Airlines Offer Discounts to R&R Troops
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 30, 2003 Service members returning home from Southwest Asia for rest and recuperation leave can now get discount fares for connecting flights after they arrive at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The R&R program, which began Sept. 25, provides free flights to Baltimore or to Frankfurt, Germany. Service members must pay for all transportation beyond those gateways.
The discount airline ticket program is designed to reduce the troops' out-of- pocket costs, airline officials said, particularly because most must buy their plane tickets at the last minute, when airlines generally charge higher prices. During the first week of the R&R program, service members received just two to three days notice of their leave, although more notice is expected now that the program is under way.
So far, Delta, American, Southwest and Northwest Airlines are offering discount tickets to eligible troops, and more airlines are expected to extend the offer.
To qualify for discounted tickets, service members must book their follow-on flights before leaving Kuwait City International Airport, the outbound gateway airport for the R&R program, explained Monnie Riggin, director of operations and support services for Navigant-SATO Travel.
The Army contracted with SATO Travel to set up a ticketing operation on the edge of the Kuwait airport, explained Dan Yount, chief of Army leisure and travel services. Located at Camp Champion, a tent city that serves as the marshalling point for soldiers leaving on R&R leave, the facility is staffed with ticketing agents to help outbound troops.
So far, 80 to 90 percent of the troops require tickets for connecting flights, Riggin said. She expects that percentage to decrease if the military moves forward with plans to add additional U.S. gateways for R&R flights.
Meanwhile, Riggin cautioned troops not to buy their tickets for connecting flights online. In the event that their flight from Kuwait or Frankfurt is delayed, these service members could miss their connecting flights, she said, and have no way to get reimbursed for the price of their tickets.
"Buying tickets online is just too risky for this type of travel," she said. "If there's a delay, the ticket is of no value, and there is nothing we can do to help."
Today's R&R flight, for example, was scheduled to arrive at BWI airport shortly before noon, but it's now expected at closer to 6 p.m., Yount said.
"I can guarantee that some of those service members are going to miss their connecting flights," he said. "And if they bought their tickets online, they're going to have a problem."
Yount said his office was making arrangements with local hotels to offer discounted rooms and additional amenities for anyone forced to stay overnight in Baltimore because of the flight delay. "We're trying to make a very unpalatable situation as palatable as we can for the troops," he said.
Riggin said her office is working with one of the participating airlines to extend partial rebates to some of the first returning R&R troops who purchased top-dollar airline tickets before the ticket discounts were introduced. She was uncertain if other airlines would make the same offer.
The R&R program is proceeding well, officials said, with 270 Operation Iraqi Freedom troops leaving the theater every day for 15 days of R&R leave. The daily flights stop at Frankfurt, but most of the passengers continue on to BWI Airport.
There, many await their connecting flights at the airport's USO facility, which offers free baggage storage, snacks, and sleeping areas. According to Adrienne Trout, director of airport services for the USO of Metropolitan Washington, the facility "has definitely seen a surge" in usage since the first R & R flight arrived at BWI airport Sept. 26.
Trout said the USO gave money to a few cash-strapped service members who arrived at the airport, unable to pay cab fare to get them to other Washington, D.C., area airports for their connecting flights.
Learning of this need, the VFW Foundation stepped in, rallying its posts in Maryland and New Jersey to provide drivers and vans to transport R&R troops to Washington Reagan National and Dulles International airports. Cab fares to those airports from BWI run about $37 and $66, respectively, Trout said.
Mike Meyer, the VFW Foundation's administrator of cooperative development, said the shuttle service is an extension of many services the foundation already provides service members and veterans. "We saw the need and stepped in to see how we could help," he said.
For more information about the R&R program, visit www.offdutytravel.com. Operated by the U.S. Army Family Support Center, the site gives details about the R&R program, rates and amenities at Baltimore area hotels, and discounts offered by restaurants and theme parks to R&R troops.