Sorry, United is Just Not at Fault for This One

This morning’s outrage getting play online and on television appears to be about a soldier on his way home to the U.S. with “military issued duffel filled with combat gear” in his checked bags. United charged him an overweight baggage fee. And they were right.

“United permits active military personnel to check up to five bags free as long as each item is under 70 pounds” but here a soldier whose bag was heavier was asked to pay a $200 overweight bag fee.

Here’s United’s checked bag policy for military:

National Guard First Lieutenant John Rader is furious and he’s letting the world know it. United refunded his overweight bag fee, but he still says he’d never fly United again and other people shouldn’t either.

“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,” said Rader.

“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.”

His belongings, including a kevlar vest, are heavy. A single bag over 70 pounds is overweight, this is fairly standard even for premium cabin long haul passengers on the most generous world airlines.

If you think that a returning member of the military shouldn’t be on the hook for checked bag fees, then isn’t your beef really with the government who leaves them on their own for these expenses?

  • United gives 3 checked bags to international three cabin first class passengers, they give 5 free checked bags to soldiers.

  • United gives 50 pounds per bag as an allowance to economy passengers, premium cabin passengers, elites, and soldiers are allowed to check 70 pounds per bag without an overweight fee.

It often surprises me that airlines accept overweight bags at all because baggage handlers have to pick them up and move them.

How is 350 pounds of free baggage allowance not above and beyond not generous on United’s part?

The issue here was that United says any single bag shouldn’t be more than 70 pounds and there are fees that discourage passengers to use just a single bag. In this case everything was in one bag.

The solder could have split things up into two bags. If that’s not reasonable, then the burden ought to be on the military not United which is already going above and beyond here.

There’s plenty to criticize United for, and I do, regularly. This story just isn’t one of those things.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I agree with you Gary. A private company would pay the overweight bag fee if it required an employee to travel with heavy equipment. But of course, it’s a service member so we have to bend over backwards and feel they are always in the right…

  2. Rader is a douchebag. Nobody owes him anything extra. He volunteered to serve and gets paid well for it. Anything else he gets is a blessing and not a right. I’m also on active duty and while I appreciate upgrades and special favors, I realize it’s a voluntarily given gift and not something I am entitled to much less something I should demand.

    Second, a properly packed duffel bag should not exceed 70 pounds. In addition to his miItary issued items, he has a lot of extra souvenirs packed in. His unit would be aware of that and likely he would not be reimbursed if he submitted a claim. That’s why he turned into a whiny little bitch.

  3. Wow now even the military personnel feel OVER entitled. Doesn’t this guy realize that the bags have to be picked up by a human being? We don’t know if this overweight bag was 71lbs or 100lbs. A human being will have difficulties picking up a 71 lbs bag let alone something heavier. This guy needs to be a bit more understanding of the situation. While we should do more for our troops, what he is doing is not fair

  4. One would think that a member of the military, of all people, would appreciate the need to follow “rules and regulations”…

  5. One of the reasons that there is a fee for a bah weighing 70 lbs or more is that there are either OSHA or union rules requiring two people to lift a heavy bag, to prevent injury.

    The 1LT knew the provisions of the contract United has with the U.S. Government for military transport (they won the bid, and have an exclusive — my daughter and son in law were required to fly United overseas when they rotated to Asia). The provisions for baggage are part of the packet given when traveling on official business.

    He should have known better. An extra duffel bag would have solved the problem. He didn’t pay attention.

  6. He can just claim this fee on his Travel Voucher, the Soldier will not be out any money. We deploy all the time with Kevlar vest, helmet, and SAPI plates and it has not been an issue for 99.9% of us. Unneeded drama here and I do wonder if he really had five bags or was trying to overstuff less than that resulting in the increased weight in a bag.

  7. The only blame I would place on United for this is their agent could have suggested moving items into another bag to bring it under 70 lbs or graciously worked with the guy to help him not pay the bag fee. I’ve seen many United employees who are so much “by the books” that they forget they are front-line employees providing a service to customers.

