Soldiers returning through BWI decry Delta baggage fees

Delta Airlines will reimburse members of an Army unit for $2,800 in baggage fees incurred while traveling through BWI Airport this week.

Nationwide furor erupted over a YouTube video posted by two soldiers recounting their experience catching a connecting flight Tuesday to Atlanta after an 18-hour layover from Afghanistan with more than 30 others. Several in the group were charged $200 each to check a fourth bag.

The airline said Wednesday that from now on, it would allow military personnel and their dependents to check more bags for free.

In the video, which had received about 200,000 views by early afternoon but has since been removed, the men expressed frustration that they had had to pay out of pocket for the extra bags. Army officials said soldiers are eligible for reimbursement from the government for excess baggage fees while traveling on military business.

News reports identified the soldiers as Staff Sgts. Fred Hilliker and Robert O'Hair, who were bound for Fort Polk, La.

One staff sergeant said the additional bags contained military equipment "used to protect myself and Afghan citizens."

"Good business model, Delta," the other said, according to a CNN report on the video. "Not happy, not happy at all," he added, shaking his head.

Officials at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, a travel hub for the military, declined to comment directly on Tuesday's incident. Jonathan Dean, a BWI spokesman, said all of its staff — from airlines to concession workers to security — works together to assist service men and women.

"BWI is very proud of the small role the airport plays in supporting our military service members," Dean said. "We are committed to working with the U.S. military and the USO to help ensure a comfortable and efficient environment for our traveling military."

Delta's previous policy allowed military personnel traveling in economy class to check three bags for free, and four bags if traveling in business or first class. Each bag can weigh 20 pounds over the standard allowance.

The airline's policy was in line with that of other major carriers, including American, Continental, United and U.S. Airways.

Army officials said those involved in Tuesday's incident were told that they could check four bags for free and that they could expense any excess baggage fees.

"Their orders definitely stated they could check four duffle bags," said Col. Thomas Collins, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. "Normally, it's not a problem."

Paul Boyce, a public affairs specialist with the Army, said their orders also indicated that they could request reimbursement from the military for baggage fees. Such claims are typically settled in about 30 days, he said.

In a statement, Delta apologized for any inconvenience caused by miscommunication of its policies and affirmed its support of U.S. servicemen and women.

"We regret that this experience caused these soldiers to feel anything but welcome on their return home, wrote Rachael Rensink, manager of Delta Social Media, on the airline's blog. "We honor their service and are grateful for the sacrifices of our military service members and their families."

Baggage fees are no way to treat returning service members, said Matt Gallagher, senior writing manager for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

"I'm not those soldiers, but having redeployed from a war zone myself, paying that kind of money is just really the least of their worries," Gallagher said. "The government will reimburse them, but they shouldn't have to go through that process to begin with."

Airlines generally offer troops first-class service, which includes delaying departure times for connecting flights and offering free meals, said Mike Miller, vice president of strategy for the American Aviation Institute, a Washington-based think tank. But at some point, you have to draw the line, he added.

"If someone has 50 bags — and that's an extreme number — then someone else's aren't going to make it," he said. "The policies are meant for reasonableness. The airlines are overly generous 99.9 percent, but the question of should airlines provide everything for free, should Delta in this case help move the military personnel from base to base, I don't think that's the airline's job."

Delta's decision to alter its policy will come at a cost, he said, noting that members of the military already fly at reduced government rates.

"This rule ensures that Delta will lose money transporting troops, but they think it's worth it."

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.

Earlier versions of this article misidentified Matt Gallagher. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.