Also at stripes.com
UPDATED: JUNE 8, 4:47 P.M.
Two U.S. soldiers returning from a deployment in Afghanistan got fired up after being charged a $200 extra baggage fee by Delta Air Lines for their connecting flight from Baltimore to Atlanta — and their outrage led the airline to change its policy.
While on board Delta Air Lines Flight 1625 on Tuesday morning, Staff Sgts. Fred Hilliker and Robert O’Hair shot a video laying out their case for why they were upset at having to pay to check a fourth bag. In the video they posted on YouTube, the soldiers say they are authorized to check as many as four bags on their return trip from Afghanistan.
The video went viral, and soon the public was echoing their disgruntled sentiment. Veterans groups chided Delta.
VFW spokesman Joe Davis, for example, issued a statement saying: “A $200 bill for extra baggage by a government-contracted airline is the worst welcome home any soldier could receive. We know this is a business issue and that the troops will be reimbursed if they are authorized additional baggage in their orders, but the shock of even being charged is enough to make most servicemen and women simply shake their heads and wonder who or what it is they are protecting.”
By Wednesday afternoon, although Delta had been following the terms of its contract with the government, the airline decided to amend its policy. Soldiers traveling in coach will now be allowed to check four bags free instead of three, the airline said in a statement.
“We hope these changes to our policies reflect the true respect we hold for our service men and women and again demonstrate our appreciation as both a company and as individuals who benefit from the freedom our troops defend,” a Delta manager identified only as Rachel wrote on the website’s blog.
Onboard the flight Tuesday, though, the soldiers were riled up about having to pay out of pocket.
Filming while in their seats, Hilliker opens the video by saying he and the other 33 members of his unit were told in Baltimore that they were authorized to check only three bags free.
“Just back from Afghanistan yesterday,” Hilliker says in the video. “... on an 18-hour layover, we had a little issue with the bags this morning.”
He soon turns the camera on O’Hair to explain further. Interview style, they note that their orders authorize them to carry four bags, and talk of having to pay “out of pocket,” despite an existing contract between the airline and the government.
“How much did we pay?” asks Hilliker.
“Over $2,800, and there’s only 34 of us,” O’Hair replies.
O’Hair said his fourth bag was a weapons case, which includes his M4 rifle, a grenade launcher and a 9mm pistol — “the tools that I use to protect myself and Afghan citizens while I was deployed,” O’Hair said.
The Reserve soldiers might not have been aware that under Defense Department policy they would be reimbursed for the extra baggage fees after they file an expense report for their travel. If orders authorize a specific number of bags for official travel, the soldiers would not be responsible for any fees associated with checking that number of bags, a Pentagon spokeswoman said.
Earlier in the day, before making the change to its policy, Delta apologized on its website, but said the airline was in line with the contract.
Active military personnel flying in coach on travel orders are allowed to check only three bags free, Delta said on its website. Active military traveling in first or business class may check up to four bags free.
The Delta spokeswoman had written on the blog:
“In the case of today’s situation, we would like to publicly apologize to those service men and women for any miscommunication regarding our current policies as well as any inconvenience we may have caused. We are currently looking further into the situation, and will be reaching out to each of them personally to address their concerns and work to correct any issues they have faced.”
In 2008, Delta had waived all baggage fees for U.S. servicemembers flying on official orders, according to press release from the airline on Aug. 15, 2008. There was no limit to the number of bags they could check. It’s unclear when the airline decided to reinstitute the fees for a fourth bag.
In recent years most airlines have added many additional fees for baggage to make up for declining profits. Given government policy, the cost of Delta’s reinstituted fees was added to Uncle Sam’s bill.
Stars and Stripes was unable to reach anyone at Delta to comment on the changes of policy.
According to an Army database, Hilliker and O’Hair are deployed with the 95th Infantry Division, a Reserve unit in Georgia. They say in the video that they were ultimately bound for Fort Polk, La.
Watch the video embedded below: