available technology for qualitatively shielding your instrument from the stressors of air travel. Our hard shell flight case consists of multiple layers of fiberglass and soft urethane foam padding designed to securely fit your guitar perfectly in place. The gorgeous interior fully supports your instrument and is wrapped in our premium plush velvet, while the padded pick box and neck guide help to firmly secure your instrument. These cases are designed for assurance in all terrains and have been developed over decades to withstand the most challenging elements of air travel without faltering.
In any case (or instance), total instrument security is our goal for every musician we work with. So if you have travel coming up, or just want assurance that your instrument is safe everywhere you go, give us a call about and find your own peace of mind in a case made by Calton Cases.