Delta Airlines PR Gaffe Over Military Baggage

Charging soldiers $200 for an extra bag on their way home for war? Really Delta?


Earlier this week a group of soldiers who had just returned from Afghanistan were making their way from Baltimore to their base in Louisiana, when they ran into a Delta Airlines baggage policy that said they would have to pay for the five bags per person they were carrying, which including not only personal gear but also equipment. When they got on the plane, they whipped out the video camera:

The video quickly went viral and got picked up by several news networks. Needless to say, Delta is changing their policy:

Facing a barrage of criticism for charging soldiers returning from Afghanistan $200 each for a fourth checked bag on a flight from Baltimore to Atlanta, Delta Air Lines on Wednesday changed its policies about military baggage.

It will allow U.S. military members traveling on orders in economy class to check four bags without charge. Military members flying business or first class may check up to five bags free. The airline also expanded the size and weight of each bag to up to 70 pounds, more than the usual allowed 50 pounds, Delta announced Wednesday.

The move came after soldiers posted a YouTube video upon being charged the fee as they were en route home after deployment. The video was posted Tuesday and was viewed almost 200,000 times before it was removed by the person who put it up. By Wednesday afternoon, a Facebook page called Boycott Delta for Soldiers had sprung up, and the airline was backpedaling and apologizing to the soldiers.

My question is what gate agent in Baltimore lacked the common sense to take the initiative and wave the fees to begin with?

UPDATE (James Joyner): While I agree that Delta screwed the pooch on this, I think most of the criticism being leveled at them has been unfair.

It’s worth noting that Delta had already allowed soldiers to bring an extra bag and increased the weight allowance; the soldier in question had two more bags than coach passengers are ordinarily allowed to bring. Additionally, Delta, like most if not all the other major airlines, bends over backwards to give special treatment to troops in uniform. They’re allowed, for example, free use of the 1st Class lounges at most airports. And many airports have special USO lounges exclusively for the use of military personnel.

While I despise the chiseling being done by the airlines with their nickel-and-dime fees, charging for things that used to be expected parts of commercial air travel, it’s not at all unreasonable to limit the number of bags people can check for the ticket price. I think three for First and Business class, two for coach–which is one more than most airlines allow now–is reasonable, especially given that security regulations make checking bags a necessity for longer stays. While I think $200 for an extra bag is outrageously excessive, the notion of a fee itself isn’t objectionable. Added weight burns up expensive fuel and cargo space is a valuable commodity.

If soldiers traveling on military orders back from a combat zone need additional bags, then why isn’t it negotiated into the government’s contract with the airlines? The soldier shouldn’t be on the hook for his ticket or his bags. But nor should the airlines be expected to provide unlimited baggage space for what I imagine are reduced cost tickets.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Military Affairs
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. legion says:

    I don’t get this at all. Those soldiers had GTCs – gov’t travel cards – with which they are supposed to pay for all legitimate expenses incurred during military travel. When they get to their final station, they file a voucher, and get reimbursed. That’s the way it works – that’s the way it’s worked for _years_. GTCs in one form or another have been around for over 15 years. If they were authorized 4 bags on their orders, they would be reimbursed whatever Delta charged them for that 4th bag. What exactly is “news” here?

  2. Thing is, the troops themselves are not out any money. Because their orders specified they could take four bags each, they will claim the excess-baggage fee as a travel expense and they will be reimbursed by the government. IMO this is a tempest in a teapot. A PR kerfuffle by the airline, but not really a bad decision, business-wise, by it.

    All the new “bags fly free” rules mean is that the airline loses revenue that the government would have paid anyway.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @legion and @Donald Sensing: Agreed. You posted while I was writing the update. The travel card thing makes sense. They didn’t exist in my day: The government travel office bought the tickets ahead of time. The only time we had to file reimbursement vouchers was for private automobile travel and incidental food and lodging.

  4. James, you’re right – the Army started issuing a charge card when I was stationed at the Pentagon. What did they issue? A Diner’s Club card, which is about the least accepted card there is.

    But it was given to me in my name, and I was personally liable to Diners Club for every dollar whether the Army reimbursed me or not. Maybe it’s different now, but I still had to file for reimbursement for every dollar I put on the card and wait to get paid. In the meantime, I owed D. Club. Since I was traveling with the SecArmy, I used that card a lot. But I did not buy plane tickets with it because there was a contract travel agency right there in the building that took care of that. And I have to say they did a great job.

    Yep, “there’s no there, there” with this non-story.

    I never lost money, though.

  5. Ole Sarge says:

    About those Government Travel cards, NOT EVERYONE gets them, (Junior Enlisted, most Reservists and National Guard), The NEW ones have to be “loaded” (with the funding cite) before you can use them. (My husband’s TDY for a conference that he was a presenter, was nearly stopped because no one at the sponsoring agency “loaded” the fund cite so he could buy airline tickets.)

