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Piecemeal Approach to Heavy Bags

October 19, 1986|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Recently a friend took a flight from Los Angeles to Budapest on Lufthansa. The plane made one stop, in Frankfurt, and my friend changed planes for his continuing journey to Hungary.

When he had checked in for the outbound flight in Los Angeles, he had two large suitcases and one carry-on bag. The suitcases were full of clothes and gifts for friends in Hungary. The carry-on bag contained important documents for a business meeting in Budapest. The two suitcases were checked through to Budapest.

Two weeks later, as he was preparing to leave Hungary, he found that he had less baggage than when he arrived. The gifts had been presented, and most of the business documents had been left for review by his colleagues in Budapest. He then packed his empty carry-on bag inside his other two suitcases.

But when he arrived at the Budapest airport to check in for his return flight to Los Angeles on Lufthansa, airline officials told him he was overweight and would have to pay excess baggage charges: a whopping $254.

He tried to argue with the counter agent from Malev, the Hungarian national airline that handles all ground operations for Lufthansa in Hungary. The agent was not in an understanding mood.

My friend had no choice. Either he paid the charges or his bags stayed in Hungary.

No Standardized Rules

Excess baggage charges are, by far, one of the bigger airline rip-offs. It is one of the few areas of modern travel where deregulation does not apply and where no standardized international rules exist.

Overweight tariffs are applied, or not applied, depending on when you fly, who you are and the general mood of the airline counter agent. It is a capricious business and more often than not, the passenger is left literally holding the bag.

Airlines can and do charge outrageous amounts for excess baggage, especially overseas.

The problem stems from the fact that different countries and various international tariffs dictate the baggage rules in each place you fly, and no one seems to know which tariff applies in which country, at which hour and on which day.

The 'Piece' System

In the United States, the Civil Aeronautics Board did something to protect American passengers before the board was deregulated out of business, it began the "piece" system.

On domestic flights, passengers are allowed to check two pieces of luggage and have one carry-on. Generally speaking, each bag can weigh up to 70 pounds, one bag not to exceed 120 inches and the other 106 inches in total dimensions. (The carry-on, which can weigh up to 70 pounds on many airlines, must fit underneath the seat.)

Since 1977 the same CAB rule has also applied to international flights arriving in or departing from the United States, regardless of whether the carrier is domestic or international. If the origination or final destination is the United States, the piece system is to be used.

But in most parts of the world, the piece system does not exist and bags are weighed. International passengers are permitted to carry 44 pounds in economy class or 66 pounds in first class.

Real Trouble Starts

Anything over that amount, and you could have problems. Excess baggage charges cost 1% of the regular coach or first-class airline ticket price--per kilo (2.2 pounds) of overweight baggage.

For example, a coach passenger flying between London and Johannesburg, carrying three bags each weighing 70 pounds, could be charged 813 (about $1,200) for having baggage that is 166 pounds overweight. Another person, flying between London and Los Angeles with the same amount and weight of luggage, carries it all free.

Adding absurdity to insult, you can fly round-trip between Johannesburg and London for less than half the excess baggage charges.

And sometimes, even if you have foreign stopovers en route to your last destination, some airlines will charge you excess baggage rates at each stop along the way.

Consider this classic case: A young woman was flying British Airways on an around-the-world ticket. She was on her way home to the United States. She had with her the same amount of luggage with which she had left the United States and which the airline had carried free.

Left Flat Broke

But when she checked in at the British Airways ticket counter in Tokyo, she was told she would have to pay $300 for excess baggage charges. She didn't have $300. All she had was $150 in travelers checks. She handed them all over to the agent, which he accepted, and got on her flight broke.

After spending a few days in London, she went to get on another British Airways flight and was charged again for excess baggage. This time, because she had spent all of her money, the woman abandoned one of her bags and had it shipped home later.

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