United Breaks Guitars
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The Full Story
On March 31, 2008 Sons of Maxwell began our week-long-tour of Nebraska by flying United Airlines from Halifax to Omaha, by way of Chicago. On that first leg of the flight we were seated at the rear of the aircraft and upon landing and waiting to deplane in order to make our connection a woman sitting behind me, not aware that we were musicians cried out: “My god they’re throwing guitars out there.” Our bass player Mike looked out the window in time to see his bass being heaved without regard by the United baggage handlers. My $3500 710 Taylor had been thrown before his.
I immediately tried to communicate this to the flight attendant who cut me off saying: “Don’t talk to me. Talk to the lead agent outside.” I found the person she pointed to and that lady was an “acting” lead agent but refused to talk to me and disappeared into the crowd saying “I’m not the lead agent.” I spoke to a third employee at the gate and when I told her the baggage handlers were throwing expensive instruments outside she dismissed me saying “but hun, that’s why we make you sign the waiver.” I explained that I didn’t sign a waiver and that no waiver would excuse what was happening outside. She said to take it up with the ground crew in Omaha.
“My god they’re throwing guitars out there.”
When I got to Omaha it was around 12:30 am. The plane was late arriving and there were no employees visible. Although I was told later that it wouldn’t have mattered, I should have taken my hard case out of the padded protective exterior case to examine the guitar at the airport but I didn’t. The guitar case looked ok and we were tired, went to the hotel and then to sleep for our early morning pick-up by the tour managers the next day. When they picked us up in the early morning we would not be back in Omaha for seven days. It was later that day at sound check that I discovered that the base of my Taylor had been smashed.
One week later I returned to Omaha for my return trip. I explained what had happened and the United agent in Omaha said I needed to start a claim at the airport where the trip began (Halifax). So here is what happened next.
I immediately tried to communicate this to the flight attendant who cut me off saying: “Don’t talk to me. Talk to the lead agent outside.”
When I got home to Halifax I was told that United doesn’t really have a presence there and that Air Canada is their partner. Every plane I flew on that day said “United” on the side but technically they have no presence there. So, Air Canada gave me a phone number to start my claim with United. When I called the number United said I had to return to the Halifax airport with the guitar to show the damage to someone and open a claim. When I returned to the Halifax airport I met with an Air Canada employee, because United has no presence there, and that person acknowledged the damage, opened a claim number but “denied” the claim because Air Canada would not be responsible for damage caused by United employees in Chicago (which still makes sense to me).
I took the claim number and called United back. They never seemed to be able find the claim number on several subsequent phone calls but at the last minute it would always surface. I spoke several times to what I believe were agents in India who, ironically were the most pleasant, and seemed genuinely sorry for what had happened. Three or four months later I got directed to the Chicago baggage offices of United and after several attempts to speak with someone was told to simply bring in the guitar for inspection… to Chicago… from Halifax, Canada.
When I explained that Halifax is far from Chicago someone then said my claim needed to go through Central Baggage in New York and they gave me a toll free phone number. I phoned that number and spoke to someone. She couldn’t understand why someone in Chicago thought she would be able to help me but she seemed to feel for me and asked me to fax her all the information. I did and a few weeks passed with no reply. I called back and the lady said she’d never received the fax. Then I asked her to look for it and surprisingly, there it was. When she found it she asked me to give her a couple of days and to call back. I did, and by the time I phoned again two days later, the number had been discontinued.
Three or four months later I got directed to the Chicago baggage offices of United and after several attempts to speak with someone was told to simply bring in the guitar for inspection… to Chicago… from Halifax, Canada.
I had to start all over again with the same 1-800 # to India, where they were as sorry as ever for what happened, couldn’t find my claim at first, and told me I needed to bring the guitar into Chicago’s O’Hare for inspection. Six months had gone by and the guitar had now been repaired for $1200 to a state that it plays well but has lost much of what made it special. I spoke to a customer service manager in India who promised to forward a note to have someone in Chicago contact me. I received a letter a about a month later from Chicago with no name or contact info, saying someone would be contacting me about this.
Another month went by and I received an email from a Ms. Irlweg in Chicago I believe. It basically said she was sorry this happened and denied my claim. Some of her reasons were:
- I didn’t report it to the United employees who weren’t present when we landed in Omaha
- I didn’t report to the Omaha airport within 24 hours while I was driving to places that weren’t Omaha
- It was an Air Canada issue
- Air Canada already denied the claim (as I mentioned because Air Canada would not pay for United’s damages), but I’m still unsure as to why I needed to report it in Omaha within 24 hours if it was clearly Halifax’s responsibility
- Someone from United would need to see the damage to a guitar that was repaired
So after nine months it came down to a series of emails with Ms. Irlweg and, despite asking to speak to her supervisor, our conversations ended with her saying United would not be taking any responsibility for what had happened and that that would be the last email on the matter. My final offer of a settlement of $1200 in flight vouchers, to cover my salvage costs repairing the Taylor, was rejected.
At that moment it occurred to me that I had been fighting a losing battle all this time and that fighting over this at all was a waste of time. The system is designed to frustrate affected customers into giving up their claims and United is very good at it but I realized then that as a songwriter and traveling musician I wasn’t without options. In my final reply to Ms. Irlweg I told her that I would be writing three songs about United Airlines and my experience in the whole matter. I would then make videos for these songs and offer them for free download on YouTube and my own website, inviting viewers to vote on their favourite United song. My goal: to get one million hits in one year.
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