Not-so-friendly skies: United gives to itself, not musician whose guitar it broke

What you probably know, along with millions of other YouTube viewers, is that a young man named Dave Carroll has written and filmed a cheeky, catchy little song called "United Breaks Guitars" after the airline socked a hole in his $3,000-plus Taylor acoustic guitar in 2008, then refused to replace the cherished instrument -- or even pay for the repair.

The country-esque music video has fast become one of the most popular submitted by a little-known musician in YouTube's history, and made Carroll a folk hero to frustrated air travelers everywhere.

Now here's what you don't know: In an interview Monday with WalletPop, the Canadian singer-songwriter and member of the group Sons of Maxwell disclosed many previously undisclosed details behind his beloved guitar. Too bad United honchos didn't know those details, for they'd be rushing to replace Carroll's busted axe faster than you can say "clear for takeoff"-- though that's not about to happen anytime soon.

"I'm not sure what they're going to do at this point," Carroll said while on a break from touring the Taylor Guitars facility in El Cajon, Calif., at the invitation of owner Bob Taylor. "What I suggested is that they find someone who is a musician, and might not have the money to fly for medical reasons, and just give them the money to give them a lift -- no pun intended. I thought that would be a fantastic idea."

Again: Carroll wanted United to give money to one poor, struggling musician as a random act of kindness. And what happened instead?

WalletPop has learned that United gave $3,000 to the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz, an educational organization that includes, among its board of trustees, Sonya Jackson -- United's managing director of corporate social investment. (Want to see for yourself? Click here. United's logo also appears on the bottom of the organization's welcome page.)

Which certainly gives the appearance of handing money to yourself, when you think about it. And at the very least, it means that United has ignored Carroll from start to finish of this six-string debacle. No wonder he's planning not one but TWO more videos in his United saga. (More on that later.)

Asked to comment on this particular issue and the possible conflict of interest, United chose instead to issue a statement through spokeswoman Robin Urbanski: "While we mutually agree that this should have been fixed much sooner, [Carroll's] excellent video provides us with a unique learning opportunity that we would like to use for training purposes to ensure all customers receive better service from us."

That doesn't address a whole raft of issues, from how baggage handlers will be retrained to whether the offending soul who broke Carroll's guitar will be fingered and reprimanded -- which would be easy enough to do, given records of the flight in March 2008, and who was working baggage duty for the aircraft at O'Hare Airport that day.

Indeed, United seems to have botched any opportunity to make this situation right as if it were a piece of radioactive luggage ... in the hands of drunk baggage handler ... with Vaseline on his hands.

Yet for his part, Carroll doesn't want revenge. He'd just like to see musicians treated nicer in the future by United, an airline that by all measures ranks dead last or near last in customer service. (See this June 2007 article from USA Today.)

"When I wrote the song in November, sure I was angry," Carroll says. "But it's a light-hearted song, and the idea is to find humor in a situation that is too tragic and happens too often."

Musicians will understand this much, if United does not: Carroll's guitar was not just a piece of luggage. The Taylor 710 CE cedar-top acoustic was an instrument he had saved to buy for three years, after playing a cheap Washburn model and dreaming of something that would match his pro music aspirations once he graduated Carleton University in Ottawa.

By his own reckoning, he sacrificed quite a bit -- pocketing every spare dime from local gigs and living on the cheap until a shrewd investment in Canadian bank stock doubled, allowing him to claim his prize for $3,500 Canadian.

Carroll recalls that the Taylor jumped out at him after he tried about a dozen other instruments at Steve's Music in Ottawa. He spoke of love at first strum ("It had a reddish top and a nice, warm baritone") and felt an instant bond because it matched his tenor-baritone voice like a hand in glove. Even as a lyricist, he says, "it took me to a higher level."

All that ended in March of last year, when an unidentified United baggage "handler" in Chicago -- or is that manhandler? -- started tossing around guitars from his group like flapjacks in a greasy-spoon diner. This was witnessed by another passenger who looked out a window and exclaimed, "My God, they're throwing guitars around out there."

Carroll heard that remark but later, exhausted from 12 hours of air travel, didn't think to check his guitar on landing in Omaha, Neb. He'd specially wrapped it in a protective foam bag to buffet his tough, hard-shell guitar case. He thought it could survive a bomb toss wrapped that way. Then he only discovered the damage at a sound check the next day.

And opening the case, his heart sank.

"I put my hand around the back of the guitar, around the tail pin, and felt that it had just caved in. I probably swore, every one blanched, and what do you say when your guitar caves in like that? There was a silence, and I just put it back in the case. All I can say is that thank God I had a second guitar with me."

Thus began a long, long odyssey to get the guitar replaced by United. He had a Canadian luthier take a shot at repairing it, which cost about $1,200, and while Carroll commends that craftsman's work, he maintains the guitar has never been the same since.

Not that Carroll would accept a new guitar from United; he says he won't at this point. Instead, he has focused his attention on managing the raft of publicity and kind offers he's received ever since. Among them: Taylor's invitation to provide him with some brand new instruments. (Indeed, Carroll had just tried a few before the interview and exclaimed, "It's like heaven." Taylors, for the uninitiated, are akin to the Rolls Royce of acoustic guitars.)

As for how he got to California, Carroll was quick to reply: "We flew Continental."

And to be sure, "United Breaks Guitars" has definitely helped his bottom line. More than 3.5 million YouTube hits have translated into more than 400 CDs sold; his mom back in Canada stacks up discs on the home couch after stuffing them in envelopes. There are also offers to do gigs here and abroad; the clip is, by his reckoning, the top YouTube music video in Canadian history, and also a record-setter in Australia.

All in all, not bad for a film that cost him only $150 to produce.

As for what's next, Carroll just recorded "United: Song Two" last week and has a "United: Song Three" in the works. Like "United Breaks Guitars," both will be accompanied by videos shot on a low budget, thanks to a raft of volunteers.

"This trilogy will have a beginning, middle and end, a closure," he said. "And I will move on to another chapter in my life."

Lou Carlozo is a musician who had a valuable John Lennon Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, and its case, damaged in the late 1990s by an overzealous American Airlines stewardess who crammed it into an overhead bin against his wishes. His attempts at compensation were likewise unsuccessful and met with insincere corporate speak. He has received Carroll's blessing to record a song, "American Breaks Guitars, Too."
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