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. By then, the public relations damage to Delta was done.
In the video, one sergeant, Robert O'Hair, wearing a camouflage uniform and sitting inside the plane, says his fourth bag was a weapons case containing an M4 carbine rifle, a grenade launcher and a 9-millimeter pistol that he had used in Afghanistan.
"The tools I used to protect myself and Afghan citizens while I was deployed," O'Hair says.
With a bite to his voice, the other sergeant - Fred Hilliker of Allendale, Mich. - closes the video: "Good business model, Delta. Thank you. We're actually happy to be back to America. God bless America. Not happy, not happy at all. Appreciate it. Thank you."
The soldiers say in the video that they had already endured an 18-hour layover and had Army authorization to carry four bags.
Initially, Delta apologized to the soldiers but didn't change its policy. It posted a blog item attributed to an anonymous customer service representative explaining that Delta allows troops traveling in economy class up to three bags free but charges for the fourth.
As the storm of online complaints about the incident grew, the airline posted a new 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.
One sergeant in the video said the unit was returning from Afghanistan to Fort Polk in Louisiana. Paul Boyce, a spokesman for Army Forces Command, said the soldiers who made the video weren't available for interviews.
"I don't know if Delta is going to reimburse these individual soldiers or not, but I do know that we would," Boyce said. "In the past, the airlines, if there's been some sort of a misunderstanding, have done that."
At least some of the soldiers traveling on the flight were with an Army Reserve unit based in Oklahoma, Boyce said. He said troops on the plane were returning from a military training center in Kabul. He did not have the name of their unit.
It was not clear why the video was removed from YouTube. The soldiers in the video also did not explain the total bill of more than $2,800 in detail.
It's not unusual for returning soldiers to check weapons when flying on a commercial airline if the weapons have been certified as unloaded, said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars' Washington office, who was critical of the fee.
"A $200 bill for extra baggage by a government-contracted airline is the worst welcome home any soldier could receive," Davis said. He acknowledged the troops would be reimbursed but said, "The shock of even being charged is enough to make most servicemen and women simply shake their heads and wonder who or what it is they are protecting."
The incident underscored how quickly a company's reputation can be tarnished when a Web video, online picture or posting goes viral. And airline passengers have made no secret of their hatred of baggage fees, which have become common in recent years.
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.
At least one congressman joined the fray. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, called on Delta to immediately reimburse the soldiers.
"Since being elected to Congress, I have logged hundreds of thousands of miles on Delta - the only carrier serving my home airport in Waterloo," Braley said in a statement. "If Delta doesn't reimburse these soldiers and reconsider its approach to servicing our troops, I'll have to reconsider using their service."
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.