Every day, thousands of different types of items are transported on airlines. But musical instruments -- and the way they are handled -- can cause the biggest publicity disasters of all.
So what is it about musical instruments? How have airlines responded? And what does it mean for your baggage being lost or damaged?
Complaints about various airlines are widespread, but few become hits on YouTube. However, an incident involving United Airlines, now part of United Continental Holdings (NASDAQ:UAL), and Dave Carroll's guitar back in 2009 led to a YouTube video called "United Breaks Guitars," which has now collected over 14 million views.
The situation stemmed from an incident where Carroll saw his guitar being tossed around before it was loaded onto the plane, and later found it broken. The song Carroll wrote after the incident led to some negative publicity for United Airlines surrounding the carrier's baggage handling policies.
But the airline seems to have recovered from the incident fairly well. Passengers have kept flying, and "United Breaks Guitars Song 2" has collected just over 1.7 million views -- or about 87% less than the original version.
No cello miles
Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL), however, had a markedly different experience. Delta didn't break Lynn Harrell's cello, but it did take away the cello's frequent flyer miles.
Yes, the cello's frequent flyer miles. When Harrell took flights on Delta, he purchased a second seat for his cello under the name Cello Harrell. After flying for several years with both him and his cello collecting miles, Delta removed Harrell and his cello from the SkyMiles program, citing the airline's policy that only humans can collect miles.
But like the United guitar incident, Delta's response to Cello Harrell led to some negative publicity, as well as widespread news reports -- including a segment on The Colbert Report.
You may be wondering whether Delta's confiscation of Harrell's miles was legal. This was answered in a Supreme Court case involving a similar miles confiscation: Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg had his miles taken and his account cancelled after he complained too much to Northwest Airlines prior to its 2008 merger with Delta Air Lines. In April 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the action by the airline was legal given the broad leeway provided to airlines under the Airline Deregulation Act.
Troubles in Canada
Canada's largest airline, Air Canada (TSX:AC.B), is the latest carrier to be involved in musical instrument related troubles. After the airline lost Stephen Fearing's Linda Manzer guitar, Fearing waged a Twitter war on Air Canada and eventually spoke to CBC.
Although the guitar was found two days later, the incident was enough to remind passengers that their baggage could be lost. Fearing also raised the issue that although he got his guitar back, the average flyer might not have had the same luck.
Will your bag be lost or damaged?
Despite the poor reputation among travelers, mishandled baggage rates are actually pretty low. According to Transportation Department data for 2013, American Eagle had the most mishandled bags per thousand passengers at 5.90, and JetBlue has the least at 1.91. Other major carriers came in between, with Southwest Airlines at 3.72, United Airlines at 3.47, American Airlines at 3.02, and Delta Air Lines at 2.19.
However, musical instruments are items more likely to be damaged, and more likely to carry emotional significance for the flyer. As such, even if musical instruments are mishandled at the same rate as other baggage, they would be expected to generate a disproportionate number of complaints and negative publicity.
Even though many passengers still have their bags mishandled, reports of mishandled bags have dropped by more than half since 2007. But airlines need to continue working to improve their baggage handling processes and communication with flyers whose bags have been lost.
In the case of both mishandled bag policies and approaches toward frequent flyer programs, airlines need to continue to take a look at whether their current policies are up to the task, and whether policy changes or increased communication could help create more loyal customers. Investors and travelers alike should keep an eye on whether airlines can continue to improve their mishandled baggage rates, and which airlines take the top spots.