Friday, July 10, 2009

Made To Give A Flying Pluck

There’s few more useful skills in life than knowing how to complain properly when things go wrong.

I’m not talking about shouting your head off at some poor underpaid and under-empowered customer service rep, or writing a snarky, self-satisfied letter guaranteed to elicit something equally unhelpful in return. Rather, it’s all about sticking to what’s relevant; not personalising the issue; carrying yourself with a courteous assertiveness and where appropriate, using the right amount of humour.

Having spent a few years working in the complaints department of a big Edinburgh life assurer after leaving university, I know of what I speak. Similarly, having also spent a few years dragging myself and my violin across various continents, when it comes to airlines and musical instruments, I also know of what I speak in this regard.

Luckily, I’ve never had any mishaps. BA has always been excellent, as has Air France. Bizarrely, the worst experience was when I was about to fly from Gatwick to Miami to join a ceilidh band aboard a P&O cruise ship. Despite P&O having chartered the plane for the entertainers joining the ship, a member of the cabin crew was adamant that I wasn’t getting on with my violin since "it could be used as a weapon" (??!), and that it would have to go in the hold instead.

After explaining gently that this really wasn’t a good idea and pointing out that she’d already let another violinist past without demur, off she went to consult with the pilot, never to be seen again. It did make me wonder exactly how she expected me to use it as a weapon, though. Perhaps there’d been a recent spate of violinists bursting into the cockpit mid-flight yelling ‘Fly me to Tehran or I’ll play you something you won’t like’…

Anyway, given the way that baggage gets thrown about, the idea of ground staff chucking fragile and valuable instruments about with no care for their condition fills me with horror. Luckily, a violin can fit in the overhead luggage locker quite happily if the crew and check in staff are agreeable. However, when it comes to something like a guitar, it’s a different story.

Which brings us to our tale. Canadian band ‘Sons of Maxwell’ were en route to Nebraska via Chicago’s o’Hare airport using United Airlines. While on the plane, they spotted ground staff throwing their guitars about on the tarmac. Unsurprisingly, upon reaching their destination, one of the guitars was broken.

Equally unsurprisingly, the band complained and demanded compensation. After a few months of procrastination, United finally said ‘No’ and refused to discuss the matter further. Big mistake – for instead of getting mad or calling their lawyer, the band decided to get even and recorded the following track, which is fast on its way to becoming a YouTube hit:

Anyway, all’s well that ends well. After seeing the video and sensing that they might be about to have a major public relations disaster on their hands, United has decided to reconsider its position and is now in serious talks about compensation. The airline has even gone so far as to ask if it can use the video as part of their staff training. If only the handling of their ground staff had been so adroit to begin with.

So, full marks to Sons of Maxwell for making their point with humour and dignity, and full marks to United for belatedly righting a wrong. I can’t see the songwriter replacing the solicitor any time soon, but it’s still a nice note on which to end the week.

(With thanks to the blogless Russell Horn for the hat tip earlier today)

UPDATE: The band has just posted this short video which brings the story up to date and thanks everyone for their support. It's always nice to see a happy ending where the good guys win and the 'baddie' manages to redeem himself.


Bill said...

Yes, it's pretty funny isn't it - and very appropriate! I saw the video-clip yesterday in another blog; I think Andrew Sullivan's 'The Daily Dish'.

Richard Thomson said...

Yes - I love it. It's amusing rather than side-splitting, but I still think it's a brilliant way to take a stand on discourtesy and at the same time, sort out a faceless organisation which thinks you'll eventually go away because you're too unimportant to count.

I'm always a sucker for a story with a happy ending, especially where the 'baddie' manages to redeem himself!