Fans Rally Around Iam Tongi After Airline Smashes Guitar: 'Heartbreaking'
Iam Tongi


Mariah Faith and Oliver Steele sing with Iam Tongi on season 21 of “American Idol.”

Season 21 “American Idol” winner Iam Tongi was stunned on June 10, 2024, when he opened his guitar case after an American Airlines flight to his next gig, only to discover his $4,500 Martin & Co. acoustic guitar was smashed beyond repair.

When the 19-year-old Hawaii native and his mom, Lillie Tongi, shared via social media how upset they were over the incident, many fans recalled how traumatizing it was for the teen when another guitar, given to him by his late father, broke while he was competing on the show.

Iam and Lillie are now thanking those concerned fans for urging the airline to replace the broken instrument, saying their support and shares on social media helped to turn the stressful situation around.

Fans Expressed Shock Over Extensive Damage to Iam Tongi’s Guitar

On June 10, Lillie posted Instagram photos of Iam’s damaged guitar and expressed how distraught she was for her son, pleading with the airline to make it right. She explained that Iam was instructed by airline staffers to leave his instrument, which he had always transported in a padded Martin & Co. soft shell case, on the jet bridge before boarding. The crew affixed a pink tag on the case, which Lillie shared a photo of, and said he could pick it back up as he exited the plane.

Iam shared his mom’s post in his Instagram stories, and wrote over the picture of his smashed-in guitar, “when I picked up my guitar this morning after flying American Airlines 😯 How?”

Many fans flooded Lillie’s post and shared photos of the guitar in their own Instagram stories, tagging and imploring American Airlines to step in, calling the incident everything from “crazy” to “ridiculous” to “heartbreaking.”

“Horrible,” one person wrote. “Come on American Airlines show some love and ALOHA spirit🌺 help Iam with his guitar. Poor customer service!!!”

Another commented, “My heart is broken for him! Do better @americanair – YOU made him check it. He didn’t want to. Now it’s on you despite what your tag says. #pilau Sending you love and aloha”

Many fans expressed relief that the broken guitar was not the one given to Iam by his dad, who died a few months before his “Idol” audition, and recalled the emotional segment that aired during season 21’s Hollywood Week, when the guitar broke right before Iam took the stage with fellow contestant Oliver Steele. Judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, and Lionel Richie could tell something was amiss and asked where his guitar was.

Choking back tears, Iam told them, “When I was a kid, I wanted to play guitar and we didn’t really have much money … and my dad spent his holiday paycheck to buy me that guitar. I made a promise that I was gonna use it at every performance. It’s kinda busted up, so.”

“Well we’ll have it working as quick as this show can, I promise you,” Luke Bryan assured him, and Steele made sure he was comfortable before they played “Kindred Spirits” together, and received a standing ovation from the judges.

American Airlines Has Agreed to Replace Iam Tongi’s Damaged Guitar

On June 13, Lillie edited her original post to share, “American Airlines has reached out and they will be covering the full cost for Iam’s guitar. Thank you to everyone who reached out to us or reached out to AA and for the love and your words of encouragement and comfort.”

Iam also posted an update in his Instagram Stories, writing, “UPDATE! AA is replacing my guitar. Check is on the way. Thank you everyone for your love and assistance. You all are awesome”

That evening, Iam’s tour production manager, Alex Walsh, posted a photo in his Instagram stories of Iam at a guitar shop, smiling and holding a new guitar, just in time to head to their next concert in Rexburg, Idaho.

“Everybody meet Sheila,” Walsh wrote. “A discontinued open headstock HD-28 S with custom heavy strings.”

In a statement provided to Heavy on June 14, a spokesperson for American Airlines said, “We strive to ensure that our customers’ checked luggage and other items arrive at their destinations on schedule and in their original condition. A member of our team has been in contact with the customer to apologize and resolve the issue.”

According to American Airlines’ policy for transporting musical instruments, the airline is typically only liable for damages if the instrument is “in a hard-sided case” or “the outside of the case is visibly damaged.” Though Tongi’s guitar was in a soft, padded case, the extent of the damage prompted the airline to cover a replacement.

In Instagram stories on June 14, featuring photos of Iam with fans, he could be seen with his new guitar inside a hard, black traveling case.

“The warning still stands to put your instruments in hard cases,” Lillie wrote in her update. “As musicians please know your right to ask for overhead cargo space first before allowing your instrument to be pink tagged. Travel safe folks and keep your instruments safe. Mahalo much and Aloha ❤️”

Iam, who released two new singles in late May, will take a short break from touring after his Idaho concert, before heading to Alaska on June 29. He told Heavy he also plans to release a new EP in late June.

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