If you aren’t familiar with musician Dave Carroll’s viral Youtube video sensation United Breaks Guitars, you’re missing out on a great story. While taking a United Airlines flight from Halifax to Omaha by way of Chicago on March 31st, 2008, Dave overheard the woman behind him exclaim “My god, they’re throwing guitars out there!”. His bandmate looked out the window and saw his bass being thrown without any concern on behalf of the baggage handlers, preceded by Dave’s $3500 guitar. After unsuccessfully trying to alert the onboard flight attendant and numerous other airline agents, Dave arrived at his hotel in Omaha and went straight to sleep. When he awoke, he discovered that the base of his 710 Taylor guitar had indeed been smashed by the United Airlines baggage attendants.

What followed in the next weeks, months and years to come was a long-winded battle with the airline to be compensated for their employees’ carelessness. Frustrated and determined to have his story heard, Dave eventually decided to pen a song about his experience dealing with United Airlines with the goal of reaching one million views within a year. Within four days of its release, United Breaks Guitars received four million views. Today, nearing the end of 2012, United Breaks Guitars sits at 12.5 million views. Incredibly, it took the release of the image-tarnishing video (which caused United Airlines’ stock value to drop by 10%) to get the airline to offer Dave flight vouchers and $1200 in cash to compensate for his damaged $3500 guitar.

The United Breaks Guitars video

On November 7th, Carleton University will be presenting Dave with the A.D Dunton Alumni Award of Distinction. Named after the fourth president of Carleton University who was the head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the yearly award is given to a Carleton alumni who’s achieved remarkable success throughout their lifetime and is the highest honor an alumni member can receive from the university. According to Richard Stanton, Vice President of the Carleton Alumni Association, Dave was chosen for the award due to his efforts to turn a negative situation into a positive one and globally impact the customer service industry with his United Breaks Guitars video. Through his social entrepreneurship, he showed millions of consumers that they’re not just another number to large corporations and that they can easily make their voice be heard. In addition to being a singer-songwriter, he is now a professional speaker, author and consumer advocate.

Dave Carroll will be presented with the A.D Dunton Alumni Award of Distinction at the Kailash Mitel Theatre in Southam Hall at Carleton University from 8:00 to 10:00 pm on November 7th. There will be no charge for the public to attend and a musical performance will follow the award ceremony. We asked Dave a few questions to get a better sense of what happened on March 31st, 2008 and what life has been like for him ever since.

1. Who did you first speak to about what you had seen the baggage handlers do to the guitars, and what was his/her reaction?

DC: I alerted the flight attendant within minutes of a passenger seeing them throwing our guitars. That passenger declared what she saw without knowing we were musicians.  The flight attendant raised her hand in my face to cut me off and said “don’t talk to me, talk to the lead agent”.

Dave Carroll

2. What was United’s initial response to your complaint?

DC: I spoke to several call centre reps on the phone and people in airports and customer service departments in the US and everybody was either indifferent, not empowered to take responsibility, or unwilling to make it right.

3. Did you hear from them between your first complaint and the release of the video?

DC: My last communication was with the UA rep who emailed me to say that UA’s policy was that they would not be taking any responsibility  for the broken guitar because I hadn’t opened a claim within 24 hours. They closed the matter and left me with the option to do nothing or something else.  I chose something else.

A still from the video. 

4. Why did you decline the flight credit and $1200 in cash once they finally did offer it to you?

DC: When they closed the matter for good in Dec of 2008 I promised that my response to their promise to do nothing would be the release of 3 music videos that shared my bad experience with others.  The videos were never intended to be negotiation tactics. Otherwise it would imply that people had to do incredibly complex things just to get the attention of a company that should have done the right thing from the outset.  UBG was an attempt to change policies although I had no idea how effective it would be in sharing my story.  I said no to the compensation because it wasn’t about compensation anymore, and I was receiving thousands of support emails from around the world, many of them congratulating me for what I was doing for customers everywhere and urging me not to take the “buy-out”.

 5. What was United’s reaction to the video?

DC: They were unprepared to handle a social media wildfire and have been criticized by customer service and social media experts around the world for both what they did and did not do properly. While the conversations were taking place online United typically responded with traditional media releases trying to deflect attention to what they felt they did well.  Other than that I believe their strategy was to ride it out.

6. How greatly do you think the release of the video has affected the airline’s business? Have you heard any stories of people who refused to fly with United after watching your video?

DC: To this day I hear from people who have seen the video for the first time and vowed to never fly with United again.  United has certainly embraced the idea of monitoring social media and may have empowered front line employees to solve problems from the outset.  As an industry the video was a wake-up call to take better care of passengers and their property but the quality of service depends on the culture within each individual airline.

The infamous airline itself.

7. What is some of the best feedback you’ve received after having your video go viral?

DC: When I get an email from someone who says they received outstanding service because of my video that is really gratifying.  What I enjoy most though is learning that the video lead people to buy my other music and now I have fans all over the world.  I got an email from a woman who said her mother, who was in palliative care,  discovered a song of mine called Now, after becoming a UBG fan, and that this was a song that helped her dying process be less painful. One night she asked her daughter to play that song and she peacefully passed away listening to Now.  That is very gratifying.

8. What are some of the best/worst parts about being the creator of a video with millions of views?

DC: As far as I’m concerned there are no downsides because I was already an accomplished independent songwriter and musician. This video has helped my music career, lead to a whole new career as a speaker, allowed me to help others as an consumer and conflict resolution advocate, and allowed me to become a published author. And now I’m being honoured with this incredible award from the place where I bought my first guitar and my music career began.

Tony Bennet was asked if he gets tired of singing I Left my Heart In San Francisco and he said that each night he sings it like it’s the first time, and that it’s always a little different.  As he says, that ability to deliver the goods consistently to every audience is what separates the men from the boys. I’ve always believed that as well.


Dave, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to us and congratulations on being the recipient of an A.D Dunton award!


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