Monday, August 22, 2011

Unhappy Landings [Continental break hurdy gurdy]

It's not just about a broken hurdy gurdy anymore. It's also about a total lack of customer service. Calling the police to remove an inconvenient customer would be just beyond belief if I hadn't experienced it myself. Please read on. Sorry it is so long, but this is what happened:

August 16, 8am, Dublin: Checking in my Hurdy Gurdy, in its flight case, I asked the Continental representative what, if anything, could be done - in addition to all the large 'fragile' stickers - to insure safest possible carriage for this very delicate musical instrument. She recommended I take it to the oversize baggage area, which also handled fragile items. The man at the oversize bags desk told me that oversize and fragile bags are kept apart from the rest of the cargo, and are individually transferred between flights. He said that it would therefore come out at the end of my journey in the oversize baggage area. He logged it on his clipboard, and described it, after some of the usual "what's a hurdy gurdy" discussion, simply as a musical instrument.

August 16, 8pm: landed in Seattle, grateful to be met by a friend who could give me a ride all the way home. Despite what I'd been told in Dublin, my case came out on the main luggage belt, but it looked undamaged, I'd been traveling for over 20 hours (it's an 8 hour time difference), I had someone waiting to drive me the remaining two-and-a-bit hours home -- I grabbed it and left the airport.

Arriving home a little before midnight, after a five month absence, there was water to be turned back on, circuit breakers switched, hot water tank to drain, kitchen to be re-assembled from rodent protection mode... Having learned on my way to Dublin Airport that a fellow musician just arriving in Seattle would probably be needing a place to stay for a couple of nights, a guest bed had to be set up. (For readers unfamiliar with the lifestyle: it is a serious point of honor among acoustic musicians to provide accommodation for our friends when needed, even though many of us don't really have much room to put each other in.)

August 17: So the flight case for the hurdy gurdy didn't get opened until the next morning, Aug. 17. Also that morning, I started my car, and had the contents of the fuel tank spill out on the driveway due to a broken fuel clamp.

I called the makers of the hurdy gurdy, who had also supplied the flight case for it. One of them was actually coming in to town that day, and offered pick up the instrument while there.

PHONE CALL #1 (to the number given by directory information: 800-231-0856)
Very helpful person who started off saying that musical instruments were not covered, then checked with supervisor and corrected that to 'not covered on domestic flights, but covered on international flights.' I mentioned my concern about the notice on the baggage tag that says all damage must be reported within 4 hours of flight arrival. (I didn't even get home until almost four hours after the flight landed.) She informed me that the four hour limit was for visibly damaged BAGS (as opposed to contents), and that in the case of lost or damaged contents in a bag that showed no outward sign of damage, the limit is seven days, but that I have to take the item, in its case, baggage tag still attached, along with my boarding passes, back to the airport. I mentioned that I was over two hours away from the airport and currently had no car, but she reassured that I had seven days, as mentioned before. She instructed me to call the Seattle baggage service desk first, for which she gave me a phone number, and stressed that I had to tell them I'd been on an international flight, because otherwise they would not help me.

PHONE CALL #2 (to the SeaTac Service center: 206-971-2315)
A very busy staff member who said she was dealing with two incoming flights told me that in the case of lost or damaged contents in bags that show no external damage, any claims had to be initiated by Corporate Head Office, for which she gave me a number. I tried that number, but they had closed for the day.

I called the luthiers again to tell them I couldn't give them the instrument yet. They stopped by anyway to look at the damage.

Here's what they had to say, both about the packing and about the damage >>

August 18:
PHONE CALL #3 (to the Corporate Office number provided by SeaTac service desk: 800-335-2247)
This number took me to the same phone menu as the first toll-free number. No menu item was offered for initiating a claim, so I selected the one that sounded like it would get me through to someone: the selection for claims more than a given number of days old (I think it was 24 days). I was again told to contact the service desk at SeaTac. I told her I'd already tried that - they'd told me to call this number and that any claim had to be initiated at Corporate Office. She then took the details of my flights, baggage claim tag, flight case, the instrument and its value [I said $2300; I've since been informed by the gurdy makers that the replacement value is now $2500], the damage, and the estimated cost of repair. She also told me that I had to take the instrument to the airport, as they could not proceed without one of their agents inspecting the damage. I told her that their baggage service office at SeaTac had already informed me that they wouldn't deal with the situation unless the process was initiated at head office. She gave me an 'advisory number', which she said would inform the staff at SeaTac that I had talked with head office, and that I would be bringing the item in for inspection.

August 19:
Got repaired car back from garage. Headed to SeaTac. 50 minute wait for a ferry, endless road construction in Seattle, and a drawbridge... Turned out to be a four hour trip, but I finally got to the service desk a little before 3pm.

Desk person #1 (I didn't get her name) looked the instrument over, and said that they only dealt with damaged bags, not contents. I told her I'd been told otherwise by corporate office, and provided the advisory number I'd been given. Neither she nor her two co-workers on the desk knew what an advisory number was, or what they were supposed to do with it (though they were very nice about it and were clearly trying to figure out how to help me). She phoned the supervisor, I heard her describe the damage to the instrument and describe the case and packing. She described it as plastic, stiffer than ordinary, with extra foam fill in addition to the instrument's padded carrying case.

