Facing a public relations nightmare, American Airlines said it would waive fees on excess baggage checked by soldiers traveling on duty, after being excoriated online and in the national media as unpatriotic and hostile to U.S. troops.
Fort Worth-based American had been criticized for weeks in often-incorrect reports on blogs and Internet forums that it had begun slapping fees on Iraq-bound soldiers for checking extra bags of military gear. This week, the story hit the mainstream, with reports in national media outlets like CNN.
On Tuesday night, Keith Olbermann, a host on cable news channel MSNBC, declared the airline and its chief executive, Gerard Arpey, the “worst persons in the world” for “nickel and diming the soldiers.”
The New York Post reported that soldiers are “getting bombarded by charges that can run up hundreds of dollars.” The newspaper added that “American Airlines routinely pounds American soldiers with heavy hits.”
“American was in a no-win situation on this, from a PR standpoint,” said travel consultant Terry Trippler of MyVacationPassport.com. “No matter what they did, they were going to look bad.”
He said he’s not surprised the story snowballed. When travelers are frustrated by higher fares, new charges and poor service, he said, “people love to hear this stuff about the big bad airlines and how they’re picking on everybody.”
The furor stemmed from a longstanding contract with the Defense Department, in which American transports traveling soldiers, typically to and from military bases. The airline waives fees on two checked bags and a carry-on case, for a total of 190 pounds of baggage, for soldiers traveling on duty.
The airline charged a $100 fee for a third bag, but soldiers could obtain vouchers in advance from the military to cover the expense. If they didn’t have a voucher prior to the flight, they would have to pay the fee with cash or a credit card, but would be reimbursed by the military.
No fees are charged on flights to war zones. American transports solders to Iraq and Afghanistan under a military charter program, not on commercial flights.
The policy is nearly identical to that of most other airlines – Continental, for example, allows soldiers to check two bags for free, with a $100 fee for the third. Delta and United let soldiers check two bags and charge a $125 fee for a third bag.
But American was singled out for criticism after a report last month in the El Paso Times, in which a soldier complained about having to pay a $100 to check an extra duffel bag loaded with military gear. The story careened around blogs and online forums, often morphing into allegations that American was slapping new fees on soldiers as they headed into battle.
Some news reports tied the military baggage policy in with new fees recently implemented by American and several other carriers. The airlines have begun charging customers $15 each way to check their first piece of luggage, and $25 for a second bag.
But the military baggage policy was unaffected by those new fees, airline officials said.
Citing the Times story, the Veterans of Foreign Wars wrote a letter to the Air Transport Association this week asking the industry to waive the third bag fee. The group said it was a burden for soldiers to pay the charge, even though they would eventually be reimbursed.
American officials noted the reimbursement issue when announcing the waiver.
“After recently hearing of the burden the military reimbursement process put on soldiers traveling to war zones, the choice for us to forgo payment for a third checked bag from the Department of Defense was clear,” said Tom Del Valle, American’s senior vice president of airport services, in a prepared statement. Trippler said American had little choice at this point.
“If they tried to defend themselves, they’d look like a horrible company that hates the troops, even though they have the facts on their side,” he said. “Waiving the fee was the best move they could make, given how this thing has snowballed.”
Active-duty soldiers have long enjoyed perks while traveling on commercial airlines.
American, for example, gives troops complimentary access to exclusive airport lounges, and is a major supporter of military charities. And a large percentage of Ameri