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United Breaks Policy And Faith With Employees

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You know, this space is supposed to offer some kind of insight or illumination on topics of interest to aviators, but if anyone reading this doesn't get how badly United Airlines has mishandled Dave Carroll's reaction to his broken guitar, I'd be surprised.

First of all, kudos to Carroll and the Sons of Maxwell for a fun song and video that will undoubtedly, after 2.5 million views on YouTube, boost the career of a group that was already locally famous and well-respected in Atlantic Canada.

Now, it's Ms. Irlweg who could use a protest video.

If you've seen Carroll's video, she's the only identified United employee and it was her job to tell Carroll that there wasn't any way he could get his guitar fixed on United's tab. I haven't researched it but apparently it's a worldwide convention that when you watch that bag disappear on the conveyor, you have little recourse if something inside your bag gets damaged. Oddly enough, if the bag itself is damaged, you can make a claim. We did that once after someone clearly took a Samurai sword to my wife's new bag. The airline says it doesn't issue swords (or any sharp objects) to its employees but paid for a repair anyway.

At any rate, Ms. Irlweg was doing her job and doing it effectively when she said Carroll was on the hook for the busted guitar. Somewhere in that fine print on the ticket he bought it says that, we have no doubt.

So, all of a sudden, millions of people, all of whom have had lost luggage, surly service, late or cancelled flights or whatever flooded to Carroll's video as a touchstone for their personal frustration and the airline brass reacted in exactly the wrong way.

They tried to weasel a deal with Carroll and offered him money when they don't owe him anything.

Carroll himself was obviously uncomfortable with the offer and has told the airline to donate it to charity. He never said he was entitled to compensation. He just said he should be entitled to compensation — and that's a big difference.

And as sad as it was that Carroll's guitar was broken, the real victim here was Ms. Irlweg and her thousands of colleagues. As the person who spends her whole day dealing with airline baggage complaints — imagine, for a moment, having that job — the very least she should expect is unflinching support when she correctly applies the rules and, if we understand Carroll correctly in his video and interviews, in a polite and empathetic manner. Gate agents, flight attendants, reservation clerks and countless others have the daily responsibility of delivering bad news to people who, if we're honest with ourselves, are not at their best in the alien environments of the airport and/or an airliner.

When this hit the fan, United PR people and the brass should have simply said, "Nice video, Mr. Carroll, but we can't pay you. We will, however, try to stop our employees from breaking things and would you and the boys like to play for our shareholders meeting? And do you know any dirges?"

Case closed.

Instead it hung Ms. Irlweg out to dry and exposed the lack of leadership that's the real story in this story.

The only question I have in this whole thing is why the backup singers were dressed as Mexicans.

Comments (31)

Everything repeats itself. The previous incarnation was pre 1985 and done by Republic Airlines to Tom Paxton's guitar. His album "One Million Lawyers and Other Disasters" contains the song "Thank You Republic Airways" (for breaking the neck on my guitar). http://www.themadmusicarchive.com/song_details.aspx?SongID=10214

Posted by: Ron Cichowski | July 13, 2009 7:34 AM    Report this comment

A point well taken Russ. But I do think that an airline, as any common carrier, has a responsibility to handle baggage with "reasonable care" and, based on the video, where the person behind them was aghast at how they were throwing the instruments on the ramp, I'm not sure United met that standard.

If it is obviously a musical instrument, whether a guitar, tuba or piccalo, I don't think throwing it meets the "reasonable care" standard. If it is a pet they probably shouldn't throw it either. How about a coffin?

As for United's reaction, what else do you expect from them? Good customer service requires training and experience and the authority to handle each case based on its merits, not blindly follow any policy. They probably laid off all their qualified customer service reps years ago to save money, right along with the baggage handlers that had good judgement.

Posted by: Joel Ludwigson | July 13, 2009 7:40 AM    Report this comment

Regardless of how United handled this, I think the video and its popularity was clearly a net positive. First, it's a reminder that with current state of relations between airline employees and management, apathy is fairly common. Second, assume that any baggage checked will be subject to tossing, crushing, and other violent impacts. Third, if something is valuable and you can't carry it on, ship it insured or you roll the dice.

I'd also like to add to Joel's comment. Imagine other elements of the airline (maintenance, pilots, etc.) took the same careless approach to their jobs. There could be a loss much worse than a guitar. Why should these baggage handlers get a pass under the cover of United policy?