  8. @Retired Lawyer

    You’ve hit at the heart of the matter. While United is happy to transport up to 350lbs of stuff for an active duty soldier, it really becomes a mess to move any bag more than 70lbs due to protecting baggage handlers. He should be happy with his extremely generous allowance and not insist on being a special snowflake who gets to break very logical rules that he doesn’t understand.

  9. I never understand why people treat a plane ticket so much differently than any other product.

    If I want extra guacamole in a meal I pay for it. If I want a passport expedited and processed before everyone else I pay extra. Same with a luxury car versus basic car. If you bounce a check you pay a fee or worse.

    Then when it comes to a seat on a plane, people are furious that paying extra gets someone through a line faster or baggage waivers, or that bouncing a check (overweight luggage) incurs a fee.

  10. You would think that even a ‘first Looie’ would know the rules. If he doesn’t, perhaps a senior officer can instruct him in how to follow military rules, when flying commercial airlines. You can bet that flight didn’t cost him 10¢ out of his own pocket.
    Hey, at least he’s getting his 15 minuets of fame.
    I, for one, have had my fill of these daily ‘they’re fuckin’ with me’, “News Stories’.

  11. I wonder what John Rader’s superior would say in this matter. General opinion would be against United, maybe. But those who understand rules and regulation…. Isn’t this incedent more of an embarassment to the National Guard rather than to United?

  12. @Joe C.:

    “Rader had one bag. It weighed more than 70 lbs.

    “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. “Well, I didn’t have another bag so I was caught in a bind, do I go home with my stuff or without it?”

    So, the guy only had one bag – so no ability to move items (though that’s clearly not United’s fault).

  13. @ Bill: Obviously you don’t know WTF you are talking about.

    @ Jon: You are right. I and every other active duty service member knows the 50 pound rule. We know if it’s over we pay. We know we should pack allowing for the weight limitations and use an extra duffel. Everybody knows that. Except Rader. He got caught with his pants down and instead of handling like a profession, he turns snowflake / whiny little bitch.

    He could just pay and submit the expense on his travel voucher. His unit F&A many pay it. Or they may not.

  14. @Jon hits the nail on the head.

    While Rader is indeed being very dramatic about this whole thing, it may not have been *his* fault that he was only allowed one bag. While active duty back in 2010, I had to transit AMS-DXB-MNL with combat gear, but was only allowed to pack one duffel because space is very limited on some of the military transport planes I’d be flying on. As such, all of us were limited to a duffel and a patrol pack (think small backpack). I was flying on EK and my overweight baggage fee amounted to about US$450. We had a LOT of stuff packed very tightly into the duffel. I was reimbursed by my command after the fact, which I’m sure Rader could have done.

    My point is that it’s not as simple as “blah blah blah Rader should have known he needed more bags blah blah blah whine bitch moan” as a lot of commenters are doing. Duffel bags are meant to hold a lot of weight in a single bag. OSHA requirements aside, it may behoove UA to adjust the weight limits for military equipment/baggage to accomodate the very real fact that military personnel, especially Marines and soldiers and other ground-pounders, are often required to cram a lot of stuff into as few bags as possible.

  15. @AdamR – maybe he NEEDED to travel with one bag over 70 pounds. Lots of people need things, and they buy them. Why should United — which already is far more generous with military than other passengers — have to provide that service for free?

    And if someone other than the service member should be the one to cover the cost, why United and not the military itself?

  16. Gary is right. The guy possibly only had one bag, but that’s not United’s problem. United is a for profit company, like any other. They obviously have policies that are more generous (negotiated fares, greater number of bags, higher weight limits, etc.) for the military – because it is in their best interest to do so.

