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Originally published Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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American Airlines waives fee for soldiers on duty

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 media as unpatriotic and hostile to U.S. troops.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas — 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 media as unpatriotic and hostile to U.S. troops.

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 such as CNN.

On Tuesday night, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann called 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 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."

Travel consultant Terry Trippler of MyVacationPassport.com said, "American was in a no-win situation on this, from a PR standpoint. No matter what they did, they were going to look bad."

He said he's not surprised the story snowballed: "People love to hear this stuff about the big bad airlines and how they're picking on everybody."

The furor stemmed from a long-standing 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 $100 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 before 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. 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 swept through the 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 to new baggage fees recently implemented by American and several other carriers. But the military-baggage policy was unaffected by those new fees, airline officials said.

Citing the El Paso Times story, the Veterans of Foreign Wars wrote 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.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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