United Airlines forced at least two U.S. Army soldiers returning from Afghanistan to pony up $200 fines when bags carrying their battle gear exceeded the airline’s 70-pound limit, Austin’s Fox 7 reported.
First Lieutenant John Rader, a national guardsman, initially was supposed to deploy to Afghanistan for nine months. But he volunteered to serve an additional year.
Upon his return from a 21-month deployment to Afghanistan, Rader packed his field gear into his bags before his flight home. The heaviest contents included a Kevlar vest, two helmets and combat boots.
But when he went to check his bags on a flight from El Paso, Texas, on his way home to Kyle, the airline told him he’d have to pay extra for hauling his equipment home in an overweight bag.
“I was told point blank that I’d have to pay $200 for the overage or find another bag to siphon stuff off with,” Rader told Fox 7. “Well, I didn’t have another bag, so I was caught in a bind. Do I go home without my stuff or [with] it?”
Rader ended up paying the fine. After all, leaving his government-issued equipment behind was likely not an option. He said another soldier traveling with him was forced to pay the $200 fee as well.
“There was no empathy to the situation,” Rader said. “I’m not looking for sympathy, but some form of empathy in the situation. There was none of the – it was just cold. I had to either pay or leave the bag.”
While United Airlines does allow active-duty military members to check five bags free, they must be under 70 pounds. Still, after a 21-month deployment, a soldier lugging heavy military gear home can quickly use up his or her baggage allotment.
Other airlines are more accommodating. For example, American Airlines allows soldiers to check up to five bags weighing up to 100 pounds.
And at Southwest Airlines, troops don’t have to worry about luggage limits at all, as long as the bags are all under 100 pounds each.
“In the past, airlines have been very flexible to soldiers whether it’s upgrading us in our seating arrangements, helping us with numerous bags we travel with often,” Rader said. “This is the first time and an isolated case in my history where it’s actually occurred. It became upsetting when all you want to do is get home and you have a $200 charge thrown on top.”
On Tuesday evening, United Airlines told Fox 7 it is refunding Rader’s oversized baggage fee. However, the airline’s policy remains in effect – meaning it’s likely other returning soldiers will be forced to hand over $200 if they plan to get their gear home.
“We are disappointed any time a customer has an experience that doesn’t meet their expectations, and our customer care team is reaching out to this customer to issue a refund for his oversized bag as a gesture of goodwill, United Airlines told Fox 7.
But Rader is still concerned about his brothers and sister in arms – and whether they’ll be treated the same way when they return. After all, $200 can be a big chunk of change for a young soldier serving his country and earning a lean paycheck.
“Two-hundred dollars can go a long way when you come back,” he said. “Not a lot of people are compensated, so $200 comes out of pocket, you weren’t expecting it [and that] can change things. So I just want to make sure soldiers are cared for going forward.”
Concerned individuals may contact United Airlines or the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. United Airlines’ corporate offices can be reached at 312-997-8000.