    Why isn’t it reasonable to expect that this guy should have come up with his own solution for avoiding the overweight fee? Perhaps he could have gone to the gift shop and bought a cheap bag to redistribute the weight and avoid a $200 excess fee or asked someone else to take another item. No, he chose instead to criticize the airline for basically not giving him something for free.

    Where do you draw the line? I’m sure if he went to your business (or to your home for that matter) and asked for something extra or something for free, and then criticized you for not giving/granting said item, you would think that he was very unreasonable, and you would be taken back if he then chose to criticize you in a public forum for not giving away said item (and would be even more upset if his reasoning was that you had done it before…). For some odd reason, we hold airlines to a higher standard and forget that waivers and favors and “freebies” aren’t really free.

  17. Now that United’s shown they’re willing to do cash settlements to avoid bad publicity, everyone is trying to get a payout by posting their minor issues on social media and hoping they’ll blow up. It’s opportunism.

    You can bet if this were a paying J customer with an overweight bag no one would care. This guy’s playing the military card and hoping that gets him sympathy. It’s shameful behaviour that tarnishes the reputation of the service. His superiors should discipline him.

  18. It is a shame that United chose to reward bad behavior. Why would they want to demonstrate goodwill towards someone who criticized them and said he would never fly them again because their employee simply wanted him to rightfully pay the appropriate charge to transport his overweight bag? The average person would be confused and might conclude that United had done something wrong and was correcting it now (as opposed to United simply wanting to mitigate negative press).

  19. While I generally agree with the sentiment expressed in most comments here that the airline is not at fault in this case, the thing I don’t understand is: If there is some kind of regulation that a piece of baggage should not in any case weight more than 70 pounds to protect the baggage handlers (which is a totally understandable point), I don’t get why United didn’t say: “Either you reduce weight, pack in in different bags or don’t get your bag transported at all”?
    In taking the fee for the overweight bag they kind of admitted that it is kind of possible to transport it and the message I would get out of this story if I were a baggage handler would be that United gives a crap about my health when they only get their fees.

  20. I remember when even in coach you could check 3 bags. 45, 55 & 70 pound limits.

    United is over the top generous. But I’m sure he’s going to travel the next time the exact same way…and feel it’s his right.

  21. Someone supposedly bright enough to be a First Lt.
    should be able to manage an extremely technical question like “Is my bag overweight or not ?
    No blame for United on this one .

  22. Another furious prima-donna blaming someone else for their failing. United’s failure in this case is rewarding his behavior.

  23. Wow , sounds like a lot of ” never served ” individuals spouting off.
    Thanks for your not serving. Wouldn’t want you in my unit.

  24. @Gary Leff

    At no point did I say United should provide the service for free. And yes, lots of people do need things…like you NEED to read comments more thoroughly. What I *did* say, was that if he deploys with only one bag because that’s dictated by the command, then that’s what he has. Depending on where he was deployed and the situation of his return, it’s not like there’s a uniform store or other shop to readily buy luggage in-transit. Moreover, if he *wasn’t* charged a fee on the way over, he may be unaware that he’s over the limit in the first place. That doesn’t absolve him from the fee by any means, though. I understand that. And United absolutely went above and beyond what they needed to do. Plus, the government likely would have paid for it in reimbursement when he submitted his travel claim. Like I, again, mentioned in my original comment.

    The point of my comment is that it’s not uncommon in the least for a deploying servicemember to have potentially several pieces of luggage over 70 pounds. It’s so common, in fact, that I was suggesting airlines revise their rules to:

    A. Accept the reality that if they truly want to offer this as a service to military personnel, make the offer align to what can reasonably be accepted. With the weight of SAPI plates, SAPI carriers (bullet-proof vests) and cammies and boots alone weighing upwards of 60 pounds before adding underwear and such, the 70-lb limit is reached quite easily and the offer is hollow and superficial with nobody really being able to take advantage of it.