Posted by: Jason Devine | July 13, 2009 9:14 AM    Report this comment

Its unfortunate that for all the legalese that the Warsaw Convention (the international law that I believe governs that aspect of compensation for baggage), some verbiage wasn't included to indicate a requirement for "reasonable care" as mentioned by Joel above.

Common sense and "reasonable expectations" would have that "reasonable care" is required when handling baggage (as well as aircraft and passengers) for the protection to the airline to apply. Otherwise, they are guilty of "negligence", which in ANY legal system supersedes protection against damage claims. After all, you can't willfully damage something, then claim you re protected from any compensatory requirements.

I agree that united management was very bush league in leaving their employee out in the wind, but as you point out, they have left their whole AIRLINE twisting in the wind, so what's one more employee?

Posted by: Avi Weiss | July 13, 2009 9:17 AM    Report this comment

Seems to me that Dave Carroll needs to learn how to pack an expensive, fragile item. If airlines are going to be responsible for breakage, then you are going to see rejections of bags due to poor packing standards.

Posted by: Max Buffet | July 13, 2009 9:23 AM    Report this comment

The current standard of American corporations is for management to pay minimum wage to "Customer Relations" personnel to repeat over and over "There is nothing that they can do" to the customer all the while management is hiding in their lush offices and raking in bonuses for "saving the company money". This leaves but little alternative for the customer other than filing a law suit against the company for the company's negligence. Then corporate America whines that we are a litigious society, well no bloody wonder!

Posted by: ROBERT JOYE | July 13, 2009 10:23 AM    Report this comment

A couple of things. If you can break the neck off of a guitar that is packed in a hard case, you are either trying to break it or are being really careless with it.

Second, if the airlines wouldn't lose or damage so much luggage then the people who work in the lost baggage area wouldn't be so busy. My rule of thumb is, "If I can't afford to lose it, or replace it, it does not go into checked baggage." And I always assume my bag won't make it. That way if it does I am happy, and if it doesn't I am prepared for it.

On more then one occasion I have sent items and clothing by UPS to my destination. Because at least with them I can insure it for it's proper value. What the airlines pay for lost baggage usually never covers the cost of the bag, much less the contents.

Posted by: David Becker | July 13, 2009 11:53 AM    Report this comment

I learned my lesson with United two years ago, my bags didn't arrive in London when we did for a week vacation. No UK toll free phone number to find out what the status of our claim was, I spent about $50US to call United's customer care center and spent 15 minutes on hold to find out that our bag would arrive a couple of days late. Now, what I take gets carried on, if I can't carry it on, I don't need it.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | July 13, 2009 12:42 PM    Report this comment

The baggage handlers have been allowed to repeatedly abuse passenger baggage for years regardless of which airline one travels. The video begins with a passenger on the plane observing baggage handlers "consciously" and purposely abusing baggage. I have personally experienced this in 2000 at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. As I and other passengers watched in disbelief, baggage handlers began lifting bags high up over their head and slamming them down onto the concrete as hard as they could as they threw everyone's baggage off of the plane. Then as other handlers would gather the baggage up to put it onto a baggage cart they would kick the baggage as hard as they could. It was clear to everyone watching that they were purposely attempting to break anything they could inside the baggage. It was as if the entire crew considered it their mission to break whatever they could. All of this was in full view of the passengers. In fact, the handlers knew full well that their acts were being observed by the very owners of the baggage they were abusing. They simply did not care!

This is what is striking a cord with everyone. This behavior has gone on for a long time. It can only go on for such a long time if corporate/union management turns a blind eye to the behavior. If employees have such a poor attitude about customer service they should clearly not be in the customer service industry.

Posted by: Steve Ingraham | July 13, 2009 12:54 PM    Report this comment

Most of the people who read this website fly themselves. Any wonder why?

Posted by: Sid Love | July 13, 2009 5:56 PM    Report this comment

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The actions of the typical baggage handlers need to be addressed and the airlines should be held responsible. I have seen my own guitar case mishandled, fortunately without damage because the case is extremely heavy duty. However, my checked bags have had damage to contents and been lost on two consecutive flights and I've had it. I'm driving to OSH this year because of the policy-bound hirelings and uncaring unionistas employed by the airlines.

No, I have no sympathy or empathy for incompetents who are able to get off by saying the equivalent of "Oops! Silly me! You should have known better." Let's see, per the FAA the pilot is always where the buck stops when something goes wrong. Why not add a stipulation to the so-called "passengers' bill of rights" so the passenger can invoice the pilot for damages? Time for a big change and it can't come soon enough.

