Thursday, November 17, 2011

In Conclusion?

If you've been trying to follow this saga, sorry about the long gap! After I finally got the call from Continental's Customer Care Office (mentioned in the previous posting, August 28), I didn't want to publish anything that might prejudice any case I might make against them. I thought many times about what I could say, and finally decided the safe route was to say nothing at all for the moment.

But if you've read this far, you deserve a conclusion of some sort, so here you go:

August 26:
PHONE CALL #4 (Baggage Resolution, Houston) A week after the nightmare at the airport, I finally gathered the courage to phone the Baggage Resolution number again. I spoke with Mario, who again said that if Mr Cook will do nothing then there is nothing to be done, that the advisory number I had been given did nothing more than give me 14 days after my flight to present my damaged instrument at SeaTac, and that my only course of action would be to return to the airport and try again. He even tried phoning the SeaTac office directly to see if he could get them to talk with me, but they wouldn't.

I told him that the only way I would feel safe returning to the baggage counter was if Cook had been removed from his position as manager there, and I asked who to talk to about that; he gave me the number for Customer Care.

PHONE CALL #5 (800-932-2732): Maria logged my formal complaint against Mr. Cook and gave me a case ID number, but said there was nothing she could do about my loss. The only further action she could suggest was to send complete documentation of the incident and expenses to the customer care office in Houston. She also said that according to 'corporate policy', they would not give me any information about what action was taken, but assured me that action would be taken.

August 27:
I assembled a package of the entire story, documentation, photos, and a bill for the damages plus related expenses (mileage, ferry tolls, parking, etc). In my letter I asked for two things - remuneration and an apology for the way my complaint has been handled. Here's the closing statement of my account of the incident to them: "I was, and still am, absolutely livid, and very confused at how anyone can stand in front of a wall emblazoned with the words 'Baggage Service' and treat a distressed customer in such a disgusting manner."

This I faxed and emailed to every contact Mike had been able to find for Continental including the Director of Customer Care, Managing Director of Customer Solutions, and the CEO.

August 28:
Surprise, surprise. I got a phone call from the Customer Care Office. Stacey seemed to have no knowledge of the document I had just sent. She was responding to Mike's complaint via their web page nine days earlier, when I had just been evicted from the Seattle baggage desk under police escort. She stated quite plainly that Mr. Cook had been wrong, both in his failure to take in policy changes required by the Montreal Convention (which has only been in place for about ten years), and in his inappropriate use of the police to remove a customer he was supposed to be helping. She also said that they've had similar complaints about the Seattle baggage desk in the past. She was going to contact the General Manager at Seattle Airport and tell him that this needs to be dealt with - and that Mr. Cook should not be involved.

August 29:
An email arrived from the CEO's office: "Per our Contract of Carriage, Continental is not liable for damage to musical instruments...". Also expressing "regret" for any "perceived rude behavior" I experienced. This was sent 10 hours after the above phone call, so I thought they were going back on what they had just told me. And referring to misappropriation of police authority to intimidate a customer as "perceived rude behavior" just made my blood boil.

Fortunately I took a couple of days to cool off before I reacted to this, by which time...

August 31:
Mike has just arrived from Ireland, and we're about to leave for a festival across the mountains. I get a phone call from the Seattle Airport Baggage desk, offering to pay up to their limited liability under the Montreal Convention (so now they know it exists...) This is roughly 70% of the replacement value of the instrument, or of the repair estimate. I'm asked to decide whether to have it repaired, in which case they'll pay the luthiers up to this amount, or to buy a replacement, in which case they'll reimburse up to this amount when I present proof of purchase and they take possession of the broken instrument. In either case, the shortfall is my problem; they're not interested.

I'm not convinced that I should settle for this. After all, the Montreal Convention caps the airline's legal liability, but it certainly doesn't prevent them from paying the full amount of the damage if they choose to. That part is entirely at their discretion.

But at least I've been assured there's some money coming in to help with this. I don't trust Continental to follow through, since they seem so uncoordinated and unhelpful, and more specifically because they flatly refused to put anything in writing, even so far as an email, and did not want the conversation to be put on speakerphone for any additional witnesses to the promise. I don't want to delay; I look into my replacement or repair options. There are no Chinook model hurdy gurdies currently for sale. There are other makes and models that come in a similar price range, but again, none available right now. If I get an instrument with a different keyboard, I have a lot of re-learning to do, and I love the sound of the Chinook, so I really have to opt for repair.

September 12:
With great relief, I finally get my gurdy to Olympic Instruments for repair. It had been waiting for four weeks.

September 22:
Olympic Instruments, after much hassle and chasing, managed to extract the promised payment from Continental (less a 3% credit card transaction fee), having completed the main portion of the repair: the top has been replaced. The instrument is still being re-finished, a process made frustratingly slow by damp weather as each layer of lacquer has needed extra time to dry. Next, it still has to be re-assembled and adjusted.

October 17:
Another phone call from Customer Care. This is the professionally placatory Sharon, calling to make sure that I've been taken care of and (the question she sidled up to several times) that I'm not planning to make any further claims against Continental over this incident. I didn't make any promises. She sent me a $300 travel voucher 'as an apology.' I explained that while I appreciate her apology, it's no substitute for an apology from Mr. Cook who committed the offense, and that a travel voucher can't help make up the $800 gap between the damage done by Continental's baggage handlers and the damages the airline has paid out.

