They wear uniforms that look just like the Navy’s.
They are deployed to distressed areas on short notice, just like the military.
They can be buried in federal veterans’ cemeteries, just like others who wore the uniform in service to their country.
There is something U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) officers cannot do that others in military uniform can — escape baggage fees when traveling on certain airlines.
Compared to other problems — including those facing Hurricane Michael victims where PHS officers are now deployed — this is a minor issue. Indeed, the officers can be reimbursed by the government for costs related to official travel.
But the issue for the 6,500 officers is respect, not another 25 bucks.
One officer recalled traveling in uniform while on official business and being told by an American Airlines agent that she would have to pay a baggage fee “because I wasn’t ‘real military.’” Reimbursement “did nothing to assuage the humiliation I felt at having my branch of the uniform services denigrated like that.”
Another officer said an airline agent made her “feel like I’m an impostor instead of a first responder.”
These officers and many others who contacted the Federal Insider will not be named in this story because the agency warned them against cooperating with The Washington Post. After PHS officials learned of my reporting, a notice was sent to employees with the subject line “URGENT! — DO NOT engage media!” An added instruction insisted “No officer should respond” to my questions. Many already had. Fearing retribution, they withdrew permission to be quoted by name. None of the officers were critical of the agency and some expressed deep appreciation for its work.
Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams, who runs the Public Health Service, did not respond to an interview request. His spokesman said PHS has not contacted American Airlines.
“We acknowledge that waiving baggage fees is a courtesy and not a requirement,” said Commander Kate Migliaccio Grabill, the PHS press secretary.
While the individual officers were told not to comment, their organization has repeatedly.
Among other actions, James Currie, executive director of the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service, filed a complaint last month with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) against American Airlines’s practice of charging PHS officers baggage fees, but not members of other uniformed services.
“We believe that this is completely unacceptable and that the FAA should step in,” the complaint says, “and require that American and other airlines treat officers of the U.S. Public Health Service in the same manner as officers in the Army, Navy and other services are treated.”
The officers in the other branches are not the same, however, in a major way. They are members of the armed services. The USO’s congressional charter restricts its services to “the men and women in the Armed Forces.”
Instead of being trained to kill, PHS officers are trained to save lives. For Currie, not being in the armed services is irrelevant to the airline baggage fee dispute.
“We don’t see the reason for a distinction between ‘armed forces’ and ‘military services,’” he said by email. “USPHS officers wear military uniforms, receive military pay and benefits, are veterans under federal law, can be buried in VA cemeteries, and march in military parades.”
American Airlines is the target of current complaints, but it is not alone in denying free baggage privileges to PHS officers. The United Airlines website lists 11 uniformed services whose members are not charged baggage fees. The Merchant Marine Academy is included. The Public Health Service is not. United did not respond to a request for comment.
Other airlines are more generous. PHS officers are allowed baggage fee waivers on Delta and Jet Blue.
American Airlines provided some information for this column but did not explain why it treats uniformed PHS officers — who often are deployed during emergencies — differently than other uniformed personnel. Noting the baggage waiver policy for members of the armed forces on business and personal travel, airline spokeswoman Shannon Gilson added, “We don’t have a plan to extend these benefits to personnel outside of the armed services at this time.”
That’s not what the Public Health Service officers want to hear.
After being denied a baggage fee waiver by American while on a sensitive mission, a PHS officer said, “I did feel a lack of appreciation and respect for my uniform service, which I am very proud of, and for the sacrifice my family was making for me to deploy. I did not have a choice of which airline to fly, and overall it shows a lack of public understanding for the role and history of the U.S. Public Health Service.”