How a Broken Guitar Cost United $180 Million
Revenge is best served cold – on YouTube
How a broken guitar became a smash hit
by Chris Ayres
If there’s one person in America who you wouldn’t want to be right now, it is Ms Irlweg. Her full name remains a mystery. All we know is that she lives in the Chicago area, works for the customer relations department of United Airlines, and will soon become the subject of a new country and western music video, which will be posted at some point over the next week or two on YouTube.
It’s unlikely to be flattering.
You see, several months ago, Ms Irlweg had the misfortune of handling a passenger complaint from a man named Dave Carroll, who happens to be a Canadian musician with a lethally dry sense of humour. Carroll had been flying on United when he saw baggage handlers throwing around his guitar case on the tarmac outside, and when he arrived at his destination, it turned out that the neck of his beloved $3,500 Taylor six-string had been snapped. But when he asked for compensation, he was fobbed off by department after department, until finally he reached Ms Irlweg, who at least gave him a straight answer.
“Fine,” he said to her, “But I’m going to write three songs about my experience with your airline, shoot videos for each of them, and then post them online.” Yeah, right, she must have been thinking.
But Carroll kept his promise. The first song, United Breaks Guitars, has now been played 3,515,357 times on YouTube, become a smash hit on iTunes, and has resulted in Carroll’s rather bemused appearance on every major news network in America. Meanwhile, within four days of the song going online, the gathering thunderclouds of bad PR caused United Airlines’ stock price to suffer a mid-flight stall, and it plunged by 10 per cent, costing shareholders $180 million. Which, incidentally, would have bought Carroll more than 51,000 replacement guitars.
The airline’s belated decision to donate $3,000 to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz as a gesture of goodwill (Carroll said he was beyond the point of accepting money) did nothing to contain the damage.
In a way, of course, United (and Ms Irlweg) just got very, very unlucky. United Breaks Guitars is as catchy as the video is hilarious, and Carroll is the kind of ruffled, likeable, almost-handsome everyman who could star in his own Hollywood romantic comedy.
But while the song and video are good-natured, the response from the airline-weary public hasn’t been quite as gracious, to the point where poor old Ms Irlweg has become as emblematic of America’s corporate malaise as the villains at AIG, General Motors and Madoff Securities.
Indeed, even Carroll seems to feel bad about the press his nemesis has been getting: he released a statement a few days ago saying that Ms Irlweg is “a great employee, and unflappable ... [and] deserves a bit of a break”. Not that much of a break, though: the second instalment of his broken guitar trilogy will go ahead as planned, with Ms Irlweg front and centre.
I can’t wait.
I’d be amazed if someone isn’t already working on a Hollywood script of United Breaks Guitars. Personally, I think Megan Fox would make a great Ms Irlweg. Which of course would require Carroll to fall in love with her halfway through the movie — and then spend the final scene proposing to her by a baggage carousel (after a misunderstanding involving a zany sidekick).