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Surfers, Cyclists Pay Penalty for Flying With Their Gear

Baggage: Golfers and skiers have nothing to worry about--few carriers charge extra to handle their equipment.

September 29, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be surfers or cyclists. Make them be golfers and skiers and such.

This message is brought to you, implicitly, from the cargo holds and cash registers of this country's major airlines.

Whenever passengers approach the counters of these airlines with sporting equipment too unwieldy to carry aboard, the airlines classify it as "unusual baggage" and store it with other checked baggage. Depending on the equipment, some passengers get charged extra, some don't. Golfers and skiers usually pay nothing. But surfers and bicyclists are usually socked with a $50 fee.

These charges are based on neither specific measurements nor weight. Could it be, a young adventurer might wonder, that airline executives see greater profit in pleasing golfers and skiers than in satisfying those who surf and cycle? Is there some sort of recreation discrimination at work here? Why the difference?

"We get that question quite often," says Linda Burke Rutherford, spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, which has the lowest "unusual baggage" rates among major carriers. The answer, she and other airline representatives say, is that skis and golf clubs are generally less trouble than bikes and boards.

This doesn't entirely satisfy the surfers and cyclists.

"It's really just outrageous to me," says Steve Hawk, editor of Surfer magazine in Dana Point, Calif. "You can spend a week trying to get the best deal you can on a flight to Hawaii, and maybe you get a $250 fare. And if you bring two surfboards, you add $200." (And if you fly island-to-island, you add $20 more per board per flight on Hawaiian and Aloha airlines.)

Hawk, who notes that many surfboards these days weigh less than 10 pounds and have removable fins, theorizes that golfers and skiers get a better deal because airlines perceive them as more affluent, and the airlines "want those people." What the carriers don't realize, Hawk adds, is that "if any airline would go public saying surfboards ride for free, they'd get a lot of business. And we'd give them all the publicity they could want."

Among cyclists, "We've had complaints," says Lance Mosher, a 12-year employee at Newbury Park Bicycle Shop in Ventura County. "It's kind of funny that they're not doing it by size or weight. To me that doesn't sound fair." Mosher notes that some manufacturers of bicycle cases are now designing the containers so that strangers can't tell what is inside--a design innovation that could be worth $50 every time the container boards a plane.

Back in the offices of Southwest Airlines, Burke Rutherford says the key factor in the fees is "the size of the container, and how easy it is for the ramp agents to handle it and find space for it on the planes."

Similarly, United Airlines spokeswoman Mary Jo Holland says the key to the fees for unusual baggage is not volume or weight alone, but how often handlers face that kind of load and "how much manhandling it's going to take."

Because golf clubs and ski equipment have become so common, Holland says, the airline's baggage-handlers have developed special "cans" that hold those objects.

Surfboards and bicycles are not only less common nationwide, she said, but passengers pack them in a wide variety of shapes and weights. Thus, United has no standard carriers for them, spends more time wrangling and passes that cost on to consumers.

But here's something for cyclists, surfers and all other travelers with unusual baggage to keep in mind: Holland also acknowledged that competition among airlines can affect baggage-fee policies. For instance, though United usually charges $50 to transport a bicycle domestically, airline officials are often willing to send a bicycle from the United States to Europe for free. Not coincidentally, many foreign carriers will take bicycles or surfboards at no extra cost. The bottom line: Travelers should call airlines ahead of time to get a clear idea of what costs are coming.

For a general hint, however, here's a round-up of information gathered in the September issue of Best Fares magazine, an Arlington, Texas-based monthly that tracks air travel costs. In a chart showing unusual baggage policies, the editors surveyed American, America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, TWA, United and USAir airlines. In each case, the airline assumed that the unusual baggage was handed over as one of a passenger's traditional three pieces of checked baggage.

Golf, skiing and fishing equipment: free on all nine airlines.

Surfboards: $50 on most airlines, $45 on USAir, $25 on Southwest.

Bicycles: $50 on most airlines, $45 on USAir, $25 on Southwest; free on Delta if the container's linear dimensions are less than 62 inches (otherwise $50).

Scuba equipment: $50 on most airlines, $45 on USAir, free on Southwest.

The survey also addressed an issue most travelers don't ponder: the needs of the trophy-bearing hunter. American, America West, Continental and Northwest quoted a $50 fee for antlers; USAir said it would charge $45; Delta, Southwest and United airlines said they'd carry antlers for free; and TWA confessed that it had no antler policy.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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