Those Military Baggage Fees: Bad Journalism and Bad PR, Not Bad Ethics

The 24 hour news cycle and blogger feeding frenzy often produce snap ethical judgments that defy the facts, logic, and fairness. Today’s example: the supposed “outrage” of Delta Air Lines making Army reservists returning from combat in Afghanistan pay excess-bag fees. A Colorado soldier posted a YouTube video complaining that their unit had to pay $2,800 for extra checked bags, and you would have thought the airlines made the soldiers fly while strapped to the wing. “You’re not going to believe this!” said “Fox and Friends” goof Steve Doocy, introdoocying the story as if it was an act of domestic terrorism. There were similar expressions of horror on CNN’s Headline News and on the local news in Wilmington, Delaware, where I was staying yesterday while doing a musical ethics program for the Wilmington Bar. And yet…

Delta did nothing wrong or inappropriate.

The staff followed policy. What were they supposed to do, spontaneously waive thousands of dollars in luggage fees out of respect for our soldiers…and have to make it up out of their own pay? The military already gets a substantial break on checked baggage; the soldiers were complaining about having to pay for bags that exceeded Delta’s limit for waiving the fees on soldiers’ bags. But if the flights are related to the soldiers’ duties, why are the domestic airlines responsible for paying their expenses? (By the way, what the soldiers don’t pay for gets passed in costs to the non-military passengers.) Simple answer: the domestic airlines are not responsible, and should not be.

When I travel on business dictated by a client or employer, the client or employer pays my costs…just like the U.S. Government pays the travel expenses of soldiers flying to and from deployments. That’s right: soldiers get reimbursements from the military for additional costs if their orders require the expense and they submit receipts. Why, then, was it Delta’s responsibility to pick up the tab for these soldiers’ extra bags, and proof of evil corporate America’s unpatriotic greed that they asked the soldiers for the already-discounted fees for excess luggage instead?

I repeat: It wasn’t. A couple of soldiers didn’t know their own expense reimbursement procedures, used YouTube to make a misrepresentation go viral, and the media indulges its reflex reaction to fault businesses and fall worshiping at the boots of our young warriors. Nobody bothered to think, much less check facts, before condemning the Delta. Terrified, as ever, of any negative publicity, deserved or not, Delta abjectly apologized (for doing nothing wrong), and was followed by other carriers in eliminating bag fees to avoid getting the stink-eye from Bill O’Reilly. Delta said it would allow four bags for free. United said it had increased the number of free military checked bags from three to four. American said it will allow five free bags instead of three for military personnel. This is nice enough, of course, but it is pure public relations nonsense.

These airlines will charge seniors traveling by necessity to an assisted living complex for every bag they check, and the military isn’t going to pay their expenses once they gut the receipts. Do the airlines let military veterans check their bags for free?  Priests and nuns, who have taken vows of poverty? Handicapped travelers, who are unable to carry on heavy bags? The disabled only get two free bags, at best, before they are charged 50 bucks per additional piece. How about pregnant women? The unemployed, relocating to a new city to look for jobs…any breaks for ? Ethically, there are much more compelling arguments for giving breaks to any of these flyers than active duty soldiers, who are going to be reimbursed by the military anyway, and should be.

I am not sure even that would be appropriate, however. I don’t think that the airlines should be in the business of charging different fees to travelers in different circumstances; it requires value judgments that I do not trust the airlines to make fairly or rationally. Next we’ll be seeing waived bag fees for registered Republicans, attractive blondes and vegans, or whoever screams the loudest or has the most vocal lobby. The proper, ethical and fair way to do business is to have the same rules for everyone.

Except Steve Doocy and the rest of the media. Charge them double.

25 thoughts on “Those Military Baggage Fees: Bad Journalism and Bad PR, Not Bad Ethics

  1. I disagree with you completely. We all know the excess baggage thing is a giant scam — airlines tried it to see if they could make some extra money and it worked — but if there’s a policy about returning soldiers’ baggage THEY KNOW IT, and should not make returning soldiers (who do NOT make a lot of money) shell out cash.

