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Delta bag fees for soldiers ignites YouTube backlash

Thursday, June 9, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Delta Air Lines hastily changed its baggage fees for troops Wednesday after a YouTube video showed soldiers complaining that they had to pay $200 apiece to check extra bags as they made their way home from Afghanistan.

The video was posted Tuesday and was viewed almost 200,000 times before it was removed the next day 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.

In the video, titled "Delta Airlines Welcomes Soldiers Home," two Army staff sergeants say their unit was told it would cost $200 apiece to check a fourth bag on a Tuesday morning flight from the Baltimore-Washington airport to Atlanta -- a total bill of more than $2,800.

The Defense Department typically reimburses such costs, which the soldiers may not have known before they made their displeasure known. The airline said late Wednesday that it would refund the fees if the government doesn't cover the bill.

Initially, Delta apologized to the soldiers but didn't change its policy. As the storm of online complaints about the incident grew, the airline posted a blog item Wednesday saying fourth bags will now be free for troops traveling in economy class and five bags will be free for those traveling in business class.

In a blog post, Delta said it regretted "that this experience caused these soldiers to feel anything but welcome on their return home." Airline officials declined to answer further questions.

The lesson, said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management Inc., is that companies should let airline workers make decisions in the name of good customer service. In this case, the Delta employee who handled the fee was just following the rules of Delta Air Lines Inc.

"Then those situations never have to escalate into crises," Bernstein said. "They (Delta) end up with a hit on their reputation that they could have avoided."

On YouTube, Facebook and other websites, posts were overwhelmingly critical of the airline, some suggesting that Delta was insensitive to the tough conditions troops face in Afghanistan and that flying them home completely free was the least the airline could do.

Other airlines have policies similar to the one that got Delta in trouble. United and American both allow three checked bags for free for active duty military personnel.


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