Posted by: Christopher Kinnaman | July 13, 2009 5:56 PM    Report this comment

I have NOT flown United since 1994. On the other hand no longer fly American, they KNOW me in DFW because of luggage issues 10 0f 10 flights to Mia Fl they managed to loose luggage, always got it back after returning to EWR (NJ) but the best was in 1990 goingto a funeral in KIN ( Jamaica) they lost my luggage, they found it in LIM (Peru ) they had to pay the max for clothing + replacement of stolen stuff.Eastern in over 30 years only lost my luggage ONCE, got it in 12 Hours delivered to The Bitter End in Virgin Gorda BVI. Now exclusively Continental, NEVER, have they lost mine, + have to say they have a superior tracking system.

Posted by: Leighton Samms | July 13, 2009 6:11 PM    Report this comment

All I can say is that I totally disagree with Mr. Niles. If United's policies allow their employees to handle luggage in the roughest, most negligent way and get away with it, there's an airline to avoid at all costs. Nobody wants their expensive equipment trashed by their airline's baggage handlers. An airline must uphold a certain standard of care regarding luggage, and they should assume responsibility when that standard is breached. If they're unwilling to do that, then it's time to drive. I handle my own luggage with utmost care, and have never broken anything in transit. Can't say as much for airlines I've flown recently.

Posted by: Aric Bills | July 14, 2009 1:22 AM    Report this comment

Never lost my suitcase in the back of my 182. Never lost my dog either.

Travel and the travel business have changed. It used to be that when traveling on the airlines, they took care of you. In fact it was considered a bit stylish to travel on the airlines.

But now with the need to arrive an hour early, the total loss of dignity at the security screening, etc. etc. rules, regulations, policies and so on, the ONLY thing the airlines sell is speed. That advantage is lost when the passenger has to spend an hour dealing with the lost baggage department, and keep up with the status of the lost bag while at a new destination.

Oh, and that deal about the airlines selling speed? Um, if the flight is delayed, missed connections etc...as the humorous video states, I should have gone by car. Or, as in the case of the readers of this magazine, by GA.

Posted by: MIKE HAND | July 14, 2009 5:00 AM    Report this comment

The general population wants to spend pennies for air travel and then complains about cramped flights, late flights, and rough baggage handling. They're getting what they paid for.

If the airlines charged what they should to provide the service that people say they want, GA would be more cost-effective.

If you can afford to pay for what you want, fly GA.

Perhaps the airline should create a first-class baggage compartment as well. For some premium price, your bags are pampered - even if you are stuffed into coach between the heavy, sweaty man and the crying baby.

Posted by: Travis Marlatte | July 14, 2009 7:08 AM    Report this comment

Why has Mr. Carroll's video struck such a nerve? Because here is, finally, a case of the little guy fighting back against a monolithic corporation, and actually winning.

Youtube and the internet makes this possible, and this is what's new. The playing field between the tiny individual consumer and the giant, wealthy corporation is very tilted. That is why big companies can get away with absolutely intolerable transgressions with impunity. There is nothing you can do about it. We take whatever is dished out.

There is absolutely no reason on earth why a guitar should be broken during baggage handling. This is not a fragile porcelain item. The reason it was broken is that there is no accountability to the consumer and everyone knows this, from the careless handlers, to the unsympathetic customer service people.

Only now when Mr. Carroll has managed to do some real damage to the United Airlines name and brand -- both valuable corporate assets -- is the company responding.

We shall see whether this incident results in the company making some simple changes that would reduce this type of incident in the future. All that is required is some oversight and accountability in the baggage handling work area. It is absolutely not necessary for things like this to happen. Most people understand this and that's why the video is so popular.

Posted by: Gordon Arnaut | July 14, 2009 7:32 AM    Report this comment

At the risk of being seriously reamed on this blog, here goes. I'm not sure if it is good precedent for someone (person or corp) to always pay up in case of an incident. Sometimes bad things happen and maybe in some cases you just have to live with it. But the US legal system is set up so that if something bad happens, someone pays - always. Concepts like "reasonable care" and "negligence" that were cited in previous posts are exactly the same as the ones used to pin the blame on Cirrus for $14MM when a VFR only guy launched into the scud and crashed. I know, different circumstances and all but I am just saying that a talented lawyer can almost always convince a jury that somewhere along the line there was negligence. I'm not necessarily defending United and I think they're a lousy airline but be careful what you wish for.

OK, let the reaming begin.