    So it’s a special case, and why not?. I think men and women who have volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way at the whim of the government deserve special treatment. They have put themselves at risk in the service of their country, and having been in combat situations, isn’t it asking a lot for them to remember the ins and outs of whatever travel policy exists regarding the airlines and their return to the states?

    If the military KNOWS that soldiers will have to pay the excess baggage charge at the gate, then give them money or vouchers to pay for it.

    You’re wrong on this one, Jack.

      • MILITARY FETISHISM? You’ve got to be kidding. Look up the word “fetish” would you? Actually, don’t bother, ’cause here’s the definition: “the attribution of religious or mystical qualities to inanimate objects.”

        When you can explain what you really mean, and know the vocabulary you’re using, perhaps I’ll talk with you further.

  2. Elizabeth:
    Jacks article says “the soldiers were complaining about having to pay for bags that exceeded Delta’s limit for waiving the fees on soldiers’ bags.”

    It sounds like Delta already treated them as a special case by offering a certain discount. This is a benefit volundarily provided by a private company. So the airline employees followed the policy and gave the soldiers that discount.

    The correct thing for employees to do is follow company policy. The correct thing for soldiers to do is take advantage of the discount and then submit their travel expenses to the military, just like other travel expenses.

    Likewise a soldier shouldn’t take a $2 coupon to Burger King, get pissed when they were charged the remaining $3 for the meal and get the media in a tizzy on their behalf?

    The public owes them a debt of gratitude. Private companies do not owe them unlimited free services.

    • I do not consider the airlines using the “new” baggage fees to be fair — to anyone. I am sick of being nickled and dimed to death by extra fees by the airlines. I apply this attitude especially to those in the military who perform a public service and do not make a lot of money.

      Yes, the public owes them a debt of gratitude. What debt have you paid them lately, except “gratitude?” Given clothes to the Purple Heart? Helped the numerous organizations who are trying to get them civilian jobs? Airlines CAN show their “debt of gratitude” in specific ways. What EXACTLY has the public — or you — done?

      I say this as the daughter in law of a bona fide WWII hero.

      • Elizabeth, I agree that there are too many veterans’ needs that are not being fulfilled. I appreciate that you are obviously someone passionate about raising awareness and meeting those needs the way soldiers/veterans deserve.

        My question for you is: Does any private company have to give any soldier unlimited services? Or else experience the consequences?

        You are right that the soldiers should not have to pay out of pocket for their travel expenses. And they don’t – taxpayers reimburse them.

        One of the problems with responding indignantly in *this* scenario is that it distracts from legitimate complaints of injustice or neglect of veterans. Anger at a company let’s people ignore scenarios where the government or public is failing to meet our obligations. (Of which there are many – lack of adequate PTSD support as one example that I am too familiar with.)

  3. As a returning Vietnam Vet, I was advised to not wear my uniform, wear a hat to hide my short hair, and try to look like a civilian. Otherwise I could become a target. I agree with Jack, and think there’s quite enough gratitude now without beating up private companies.

    • See my reply to Amy Larson. You all are a hard hearted bunch, I’ll say that. I’d pay consideration to a veteran before Delta Airlines anytime. And that, to me, is the right approach.

  4. From what I read, the military told them they could take 4 bags, and the airline told them only three. Much ado about a simple mix-up.

    That being said: Why are these troops on Delta and not a C-130?

    • I think because at regular airports returning vets can be met by their families, while for security purposes they can’t enter air force bases.

  5. I respect the military; my grandfather was a Marine in the Pacific during WWII (his only acknowledgment of this was during a viewing of the Sands of Iwo Jima. “It didn’t really look like that.”) and everyone in my family has been known to pick up the tab for servicemen when we see them at bars or restaurants.