    B. The airlines realize it’s a hollow offer and just treat all pax as the same.

  25. No United should Provide this service for free. THINK ABOUT IT!!!!

    I am so sick of today entitlement soldier who have air conditions vehicles and barracks, even basic training and have cell phone access in basic training and they even experimented with out sessions when the felt overwhelmed in basic training. what a crock

    United is no different Boeing Aircraft they do not provide free aircraft to the military, nor does the military get free Hummers, tanks or rifles. I do not know why the soldier flying commercial with all his gear, the military provides shipment for free of ones gear, maybe he did not trust their transport system and wanted to hand carry it back himself, I wander how much of it was souvenirs or personal clothing. Common think about people their no way all of his gear weighted 350 lbs, one cannot carry that much, even extra boots and uniforms. he cannot carry his weapons or ammo this, so it was all supposed to be his gear. No way.
    Yeah I am ex-soldier who served overseas, this guy is full of it. I would like to see what all was in those 5 bags duffle bags. Because I am suspicion of what he was sneaking into the country.

  26. @AdamR – why can’t Rader and other soldiers have an extra bag that can be folded up and put inside the one bag to which they are limited to travel with on the military transport?

    Once at the commercial airline check-in desk, they simply pull out the extra bag(s) and redistribute the items to then be under the 70lb limit per bag. I, for one, don’t think five bags at up to 70lbs each seems like a hollow or superficial offer. If it’s that common to exceed these amounts, the military should simply give a cash-advance to the soldiers in question.

    He didn’t get what he wanted and had to rightfully pay for a service that he was asking for. He then complains and criticizes United on social media. This guy sets a very poor example for military officers.

  27. @ Arcanum: Unfortunately, the UCMJ has little to say about situations like this.

    Besides, he’s in the National Guard. A major disciplinary action in the Guard would be they don’t put pickles on your BigMac for the weekend.

    We don’t call them “Weekend Warriors” for nothing. A soldier in the Regular Army wouldn’t have gone all whiny little bitch. They would have handled the issue with professionalism and decorum.

  28. most of you people are giving the same lame stupid excuses for United, “Its the rules” “it takes more man power to lift the baggage” bluhblahblah…This man just gave the United States and obama admin, 2 freaken years of his life… to go and do the bidding for an ungrateful bunch of idiots…I will never get on a united airlines flight, again…if they can’t do this for one of our vets they must be hard up for money… they are an awful business…who own them?

  29. Gary–As an active duty Air Force officer I can tell you this Soldier is wrong, wrong, wrong. This expense is fully reimbursable on the travel voucher he will file when he returns to his duty station (where he’ll also turn in his helmet, armor, etc). Even as a new lieutenant, he should know this sort of pettiness is way out of line. He may be an officer, but he’s no gentleman.

    This Lt will be out ZERO dollars and will be fully reimbursed for the overweight baggage fee—a fee that has been paid by thousands of military members without complaint. United has always been generous with waiving checked bag fees for military members, even when traveling with family on vacation. There’s no law requiring airlines to waive their fees (again, these are reimbursed expenses if charged anyways), but many waive a variety of fees for military members. I’m personally grateful for the numerous kind gestures my family and I’ve received from airline employees over the years–unexpected and very appreciated! If this Soldier was under my command, he’d be getting a reprimand as soon as he arrived home.

  30. Most check in agents would have offered him the option of a box to put some of those excess pounds in and checked it for free. If he was required to fly with only one bag as several commenters have mentioned, then his overweight charges would be reimbursable. Either way the LT will likely get an earful from his CPT.

  31. There is no reason why United should charge hundreds times more than it costs.

    If it charged the soldier something more in line with it’s costs, say, $20, there would have been no issues.

    As @Nun says, if I want extra guacamole in a meal I pay for it. But if they add $200 to the bill for it, I am going to have a cow.

    I never understand why airlines price a plane ticket so much differently than any other product people buy.

    Oh, yeah, Congress-sponsored oligopoly. Sadly it’s their way or Dr. Dao’s way.

    Thank you Soldier for fighting this injustice.

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