    It is also illegal (against all sorts of regulations and military instructions) for someone to use “their” Government credit card for someone else. Example a Senior NCO paying the fees for the troops he is traveling with.

    So… what do you do when the Government Card is NOT accepted?

    When I was active duty in a headquarters “staff” billet, I got my own PERSONAL AMEX card, since I was too junior in rank to get the Government Card, but I still had to travel, and while the expenses would “eventually” be paid, it does not help when you have no cash in the present.

  6. BTW, according to other news reports, the airlines do not have a contract with the government for troops’ travel. Tickets are bought “one each,” even if a whole unit is traveling together.

    I have to say that the two NCOs in this vid do not come across as well informed.

  7. legion says:

    Donald,
    Yup. The AF handed me an AMEX card in the mid-90s – functional enough for travel in the states, but of course, not very useful OCONUS. They eventually standardized on something useful, but it took several years…

  8. wr says:

    Astonishing to see that the right-wing worship of corporations is now so strong that now they must be priveleged even of the soldiers right-wingers claim to love. Nothing a corporation does can ever be wrong, no matter how many people are hurt. Because corporate profits are the only things that matter.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @wr: I don’t know how you would get that from the post or the update.

    @Donald Sensing: What’s odd is that we flew commercial (I forget which airline) back and forth between Germany and Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm. The whole battalion flew as a unit and it was just us; I presume the government chartered it.

  10. James, remember that in Desert Shield/Storm, the CRAF law was invoked and the government basically took ownership of some number of civilian airliners. The affected airlines did get paid, of course. Call it a mandatory charter. The airlines, btw, were thrilled – the news coverage of the departures and arrivals at war’s end gave them advertising free that they could not have bought for any price, and the steady flight schedules did good things for the bottom line. My guess is that you flew on a CRAF plane.

    (For civilians, that Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a law that during military mobilization gives the government the authority to mandate airlines provide planes to transport military personnel and materiel. But the planes’ owners do get paid.)

  11. Rob Smith says:

    @wr – Who was hurt in this case? The troops charge the bag fee to their govt credit card, and then file a voucher with the Defense Travel Service. DTS generally sends payment directly to the cc company within a week of the claim being filed. Other than the time it takes to pull a credit card out of their wallet & add a couple keystrokes to their travel voucher, what’s the harm to the serviceman?.

  12. wr says:

    JJ — Actually got that from Donald Sensing, not you. “Not a bad business decision.” Right.

  13. The Q says:

    Whats ironic is that about 85% of Delta’s pilots are ex military.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @wr: Sensing is a retired Army officer. He’s just saying that the troops aren’t actually out of pocket for the money.

  15. Andy says:

    The military charters overseas flights from Baltimore to the desert. Commercial air is used to get to (and from) BWI. Anyone deploying (even guard/reserve) will have a GTC and can use it to pay for the baggage. As others have noted, this is a reimbursable expense. There are times when the GTC doesn’t work for one reason or another and service members are forced to use their own credit cards or cash and in those cases authorized expenses will be reimbursed.

  16. DC Loser says:

    GTC started out as Diners’ Club, then AMEX. Citibank Visa has the current contract. Personally, I hate the GTC and prefer the old days of paying with my own card and getting reimbursed.

  17. Zachary Barclift says:

    what interests me in this situation is that this was an issue at all. As an active-duty Marine, I’ve gone OCONUS twice in the last three years at Battalion strength, and each time we took a chartered, pre-arranged civilian aircraft until we got close enough to our deployment area that it was no longer feasible; from there we switched over to a military bird. On the case of east and west coast active duty, it’s a simple matter of getting in a bus, driving to the APOE (the point of embarkation) which is March AFB in California and Cherry Point in NC, weighing in with all our carried baggage, and weighing the stowed baggage seperately.

    As the Logistician in charge of the movement, it was simple as letting the POE know what our weights were. While I haven’t looked at the government contract with the civilian air-liner that takes us, it has never caused me to pay for my own luggage or have any hassle whatsoever.

    As for the soldiers, If they were coming back to CONUS, why didn’t they mail their non-essential, non-serialized gear back to the states? It’s a fairly common practice and with a very low loss-of-goods-rate it makes sense to send your gear back after you change over with the unit relieving you. Common sense will dictate, gents.

    It seems that Delta is going to take a significant profit loss from this, especially considering that while the policy might state “Deployment Orders”, very rarely do any of the airline personnel know the difference between Deployment and Leave orders; So Sgt So-and-So will be able to take five bags back to Anywhere, USA at no cost to him. You can like it or dislike it, but at the end of the day I can guarantee it’ll happen; especially since neither party (the Marine/Soldier/Sailor/Airman) or the company representatives will think much of it.