Posted by: scott dickey | July 14, 2009 10:38 AM    Report this comment

Scott, as you point out, these are vastly different circumstances. I don't see how the ability of slick lawyer to dupe a bunch of jury half-wits relates at all to baggage handlers smashing luggage. This didn't just "happen" as in, act of God, it was caused by clearly negligent behavior. There is always going to be a sliding scale when it comes to reasonable determinations of negligence and accountability, but we shouldn't accept clearly negligent, unacceptable behavior, just because there are also incidents when innocent parties are painted with that brush.

Posted by: Jason Devine | July 14, 2009 2:34 PM    Report this comment

Unfortunately, most airlines NO LONGER provide excess insurance, of 'sporting equipment,' such as scuba, golf clubs underwater cameras etc' it was not a good value for the $$ but was at least available. I think most divers know by now to NOT use dive backbacks, but ordinary luggage, especially going through MIA ( FL ) unfortunately camera gear is usually in 'hard pack' cases such as PELICAN, to protect the stuff in foam, this is a magnet for baggage handlers. Take out extra insurance ahead of time.

Posted by: Leighton Samms | July 14, 2009 5:09 PM    Report this comment

Russ, this is a pretty irresponsible post you put out there. First of all, every individual has the right to have the expectation that their personal property will be properly handled by professionals. The reality is that somewhere these union mucks making $20/hr or more, knowing that they'll be defended by their union if ever threatened with termination, just simply don't care. It's not theirs, there is no consequence, so why not do whatever you want with other people's stuff?

With regards to Ms. Irlweg, it's a shame that Mr. Carroll decided to attack her personally. I hope that Ms. Irlweg takes the opportunity to sue him. The real baddie here is United with their policy. Ms. Irlweg has no choice but to follow company policy - even if that policy is bad.

Mr. Carroll has every right to fight United to restore to him what loss they caused. And that baggage dude needs to be fired NOW.

Posted by: Jim Smith | July 15, 2009 8:39 AM    Report this comment

I don't really understand how United's compensating their passenger for an obviously over-the-top incident constitutes "hanging their employees out to dry."

First: I'm sure the fine print on United's tickets does limit their liability for damage, but the understanding is that this is to protect them from accidents - not intentional destruction of property by their own employees. If I ever thought the airline I was flying on intended to engage in such behavior I would take my business elsewhere, or at least find another way to get my baggage to my destination.

Second: I work in a customer-facing job in another industry, and my employer often gives its customers more than they are "entitled to" under their contracts when they feel they have received poor service. It's in their interest to do so at least some of the time, because it helps them set themselves apart from their competitors as being willing to provide better service and back it up where it counts. That's just how it is in customer service. It's never been more obvious that the airline industry doesn't understand that - and probably won't until every major carrier's back is against the wall.

I came pretty close to a career in the airline industry, but these days I'm happy to have chosen a different line of work. It amazes me how many people are willing to apologize for the airlines' conduct in these situations, considering that airline travel is an exercise in abject humiliation even at the best of times.

Posted by: Blandon Ray | July 15, 2009 2:00 PM    Report this comment

I appreciated Dave Carroll's great video for the fine manner in which he creatively, articulately, and very plainly told his saga, while simultaneously maintaining a high level of personal class in doing so. His video certainly highlights merely one of the benefits of flying ourselves [as pilots] to our destinations: Our luggage safely arrives with us.

The sound of the band's chorus reminded me of the strolling, sereneding guitar players in Mexico ... perhaps others had a similar thought, and they dressed in the Mexican costumes because of it. Perhaps the only one who can answer that is Dave Carroll himself. Had the band's vocals reflected a Nordic tone, I probably would have expected them to dress as Vikings.

Posted by: Sandra Shofner | July 16, 2009 9:30 AM    Report this comment

A few years ago at Love Field we had to switch planes because the ramp crew damaged the rear door on the loading ramp. I watched as a baggage train approached the replacement plane directly in front of the waiting area windows. A rather large baggage handler picked the bags up and threw them about ten feet onto the conveyer belt. His aim was impeccable but before he had finished unloading the first cart everyone was glued to the windows, staring in disbelief at the show unfolding on the ramp. I had just purchased about $700 worth of model boat brass steam engine, boiler and burners that I had packed in a suitcase and was horrified. This was during the time the TV commercial showing the gorilla playing with the suit case was being shown and seeing it firsthand really brought it home. Fortunately I had packed them well and they survived undamaged. All I could think about during the flight to Boston was “13 cents per pound, 13 cents per pound… etc.

