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American Airlines loosens checked-bag restrictions for service members

By the CNN Wire Staff
American Airlines will allow military personnel to check up to five bags for free.
American Airlines will allow military personnel to check up to five bags for free.
  • NEW:AirTran Airways waives bag fees for active-duty military
  • Soldiers back from Afghanistan said Delta charged their unit $2,800 to check extra bags
  • American will go to five free checked bags for military personnel, up from three
  • Delta and United/Continental announced bag-check policy changes on Wednesday

(CNN) -- In the wake of an online video in which soldiers returning from Afghanistan complained that Delta Air Lines charged their unit more than $2,800 in bag-check fees, two rival carriers on Thursday said they will loosen their checked-bag restrictions for active-duty military members.

American Airlines announced it will allow military personnel to check an extra two bags with no out-of-pocket expense, and AirTran Airways said later Thursday it will waive baggage charges for "members of the military who are traveling on active duty orders."

The airline's policy is identical to that of Southwest Airlines, which acquired AirTran in a merger last September, AirTran spokesman Christopher White told CNN.

American Airlines airline will have policy fully implemented "in the next few days," spokeswoman Dori Robau Alvarez said in a statement released Thursday.

The airlines were the latest of the major U.S. carriers to change their policies. Delta and Continental/United announced Wednesday they were loosening their checked-bag policies for military personnel.

Previously, American Airlines allowed three bags to be checked free, "with full government reimbursement to military personnel on any bags above that number," but the carrier decided to increase the free-bag limit to five, "given the potential confusion with different military units carrying different amounts of bags depending on their mission," according to the statement.

The statement continued: "Both our revised 5-bag policy as well as the previous policy allowed active military personnel traveling either on orders or on personal travel to utilize our military bag policy. In addition, American also allows military personnel traveling on orders to have one of their free bags weigh up to 100 pounds and (to be) 126 linear inches in size without penalty. ... This greatly helps with the typical, large military duffel bags."

Soldiers' $2,800 bag fees spark outrage

Its limits on other bags are 50 pounds and 62 linear inches, it said.

AirTran's fee waiver also comes with some size and weight restrictions: "As long as each piece of baggage does not exceed 100 pounds in weight and 80 inches in size (length plus width plus height), you will be exempt from baggage charges, and will not be subject to excess, oversized, or overweight baggage charges," White said in an e-mail to CNN

The Delta incident got instant notoriety after servicemen spoke out about their experience in a video posted on YouTube.

In the clip, which the men say was recorded on board a Delta flight from Baltimore to Atlanta on Tuesday, a day after they returned from Afghanistan, the soldiers explain they had "a little issue with the bags."

CNN affiliate WXIA in Atlanta identified the soldiers as U.S. Army Staff Sgts. Fred Hilliker and Robert O'Hair.

The men, who were bound for Fort Polk, Louisiana, said their military travel orders allowed them to carry up to four bags, but when they arrived at the airport in Baltimore, Delta told them it allowed military personnel to check only three bags for free.

Members of the unit who were traveling with four bags ended up paying out of pocket for their extra luggage, the soldiers said in the video. They were charged $200 per extra bag, so the 34-member unit ended up paying more than $2,800 in bag fees, the soldiers said.

Any extra bag fees charged by an airline will be reimbursed by the government, a military spokeswoman told CNN affiliate WGCL in Atlanta.

One of the soldiers in the video said the bag he had to pay for was a weapons case that contained "the tools that I used to protect myself and Afghan citizens while I was deployed in the country."

The other man then looked into the camera, exasperated.

"Good business model, Delta," he said sarcastically. "Not happy. Not happy at all," he added, shaking his head.

On Wednesday, Delta changed its policy: Effective immediately, U.S. military personnel traveling on orders are now allowed to check up to four bags for free in coach and five bags in first class and business class.

Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliot on Thursday said the airline will reimburse the complaining soldiers for any fourth-bag fees that the military will not cover, and is giving them travel vouchers good for future trips.

United/Continental also announced Wednesday it will allow more bags.

"United and Continental are waiving the fourth checked bag fee for military personnel traveling on orders in recognition of their sacrifice and service to our country," Christen David, a spokeswoman for United/Continental Airlines, said in an e-mail.

The two airlines closed a merger deal in October.

Delta said it deeply respects and admires men and women in uniform and added that it has worked hard to ensure that U.S. military personnel get "additional flexibility" when they travel on the carrier.

The carrier said it's "continuing to work with the soldiers individually to make this situation right for each of them."

The soldiers may have been misinformed about how many bags traveling active duty military personnel can check for free, according to Stars and Stripes, the independent news organization focusing on the military.

CNN's A. Pawlowski and Aaron Cooper contributed to this report.