Airlines change gears on passengers flying with bikes

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David French remembers the first time he flew with his bike, in 1977. Back then, Continental Airlines didn’t charge him to check his Gitane 10-speed from Washington to Paris, where he spent a month cycling through central Europe.

Ah, those were the days.

Today, French is mindful of his bike’s size, lest he violate an airline’s onerous height and weight standards. And no more free rides: Air carriers routinely charge between $100 and $300 each way for transporting a two-wheeler.

“I realize that the bicycle-touring public is probably not a large — or even important — segment of airlines’ customer base and thus carries little, if any, weight,” says French, who’s now retired from a nonprofit organization and lives in Washington. “Is this a lost cause?”

Maybe, maybe not.

Airline attitudes toward bikers have been called into question by several recent damage claims and by increasingly restrictive policies toward bikes, and have been brought to the forefront by this number: $3.3 billion. That’s what U.S. airline passengers paid last year in luggage fees, according to the Transportation Department. Bikers argue that they shouldered more than their fair share of those expenses.

A review of the major airlines’ sports equipment policies, which will be of some concern as the summer travel season kicks into high gear, suggests that biking can be an expensive pastime.

American Airlines, which recently merged with US Airways, charges $150 per bike, unless the height, width and length add up to less than 62 inches and the weight is less than 50 pounds, in which case you’ll pay the applicable first-checked-bag rate. Delta Air Lines also charges $150 per bike, with extra fees for bikes heavier than 70 pounds and an outright ban on anything heavier than 100 pounds. At Southwest Airlines, bikes cost $75, with certain restrictions. United Airlines applies a service charge of $100 for a bike over 50 pounds.

“It has gotten insanely expensive to fly with a bike and has become cost-prohibitive,” says Jason White, a bike racer who works for an Internet company in New York. “I remember when fees were $75 each way, which have quickly grown to $200 and up each way.”

It would be one thing if passengers were getting their money’s worth, which in the case of cyclists would mean special care in the delivery of their equipment. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. Consider what happened to Cheri Rosenthal and David Weinberg, who flew from Miami to Malaga, Spain, last year with two bicycles, paying $300 to check them on American Airlines and AirBerlin.

The bikes were packed according to airline standards with bubble wrap and a cardboard cover, according to the couple. But when they arrived, one of the bikes was missing. When it turned up two days later, it was damaged beyond repair, with a large crack in the frame. Claims filed with both airlines were unsuccessful, as each airline pointed the finger at the other. Rosenthal learned a hard lesson: When you surrender your bike, “you can only hope you might see it again,” she says.

Bill Borkovitz had a similar experience when he flew on US Airways. Somehow, his $3,700 specialized carbon-frame bike was crushed by baggage handlers, even though it was packed in a professional case. He didn’t discover the damage until he brought the bike to the shop after suspecting that it had been mishandled. Borkovitz, who works for an executive search firm in Wynnewood, Pa., returned to the Philadelphia airport to file a claim.

“It was like something out of a movie,” he recalls. “A 400-pound woman glowered at me from behind the counter and laughed, saying that I was beyond the four-hour time frame for filing a claim. I explained that the bike shop noted the damage and I informed them immediately after. She gave me the paperwork and said, ‘Good luck.’ ”

After I inquired about Borkovitz’s claim, US Airways agreed to cut him a check for $1,700. Rosenthal’s case remains unresolved.

To bikers, this seems like the worst of both worlds: They’re paying for something that was once included in the price of their airline ticket — some might argue that they’re being punished for bringing a bike — while airlines seem to make no special effort to accommodate their pricey luggage.

It’s no surprise that serious bikers have gone to extremes to avoid this scenario. Dana Fort, whose husband, Brian, is a former Team USA triathlon member, says that she has stopped checking the bike. Instead, they send the bike by overnight delivery service. “It’s cheaper to send it by FedEx from New York to Chicago than paying Delta,” says Fort, a dentist who lives in Hinsdale, Ill.

Another unorthodox strategy: checking in late. “I know this seems like backwards advice,” admits Dave Gill, who runs a bike blog called Vague Direction. “But it works wonders for me.”

The trick, he explains, is to arrive just before the cutoff time for boarding. The airport staff, in its effort to get you to your gate quickly and to check your luggage, will sometimes cut corners. “It often means that they’ll overlook weight constraints, saving you money in overweight charges, since they just want to get you on the plane,” he explains.

And there’s one last option, which guarantees that you won’t be charged for your bike. You can leave it at home. Steve Griswold, a travel agent from Canton, Ga., used to fly with his bike, but on his latest trip to Paris, he decided to rent. The community bike stands all over the city are easy to use.