    But I don’t exalt them. Other than what vets already receive from the government, they aren’t necessarily entitled to anything. Delta and other privately owned airlines waiving fees for a certain amount of checked baggage is gracious and a nice tip of the hat, but it’s not required, and they shouldn’t be brow beaten into waiving fees because it’s the miiiiilitaaaaary. The media just runs with this crap because “disrespecting the military” is a buzz phrase that’s guaranteed to draw viewers.

  6. These soldiers, traveling as a unit didn’t buy individual tickets on Priceline. The group tickets were likely procured all together with specific terms in a government contract. Those terms were then likely put on paper in their Orders.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if a battalion traveling together under government contract has a 4 bag allowance because that’s what was procured (and paid for) and the 3 bag policy applies to individual members of military traveling for work or pleasure as a benefit. (I don’t know though, since I haven’t done the research.)

    The whole thing has many holes so what I wrote and what was already here can’t really stand without more information. But what rubs me the wrong way is the people saying that Delta is treating soldiers differently by “waiving” their bag fees. Someone give me a source that shows these soldiers bought their tickets under normal Terms and Conditions at cut rate prices instead of a lucrative Government Contract.

    • Why should military personnel traveling on pleasure get a free bag or bags? Are you saying it was a contact mix-up on the purchase terms? Gee, THAT never happens to the rest of us. And should I go to the media when it does, alleging that I was disrespected?

      The bottom line is, nobody was gouging the soldiers, and they were going to be reimbursed anyway. That’s “outrageous”?

      • In a beauracracy, it’s hit or miss if you get reimbursed. The most reliable way to not get stuck with a charge is to not get charged in the first place. But let’s say they get reimbursed, now Delta is fleecing the Govt, and by extension, taxpayers.

        Of course, with proper information, it could be that the orders specified that a 4th bag would be reimbursed and it wasn’t clear that Delta was only providing the first 3. I don’t know.

          • The point is that you don’t know if they’re charging these soldiers less. If you buy a $400 ticket and then pay $100 in bag fees, and the Army contracts with the government for $700 tickets that include 4 checked bags, and then Delta only honors 3 checked bags and charges an additional $100 at check in that will be billed to taxpayers in the end, how is that NOT fleecing the taxpayers?

  7. When I heard this story on the news, the reporter said that Delta’s policy came from a contract that they had negotiated with the government. The contract specified that baggage fees would be waived for soldiers returning home from deployments when flying first-class.
    The misunderstanding, then, was that these soldiers were flying coach, so that provision of the government’s contract with Delta did not apply.


    • Oh, but Delta’s employees are bound by patriotism to bend policy whenever soldiers are involved, while the military will only insist on the compliance with the letter of all agreements, and the media just wants to find ways to demonize a Fortune 500 company any way it can. Right?

  8. The best solution would be to record all baggage shipped under a military ID, then bill the government rather than the soldiers directly. No bad PR, no ethics questions (valid or not), and it can’t be that hard.

  9. Pingback: Those Military Baggage Fees: Bad Journalism and Bad PR, Not Bad Ethics « The Rantings & Ravings Of A (Formerly) Mad Mailman

  10. What the h— were they bringing home???? When my husband came back from Viet Nam they were only allowed one duffle bag, for your clothes & necessities. He said their bags were gone thru before they left Viet Nam and anything not military was taken out and you could not bring it home. I find it ironic that his weapon was the 4th bag, why not the first??? I would have liked to have seen what was in the other three. And, no disiplined soldier would have ever used you tube and made comments like they did to get the public’s sympathy to get their money back because they didn’t want to follow the rules of the contract. Whiners, didn’t get their way. Three free bags can hold a lot of stuff. Never heard this complaint for years and years, soldiers must have always followed the rules before and appreciated any extras they were given. My father and husband are both war veterans, I respect our soldiers and the job they do, but I feel like these soldiers disrepected themselves and their fellow comrades. Do they also complain that the military discount at Disney World is not enough?

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