He told her to tell me that musical instruments are never covered on any flight, domestic or international. I told her that was contrary to what I'd been told by the main office, so she asked him to come down and talk with me.

The supervisor, Mike Cook, did not come down until desk person #1 went to his office when her shift ended (according to her co-worker) to tell him in person to get down there and help me.

When he finally arrived, Mike Cook glanced briefly at the instrument, then stated that the packaging was inadequate. I politely asked him to read a letter I had from the luthier regarding the excellent quality and track record of the packaging.

He read it.

He pointed out that there is no visible damage to the flight case.

I pointed out that it's a very rugged flight case that it would be hard to damage, but that there was very visible damage to the contents, which had been in perfect condition when I entrusted it to them.

He insisted that they never, ever, cover damage to contents where there is no visible damage to exterior of case, and asked me to show him visible damage to the case.

I told him that corporate office had told me otherwise, and had told me to bring the item there for them to look at before a case could be opened about the dispute.

He ignored this completely. He kept repeating two assertions: (1) if there was no damage to the case, then there was no evidence that the damage had been done by continental's baggage handlers. (2) if the instrument had been damaged in transit, it was entirely my responsibility as the person who had packed the case.

He said that there was not enough padded space between the instrument and the lid of the case. I referred him again to the fact that this packaging had been supplied by the makers of the instrument, that this is what they use regularly, and that they have never had a problem with it before.

He requested, again, that I show him any sign that this case had been bumped, dropped or mishandled.

He stated that cases are stacked in bins in the hold, so it would have had to withstand weight on top of it.

I responded that since it was clearly marked, and checked in, as a fragile item, it should not have been subjected to that.

Third or fourth time he asked me to show him damage to the case, I turned to examining the case. There are only tiny signs of scuffing on the top, but I was seriously losing patience and temper by this point, so I pointed them all out, then turned the case on its latch side and showed him a very clear mark of impact with a rough surface, such as tarmac, on the hinge side. He ignored it.

I told him that corporate office had sent me there to have him examine the damage and open a case for resolution, and that I was not leaving until that happened. He ordered one of the desk staff to call the Airport Police to have me removed.

My temper having far passed the point of no return, I phoned my husband in Ireland, who I knew would be more capable of calm discussion than I was at that point.

Mr Cook refused to speak with him.

Officer Hernandez and a backup officer arrived to escort me away from the baggage desk and into a public area of the airport. He said that I was on Continental's business premises, and that this was the same as if someone had entered my house -- that I was trespassing. I informed Officer Hernandez that this was not at all like entering someone's house, that I was a Continental Airlines customer, and as such I had every right to be on the premises and to expect Mr Cook to do his job.

I gave up and left for three reasons: (1) Mike Cook was clearly not going to do his job - he ceased having any interaction with me once the police arrived, though he did remain at the desk for quite some time while I sat not far away conveying all the details to my husband (2) I was paying for airport parking, which, on top of the ferry and petrol, was making this a very expensive trip (3) I was booked to play a festival on Vashon the next day, so didn't have time to get arrested. Officer Hernandez was very patient, though, and before I left I was able to thank both of Mike Cook's subordinates for trying to help.

By this time it was nearly 4:00 pm. The Corporate offices close at 5:30 pm Central time, which is 3:30 in Seattle, so they had already gone for the weekend.

The damage to the instrument wasn't even glaringly evident when I first opened the case. So even if I'd had time to open and inspect it at the airport, I might not have noticed in the weary, jet-lagged rush to meet my ride.

But I unpacked it at home, and immediately took off the wheel cover to reveal that under the keybox and the keys, the delicate soundboard was split into four segments.

That is the part of the soundboard to which the block of wood which supports the end of the crankshaft is supposed to be fixed. We won't even know where the crankshaft has ended up or if the instrument is repairable until the top is taken off.


  1. Go get 'em, Tania. I had a similar battle with Alaska Air over their staff breaking a camera and eventually won, but it took awhile and a lot of documentation. Good luck!

    Barb (and David)

  2. One time when I saw someone having a 'dispute' with a Continental airlines member of staff (at Newark) she snatched off her badge so he didin't get her name and called the police. This is complete misuse of power.

    I'm so sorry to think of your beautiful gurdy smashed up by a bunch of cretins. I know these guys deal with thousands of passengers every day but that doesn't mean to say they can't respond to a genuine complint like human beings. I hope you're sending a link to this blog to Continental's CEO. Don't ths guys know how we all talk to each other in the folk world and how many thousands of mile we fly a year in the course of our perfoming jobs. Can they really afford to lose the goodwill (and business).

    When I think of all the dollars I've paid out to Continental over the years... sheesh!

  3. Terrible story, point your nice man Mr Cook to you tube and Dave Carrol's song, United breaks Guitars. I hope you manage to get something from them

  4. Owch! I hope that you can eventually get someone to help you with this! Good luck--dealing with bureaucracy can be very frustrating.