One of the biggest travel stories of last year concerned a singer-songwriter named Dave Carroll, who complained that United Airlines had managed to break his $3,500 Taylor guitar when employees tossed it into the baggage hold after he boarded a flight at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
Carroll makes a living with his guitar, so he documented months of his failed efforts to get properly compensated. He was in customer service purgatory, a particularly spacious section of United's corporate organization.
(In fact, the last time I did research with United's customer service department, I was routed to "Roy," who finally admitted he was sitting in Mumbai as we spoke. We had a nice chat about what he ate for lunch, a question I always pose to outsourced labor.)
After months of getting nowhere, Carroll penned a country ditty about the experience titled "United Breaks Guitars." Unfortunately for the airline, Carroll wrote a pretty decent song, and the video depicting baggage handlers throwing his guitar in the air and watching as it hit the ground was funny.
The chorus was sung by three amigos in sombreros: "United breaks guitars." I can still hear it.
The little video became a monster hit on YouTube, and someone at United woke up one day to discover that this likeable guy's story-in-song had been viewed by more than 6 million folks. In addition, it attracted news interviews and global media attention.
The hits on YouTube were only part of the problem. When the video went viral, thousands of comments were racked up, almost all of them decrying the service they had received on their last flight.
The outcome was, of course, happy. Dave Carroll is more famous than he was before his flight. He still plays with his band but is now a sought-after speaker specializing in motivational talks about customer service. United claims the video is "being used internally as a unique learning and training opportunity."
But there is a kind of special ending to this story as reported in the New York Times. Carroll was back on United flying into Denver for a speaking engagement about his experiences with customer service. At the baggage carousel, after all of the other passengers on his flight had departed, Carroll realized that his bag was lost. It was the bag containing copies of his new CD, "United Breaks Guitars."
Oliver Beale, meanwhile, did not turn to YouTube. At least, not at first. He simply went to management.
Beale is a young advertising executive based in London. He was flying Virgin Atlantic from Mumbai to Heathrow in December when, midflight, he was served a meal that was so bizarre that it generated an immediate letter to the Virgin Group's iconoclastic chairman, Richard Branson.
It was just a letter to the head of the company. To get the flavor, or perhaps to realize fully the lack of flavor in front of him on the tray, let me serve you just a few of Mr. Beale's observations to Mr. Branson:
"I would have gladly paid over a thousand rupees for a single biscuit following the culinary journey from hell I was subjected to at the hands of your corporation.
"You don't get to a position like yours, Richard, with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power, so I know you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it's next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That's got to be the clue, hasn't it? No sane person would serve a dessert with a tomato, would they? Well, answer me this, Richard: What sort of animal would serve a dessert with peas in it?
"I'll try to explain how this felt. Imagine being a 12-year-old boy, Richard. Now imagine it's Christmas morning, and you're sitting there with your final present to open. It's a big one, and you know what it is. It's that stereo you wrote Santa about.
"Only when you open the present, it's not a stereo; it's your hamster. It's your hamster in a box, and it's not breathing. That's how I felt when I peeled back the foil and saw this."
Attached was a photo of a plateful of mustard.
"On the right, the chef had prepared some mashed potatoes. The potato masher had obviously broken, and so it was decided the next-best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird. Once it was regurgitated, it was clearly then blended and mixed with a bit of mustard."
The photographs that accompany the letter were all over the Internet and would tend to support, in my view, Mr. Beale's assertions.
The letter concludes that his snack, using some of the same ingredients from the meal previously described, appears to be "an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A crime against bloody cooking."
This letter has also become an Internet sensation, where it is now widely viewed as the best complaint letter of all time.
You can guess the outcome. Sir Richard responded personally and extended an invitation to Beale to join the company as a consultant in matters of food selections on future flights.
Two stories with a shared moral: One person really can make a difference -- though maybe not all that often.
Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].