Am I going to make any further claims against Continental? After what I've had to go through to get anything out of them at all, after being treated like a little bitty insignificant customer who should just go away when they don't want to deal with me, I feel that they deserve every bit of grief I can give them, but I don't know that I want to put any more time and energy into it. They have covered their legal, if not their moral, obligation over the damaged instrument. I suspect I could make a case for personal damages, corporate malpractice, intimidation, misappropriation of police authority...
Ask me later.

The important thing is she's back!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Breaking hurdy gurdy news (sorry - couldn't resist):

We got a response from Continental! The first cautious spot of optimism in this whole mess. They didn't exactly say "we will pay for this," but they did say that Mr. Cook was absolutely wrong, both in his understanding of their policies and in his handling of the situation, and that they're forwarding our complaint to his immediate superior. Yeah. The guy every person we've talked with at Continental up 'til now insisted didn't exist! And she also apologized profusely for taking this long to respond [9 days]; they were phoning in response to Mike's first complaint, when I'd just been Policed away from the baggage "service" desk.

Tania & unbroken gurdy, in Crail Town Hall
(Fife, Scotland) back in April.  >

Thanks to Steven Beard for the photo!

After what we've gone through with them over the past week, I'm not overly inclined to trust them. There was still no hint of "we'll pay for the damage our handlers did because it's the right thing to do," rather it was "this is covered because you were on an international flight, which means the Montreal Convention has forced us to adjust our policy." In other words, if this happens on a domestic flight, the customer is out of luck. Bear this in mind when choosing an airline. I've been hearing very positive things about Southwest and Delta. And Alaska Airline has always been very good to me.

So just in case this is a stalling tactic - and I hate having to be this suspicious - to take me outside the 14 day limit for making a claim that I've been told about over and over again, I'm still going to send, by registered mail, a hard copy of the nine page long pdf with an account of the entire situation, an invoice for damages and all supporting documentation.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

More on the hurdy gurdy crisis

I've had several people suggest that it would have been a good idea to take my hurdy gurdy as carry on, including one comment that the cracks could even have been caused by temperature and humidity changes in the cargo hold. So I guess it will help to explain the situation more fully.

If carrying the gurdy on had been an option I would certainly have done that. I've been a full-time touring musician for 27 years; I don't check an instrument if I can avoid it. My carry-on was a double violin case filled with seven different instruments, mainly my five string violin/viola which alone has a replacement value in excess of the airlines' Montreal Convention limits of liability. We have invested in guitars, hammered dulcimers, mandolins and octave mandolins on both sides of the ocean to get around the necessity of checking them, but could not yet afford a second gurdy. Couldn't really afford the first one, for that matter, but I'd been wanting one for more than 20 years, and my husband had just that last little remnant of a small inheritance... And the gurdy has a flight case that would have protected it with any reasonable handling. It did just fine on the outbound flights. My choice was whether to check it or live without it for five months. And while it doesn't yet play a major role in our stage sets (only a cameo appearance), all of the new material I've been working up for the past six months involves it.

There was a time I could, and did, walk onto airplanes with a guitar, a violin and a small hammered dulcimer, plus all the little instruments I could tuck away in those cases (clothes? Who needs clothes? That's what thrift stores are for!), but those days are long gone.

I'm from Southcentral Alaska, and I lived in Fairbanks for several years. I know what happens to wooden instruments when they dry out. These don't look like dehydration cracks - look at the photo taken across the top of the soundboard (click to enlarge): though it's a bit blurry, you can just make out a downward pointing splinter, near the wheel slot, showing that the wood sheared out of its plane. Dehydrated wood separates in a flat plane, the edges pulling straight apart from each other. It may warp after it's detached, but that doesn't leave skewed splinters. Besides, there's no way that wood could have dried out that much in the hours between leaving Dublin and arriving in Seattle- not while in its padded (and therefore insulated) bag and plastic flight case. It would have had to be out of its case for a couple of hours while we were at altitude to cause even one small crack. Did someone sneak down there with an oxygen mask to play my gurdy for hours on end while we were in the air? Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, the makers of this instrument explained to me that this particular sound board, specifically the part the cracks are in, is where a block is supposed to be attached that supports the end of the crank shaft. That and probably other braces will need re-gluing, and for that the top has to be removed, and I can't send it in for the work until I know I'll have the money to pay for it. Continental is liable, under the Montreal Convention covering international flights, both for the damage and for expenses caused by the damage. What they are doing is denying their responsibility for the damage. They are, by implication, effectively accusing me of checking in a broken instrument in an attempt to scam the airline- the only basis on which they can deny responsibility. Their Baggage service manager at the airport in Seattle gave me false information about several of their policies in his efforts to deny responsibility and make me go away, and, when that didn't work, had the police remove me from their business premises. And I'm STILL being told by Continental's corporate offices that in order to initiate a claim I have to return to that same damn baggage counter, with the damaged item and all documentation, within 14 days of my flight (I have two more days), because the manager didn't file a claim for me when I did so three days after my flight - a six hour round trip.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Unhappy Landings

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.