WASHINGTON – A program that began Thursday could make the ride home a little smoother for some soldiers.
Under "Operation Hero Miles (search)," people will be able to turn their frequent-flier miles over to their airlines, which in turn will make them available to soldiers trying to get home for their brief leaves.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (search), D-Md., said he got the idea after he visited troops passing through Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
"Our men and women risking their lives serving our country in Iraq deserve our support," Ruppersberger said Wednesday in a prepared statement.
Thousands of soldiers who have been flown to BWI since the Defense Department began granting leaves from Iraq last month have had to dig into their own pockets to buy a plane ticket the rest of the way home.
In early October, Spc. Josh Fansler flew on the Army's dime from Iraq to BWI to begin two weeks of leave, but getting home to Colorado became an inconvenient expense. Fansler got lucky — he landed a round-trip ticket to Colorado Springs, Colo., for $223. Not everyone has been so lucky.
"When this whole leave program started out, people were paying upwards of $1,200" to get home from BWI, Fansler said, explaining stories he had heard in Kuwait before he returned to the United States for a brief respite.
Ruppersberger began pushing "Operation Hero Miles" in earnest last week, when the House rejected an amendment to the Iraq supplemental spending bill that would have paid for soldiers' connecting flights home.
He sent a letter to 12 airlines Tuesday asking them to support the program because it allows citizens to "contribute in their own way to the morale and welfare of those defending our country." His own staff is donating 67,000 of their frequent-flier miles to the program.
In response, Delta Air Lines began accepting donations of frequent-flier miles Thursday and is scheduled to begin handing them over to soldiers Nov. 1. Delta's "SkyWish SkyMiles for Heroes" program will allow people to contribute 10 million miles to help pay for soldiers' airfare.
"This is another way for us to thank the men and women who are serving our country," said Delta spokeswoman Peggy Estes. "This gives us an opportunity to make a larger impact and assist more military personnel in getting home."
Delta customers cannot donate miles to specific service members, and there is a 5,000-mile minimum donation. Recipients of the donated miles will be selected by a military commander from active-duty troops in Iraq, and they can use the miles for round-trip tickets from BWI to destinations in the United States, Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico.
Delta customers can donate miles to the program by e-mail, fax or mail. Details can be found on the Web at Delta's Web site.
On Thursday, Southwest Airlines donated 20 ticket vouchers to the USO and said its passengers could begin turning in miles immediately. A Southwest spokeswoman added that customers already are allowed to use frequent-flier points for a free ticket or transfer the points to someone else.
"In this case, if a customer would like to donate their ticket to 'Operation Hero Miles,' we certainly would allow them to do that," said Christine Turneabe Connelly, a Southwest spokeswoman.
Aides to Ruppersberger said other airlines have expressed interest in the program.
Some airlines are already offering discount programs for military personnel, some specific to troops coming home on "rest and recuperation" leave.
U.S. Airways, for example, lets R&R soldiers buy discounted tickets on flights from BWI to various regions around the country. The prices range from $158 to $284.
The Army plans to begin flying R&R troops into other airports within the next 30 days, said spokesman Joe Burlas. Officials hope to eventually begin bringing soldiers to airports in Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles.
Fansler's R&R break came too early for him to take part in the free miles program. But the specialist with the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment (search) based in Fort Carson, Colo., said he is glad to hear that it will be around to help other soldiers.
"Even if I don't get to benefit, as long as somebody gets a benefit from it, that's great," he said.