Delta Dances to a Merciless Military Drumbeat

Sometimes a quick response alone isn't a strong enough bulwark to stop the negative power of the social Web, as proven this week after Delta Air Lines charged returning U.S. Army personnel extra baggage fees. 

Delta became the subject of a firestorm of criticism on the Web after a video of soldiers complaining that they had to pay $200 apiece to check extra bags went viral. The soldiers were making their way home from Afghanistan and made the video while departing from Baltimore en route to Atlanta. 

Delta wasted little time in trying to abate the storm, issuing a statement Tuesday on its corporate "Under the Wing" blog. While the airline did "apologize to those service men and women for any miscommunication regarding our current policies as well as any inconvenience we may have caused," it did not change its policy that soldiers may check up to four bags in first/business class and three bags in coach for free both domestically and internationally. Negative comments about the company quickly piled up on the blog post, with many threatening to boycott the airline unless it revised its baggage policies for military personnel. 

That changed on Wednesday, June 15, when Delta social media manager Rachel Rensink wrote on the Wing blog, “After careful consideration, effective immediately, U.S. military personnel traveling on orders in First Class and BusinessElite can check up to five bags at no charge and four bags in economy class."

According to The New York Times, the Defense Department reimburses some authorized travel expenses, but soldiers have complained that the procedure is time-consuming and reimbursement is slow.

Elizabeth Castro, senior VP at O'Malley Hansen Communications, says Delta emerged from the crisis with mixed results. "Delta quickly resolved the issue, showing that the company has a strong issues management proccess in place to assess the situation and make swift organizational policy decisions," says Castro.

However, she says that Delta may need to give its employees at the customer level—in this case the ticket agents—the ability to make judgment calls on the spot. "A large number of soldiers coming through the airport, a high baggage fee and possible protests from the soldiers at the time should indicate to an employee, 'Hey, maybe I should waive this fee,'" says Castro, noting that when employees feel that company policies are unwavering it prevents them from making the right decisions. "In this case, employee empowerment could have prevented a larger PR problem for the company," says Castro.