Posted by: DENNIS KAROLESKI | July 16, 2009 11:45 AM    Report this comment

Years ago, while working for Eastern in MIA, a video camera hidden in a ventilation duct, caught a crew of baggage "mishandlers" systematically breaking open locked baggage, rifling through for valuables to steal, and sloppily closing them back up with duct tape. As has been the case many times before and since, organized labor is synonymous with organized crime. A short time after this incident, the unions struck Eastern. Yeah, they showed 'em who's boss!

Posted by: John Vybiral | July 16, 2009 2:43 PM    Report this comment

If anything Mr Carroll let 2 million people know that you won't get anything when an airline damages what's in your bag. When charging $15 to check a bag maybe they could use $5 of the fee for an automatic $1,000 contents insurance. It would make travel less stressful.

As for Ms. Irlweg, she did her job to keep her supervisor happy, though she may have been one of those rare unusually, pleasant United employees. That alone deserves kudos.

Disclaimer: Due to some unknown infraction, I'm always seated in the last row on United flights.

Posted by: Roy Forsstrom | July 16, 2009 6:18 PM    Report this comment

Fed Ex your outbound baggage whenever possible. With the new checking fees,it costs about the same. I fear that employees who handle baggage or not different from employees who handle maintenance..FAA or not. I remember the old United...now that was an airline to be proud of. American cost me a camera once, clearly their fault. Customer service was a joke. I love the guitar video; it reminds me of a pull back in New Orleans in pouring rain and seeing my bag left on the tarmac..in plain view where someone set it off the cart. Needless to say it wasn't in good shape when I got it days later. That was a Delta achievement. Customers have to have a way to protest, but we do not so we keep flying, and keep losing possessions.

Posted by: Anna Osborn | July 16, 2009 7:14 PM    Report this comment

Ms. Osborn, FedEx recently damaged a standard suitcase when I shipped it from South Florida to Georgia. They admitted the damage occurred in transit (when in their custody), they threw it into a cardboard box and 'shrink-wrapped' it before delivering it to my elder sister's home. When my sister called to question the nature of the damage, FedEx stated they would send an inspector to invesigate the damage, they did not inspect it, but rather took the suitcase, later returned the contents (after numerous phone calls and pleas to return the medical equipment within for a child), and FedEx has since led my sister on a run-around in her attempts to file a claim for the loss of the suitcase (even after I, the sender, sent a hand-written letter waiving my rights to a claim, and instructing them to settle the claim with my sister). The experience has truly damaged my family's perspective of what is supposed to be a reputable company. I would hope that this is a rare occurrence, and that others do not experience the same LACK of 'customer service'.

Posted by: Sandra Shofner | July 16, 2009 7:43 PM    Report this comment

Sorry about your experience. We've shipped numerous boxes, trunks, etc. and never had a problem; there is always a first time. We have shipped our AirVenture camping equipment in huge trunks for years; glad it always made it!

Posted by: Anna Osborn | July 16, 2009 8:53 PM    Report this comment

I am seriously thinking of doing the shipping of luggage, EVEN though I use those TSA padlocks, my last trip from FL(FFL) my lock shackle was OPEN, just how , I have NO IDEA, as TSA has keys to open them.Some went through my luggage, it was VERY obvious, but nothing was missing. I found this rather ODD.

Posted by: Leighton Samms | July 17, 2009 5:19 PM    Report this comment

I always use a TSA lock - even on my carry-on bag. Twice I found my check-in bag with the TSA lock locked on to just one of the zipper handles. Apparently they had opened the bag and were negligent when locking it back up. Sort of defeats the purpose of locking the bag - to keep the zipper closed during handling.

Posted by: Roy Forsstrom | July 19, 2009 11:55 AM    Report this comment

If Irwlege, or any other employee for that matter, does not like they're job. They should get out, it's that simple. This article actually reverses the true story and blames Carroll for telling the "Truth". Sorry, but it hurts doesn't it. The world has changed and public opinion via internet is fair game.

The point was not Irlweg or the breaking of the guitar but the "Liability". Either your "Liable" or your not. There is no grey area in this matter, not even the fine print. You break it, you fix it. Again, it's that simple. That supercedes anything else and I believe that's what everyone should agree on. I believe this is what the company ultimately had to look at. Ok, it was in the fine print, but does it make sense? No, it doesn't. We broke it, we have to fix it. At least someone was smart enough to deal with that ultimate question. It's the truth.

Posted by: Billy Bob | July 20, 2009 11:53 AM    Report this comment

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