“You can ride all day and drop it at any of the other bike stands in the city,” he says. “It’s a great way to get from place to place.”

Perhaps the days of bringing your bicycle with you are numbered. The final day may come sooner than you think, if the airline industry continues down this bike path.

Are airlines biker-friendly?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    That’s what the USAirways website says:
    If your bag is delayed, please talk to a US Airways representative before you leave the airport and within 4 hours of arriving at your destination.

  • oregoncycle

    Let’s get back on the actual subject of flying with bikes. As
    someone who tours on a bike and have done so on every major continent with the exception
    of Antarctica I have been forced to use
    only certain airlines due to the restrictive policies of some airlines. When
    planning a trip I first look to find out the fees from each airline and then
    plan accordingly. A big German airline tells us they want us all to enjoy our
    sports when traveling but then want $300 each way for a bike. First rule of
    traveling with a bike is one airline, no code shares. No changing airlines
    period. If it takes two airlines to get to my destination then I collect my
    bike from the first and then recheck it with the second. When my bike was lost after flying from
    Seattle to Frankfurt to Madrid the airline told me to just go on and they would
    get my bike and catch up with me. I had to explain the without the bike I was
    stalled as it was my transportation to continue forward. I fly with a
    professional hard shell bike case and you have to get to the airport early as
    TSA hand inspects it in the oversize area. But the nice thing is you do get to
    be there and TSA has asked me more than once how to repack it properly.

  • LadySiren

    Yup. I live off of a beautiful, rural two-lane road (shades of dappled green in spring and summer; absolutely glorious when the leaves turn). The entitled bikers out here couldn’t care less about the “share the road” rules. Two abreast, three abreast, hell, taking up both lanes on occasion…it’s a very common occurrence. And heaven forbid they think your car is too close when you go around them – hi, the road is double-yellow almost the whole way and yeah, I’m going to move as little into the opposite lane as my car’s bulk and your asinine attitude will allow. Is it any wonder that the rednecks out here sometimes pitch cigarette butts and empty (non-beer) cans at them? (ASIDE: I don’t condone this but understand why it happens.)

    Knowing my neighbors and the community in general, I feel fairly confident that these aren’t locals who feel that the road is there exclusively for their use. I get it. These self-entitled bikers have a right to ride on the road, and it is very pretty out here. But they need to remember that it’s “share the road” not “push everyone else off the road so I can enjoy my bike ride”.

    Sorry, rant over now.

  • Lindabator

    But he LEFT the airport without making a claim, and THEN returned – that is not how to submit a claim – how are they to know he didn’t have that bike, but another one? the FACT is there are rules in place regarding damages – he didn’t follow them, and now expects them to play by his rules.

  • Lindabator

    Can honestly say – had a bag SEVERELY damaged, walked it into the claims department, and walked out with a new bag.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    To each his own, but the stories of people like David French make me scratch my head. If he was already flying with his bike in 1977 he isn’t some young bike racer who’d need his specialized bike with him. So, why isn’t he simply renting a bike wherever he goes? They’re readily available most places.

    And as for the fees, nobody likes paying them, but I can give the airlines a pass when it comes to bikes and things of that nature. They’re oddly shaped, hard to handle, and are pretty delicate if mishandled. That’s simply not the sort of cargo a commercial airline operation likes.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    That’s hilarious.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’ve had friends who bike get forced off the road by drivers who were outright trying to kill them–talking about cases where they were biking on the shoulder on a wide-open road and the driver veered onto the shoulder trying to hit them–yet I’ve also seen cyclists who seemed to get their thrills out of tempting death by playing chicken with automobiles by taking up the entire road, etc. Best to avoid the extremists on both sides.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    It is an odd war. Cyclists hogging the road is something that is easy to understand but other gripes are much tougher for me to follow. The not stopping at stop signs is one of those. Unless the cyclist is darting out in front of me, why should it bother me if he doesn’t fully stop at a stop sign? (It’s totally unsafe, but nobody is in any real danger other than the cyclist.)

    I’ve also seen people get upset when the cyclist is able to use the shoulder to pass stopped cars. I heard somebody recently complain about dedicated bike lanes for that same reason. The fact the bike could go places their large automobile couldn’t really seemed to bother them for some reason.

