It’s not uncommon for an airline to ask a passenger to check a bag he or she was planning to carry on when a flight is full. But when that bag is a guitar case containing a 1965 Gibson ES-335 worth upward of $10,000 and the guitar ends up getting severely damaged, that’s a problem.
So when that happened to musician Dave Schneider on a flight from Buffalo, N.Y., to Detroit, he was understandably upset. Delta eventually offered to pay for Schneider’s guitar
and give him two free passes, but only after weeks of what he calls “the runaround.” The deciding factor may actually have been news coverage of the damage.
“The fact that lower-level personnel at Delta never really grasped the potential for this story going viral and causing damage to Delta's reputation suggests that within major organizations, the sensitivity to viral customer service problems has not filtered down from the top yet,” says Gerald Baron, blogger
and principal at Agincourt Strategies.
Gibson guitars, on the other hand, scored a PR coup by inserting itself into the story. Though it had nothing to do with the incident, it stepped in and offered repairs on the old guitar as well as a brand new one.
“Gibson reaching out to me, that's the cherry on top of the best musical nightmare ever,” Schneider told Yahoo news.
The move was “almost cynically smart," Baron says.
“Seems they would only be aware of this problem by monitoring, and when they did they spotted an important viral marketing opportunity,” he says. “Smart, gutsy, a little risky as they can come off looking too gratuitous, too eager to get the publicity. But I applaud their move.”
Lessons from the past
Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management says airlines ought to be acutely aware of problems that could arise from damaging musical instruments after musician Dave Carroll’s song “United Breaks Guitars” went viral in 2009
. The YouTube video for that song is approaching 13 million views.
“All airlines should know how to respond quickly and compassionately to such an incident,” he says. “But apparently Delta didn't.”
Rick Amme of Amme and Associates says it appears Delta is learning, but slowly. He says he’d give the airline a C+ for “going where they needed to go but taking some nudging and time to get there.”
When standing policies don’t work
Baron says the employees who initially offered Schneider $1,000 for his guitar—which the musician refused until he could get an estimate for the damage, which ultimately was closer to $2,000—were probably following established rules to offer only up to $1,000 for damaged items.
“The problem is, that off-the-shelf solution which would work well and be gratefully received in dealing with much damaged luggage turned out looking like Delta trying to cheat the poor guy,” he says.
Changing the rules to offer more money is an expensive proposition, Baron says, so the better solution is to delegate authority to employees on the ground and train them extensively in customer relations.
“Everyone from the baggage handler down and up needs to be aware of how these things can appear, and elevate them with unprecedented speed to the appropriate decision makers,” he says.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.