  • TonyA_says

    Notice that he was given a form (paperwork) by the so-called 400 lb woman (only imaginable in the movies). He missed the 4 hour deadline to make the claim at the airport. He has to file that form by fax or mail. What is he complaining about?
    Looks like he himself saw no visible damage while at the airport and only found out AFTER his bike shop told him. I wonder how the bike was taken from the airport to the bike shop. Strange that he said he suspected it being damaged. Suspected Crushing? Why not open the case in the airport and see?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’ve volunteered at several charity bike races and it’s pretty comical how often the most expensive bikes are owned by total novices. I have an old cruiser and barely bike myself, but I know plenty of cyclists and it’s quite easy to tell when somebody is a newbie, yet they’re on top of a race machine that is doing them no good since they don’t have the skills to use it. Kind of like learning to ride a horse on top of a Kentucky Derby winner.

  • Tigger57

    The airlines are “nothing friendly”! If you have to travel by air and take along a bike…best to ship the bike by some other means.

  • Lindabator

    True – the psychic traveler? :)

  • oregoncycle

    When you tour via bicycle there are not many shops that rent touring bicycles in the off beat places we end up touring in. Even in a major city like Athens Greece can you rent a fast racing style bike or a heavy mountain bike but when I tried to find a touring bike and yes they are different in gearing and shape no one had any for rent. My Pannier bags have to fit the rented bikes rack and that rack has to be overbuilt to take the weight of the panniers. I have touring kevlar tires to help avoid flats and also take the extra weight that cost the same as my cars tires. I have a bike gear head tune my bike prior to taking a trip making sure that the bike is in top shape. I ran into a lady inTasmania on a rented bike who said she had no lower gears and was forced to walk up the hills pushing that rented bike. Not the trip she had in mind when renting that bike. These are just a few of the problems with trying to rent a bike and why we bring our own.
    The real issue here was not about taking a bike but for years it flew as a free second bag. Then when the flurry of bag charges started happening it went from a small fee to some out of sight fees. I paid $500 to fly my bike back from Australia last year and that was only after a long conference with three checkin clerks who tried their hardest to make it extra bag fee + bike fee + size fee + weight fee. I had flown to Oz paying the $200 bike fee as it should have been and after going round and round just got them to agree on $500. the lowest they were willing to go. My plane was loading and an extra day, missed connections made me pay the money and run to get on my plane.

  • LJBROCK

    For myself, a cyclist who also drives, it’s really about keeping myself alive when I’m on my bike. It’s terrifying watching a driver weave in and out of the bike lane while he’s texting. Drivers hate us because they think that we think we “own the road”. We have the same rights and responsibilities on the road as cyclists do. We BOTH need to follow the rules of the road.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    What would it cost to ship it via Fed Ex or UPS?

  • MarkKelling

    That was a very graphic image that showed up. Ugh.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    bikes are VERY fragile. Leave them at home & buy one when you get there. Plenty of places you can buy one under $100. You can buy a bike cheaper than the fees. Give it away when you leave.

  • Bill___A

    Any expensive item needs extra insurance. The airlines seem to like to not pay for damage they cause. My bag was damaged on a UAL flight out of ATL recently. At the baggage counter, the rep seemed to be more interested in undoing the bag more as she told me they don’t fix that. I had to stop her. I am not surprised that they charge for bikes. If you are planning to go on a European trip that costs thousands of dollars and are complaining about $150 for a bike to be shipped, you might as well stay home. Europe is expensive and so is getting there.

    It is extra, over sized, and fragile baggage. That’s how it is.

    Welcome to the real world.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I gotta agree, many bicylists have terrible arrogance problems, no doubt worse when confronted with someone “unhealthy”. This is not a prejudicial comment, it’s based on my experiences with them. I’m amazed to read all the other postings verifying my experiences. Putting your uber-valuable bike on an airplane is just not very smart. Rent a bike when you get there.

  • oregoncycle

    Once again WOW!! Touring via bicycle is or can be very inexpensive. 3 weeks touring in Spain less then $1000. for meals, lodging and gifts. Airfare was around $1000. to get there. Greece was even less than that. $150 is a bargin to fly your bike and following the main post it is not the 150 it is the now 300 hundred each way. When you fly to Europe and if you have to fly from one US city to another there could be another airline fee of 75 to 150 each way. My bikes insured then packed in a protective case. But some folks reasoning is like me saying going on a Golfing vacation in Hawaii just go ahead and leave your own clubs at home the rental shop will have what you need and heck do not trust you expensive clubs to the airline as they Will damage them.

  • Bill___A

    Well, if it is so cheap then one shouldn’t complain about having to pay for their bike to fly over. It is an awkward package that is usually larger than the specified dimensions for checked in luggage.