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source dares to publish" -- Forbes
June 2005 Vol. 20, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
What's this?

Unfriendly Skies for Divers

Contents of this Issue:
All publicly available

Tobago, West Indies

The Cypress Sea

Nitrox Myths?

Aqua Lungs Mistral Regulator

Dive Computers: Part II

Unfriendly Skies for Divers

No Safe Harbor

Scubapro MK20 Cracking Problem Reported

Flotsam & Jetsam


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Ben Davison

Publisher and Editor

Undercurrent

3020 Bridgeway, Suite 102

Sausalito, CA 94965

Contact Ben

Fees and restrictions for scuba gear

from the June, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In a disturbing trend, a number of Undercurrent readers have reported being charged excess luggage fees from airlines when they travel, or being denied permission to check some scuba equipment with their checked luggage. The response to the emails we sent to subscribers asking about problems produced a litany of horrors.

Baggage limits vary depending on the airline, the fare class, the country of origin and even by what the luggage contains. On international flights, each coach passenger is typically limited to two pieces of checked baggage weighing less than 70 pounds (32 kgs.). For domestic travel within the U.S. or foreign countries, the limit is usually 44-50 pounds. But enforcement is haphazard, and sometimes discriminatory against divers.

U.S. airlines are suffering financially and will seek income wherever they can. While they have to balance customer service and public relations with their charges, one can expect increased enforcement and higher fees. The combination of destination and a distinctive dive bag clearly identifies a diver for a potential charge. While some divers like to strut their stuff by having bags emblazoned with a dive flag, they call attention to themselves, a boon for both zealous airline employees and thieves looking for expensive goods.

Rules vary not just from airline to airline, but from destination to destination, and even class to class. On longer flights, where weight is a greater consideration, restrictions might be tighter.

Last year, Bob Speir (Falls Church, VA) was charged extra by US Air for checked baggage containing scuba equipment. A US Air customer service rep sent him the airlines policy: One item of scuba equipment will be accepted as checked baggage and may be substituted for one of the checked bags included in the free allowance. That bag may include a mask, a pair of fins, one snorkel, a BCD, a back pack, a knife, a pressure gauge, a speargun, and a regulator. No additional dive bags, rebreathers or empty tanks. US Air also informed Speir that if a dive bag is not included in the free baggage allowance or if notincluded items are checked, extra charges on its routes would run from $50 to $100.

Coming home from St. John, USVI, Ken Katz and his wife were charged $25 each for excess baggage by Continental Airlines. The Continental website had mentioned a 70 lb. limit but at St. Thomas Airport there was a big sign that said only 50 lbs., says Katz, who discovered that various Caribbean islands are excluded from international limits.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, Donna and Michael Hellums discovered that Hawaiian Airlines was strictly adhering to the 50 pound-per-bag weight limit. Although the total weight for all their luggage was under the maximum, they were required to redistribute our contents there at the ticket counter, holding up the line for everyone, just to swap three to 10 pounds from one suitcase to another. She suggests: If the airline is going to be this strict then they need to have scales out in the lobby so fliers can check their luggage BEFORE they reach the front of the line and hold everyone up. One way of dealing with this problem is to pack your dive gear and weigh it at home, then pack the rest of your wardrobe accordingly.

Scott Coleman (of the Hague, Netherlands) wrote to share a positive experience: traveling on KLM from Amsterdam to St. Maarten (Dutch Antilles), he and his wife were informed that they were significantly over their weight allowance (his gear bag weighs about 30 lbs.). Coleman commented to his wife that he wasnt about to go on a diving holiday without his gear. The girl at the ticket counter overheard, he happily reports, and pointed out that passengers were allowed an extra bag posifor dive gear. Once I had satisfied her that it was indeed dive gear, we went on our way. No excess baggage fees, and all arrived safe and sound.

Reinforced luggage with wheels has made dive travel far more convenient. But the increased weight (from 8 up to 20 pounds) adds to the divers burden. A 20-pound bag may hold a lot more stuff than the weight limits allow. It might be cheaper to pack a lightweight duffle, and to tip skycaps to carry it for you.

Pack Globally, Pay Locally

Airlines that fly within countries can pretty much do whatever they want. Virtually all of these small airlines carry freight so they load as much on board as they can to increase revenue. There is little incentive to see that a passengers bags accompany that passenger, so at least when youre charged for it theres a greater chance it will be loaded on your plane rather than set aside for a crate of squealing piglets (as happened to a fellow passenger in Papua New Guinea several years ago). Its been going on since we started diving, but now local airlines in many countries can charge a small fortune.

Policies regarding dive gear vary widely, even within regions such as the Caribbean and Latin America. Traveling to the British Virgin Islands and connecting through San Juan, PR on Caribbean Sun, Jeremy Ellis of Chicago checked three bags over 50 lbs., the weight restriction. The airline was going to charge him $75 per bag, says Ellis, but the ticket agent allowed me to redistribute the weight to my carry-on bags to avoid the fees. On another trip on American, the agent wouldnt let him redistribute.

Reinforced luggage with wheels
can add 8–20 lbs per bag.

Jorge Becerra advises: Traveling within Mexico on Aeromexico? Pack light, people! On Becerras return from Leon to San Carlos, Aeromexico claimed his Akona roller duffle bag was overweight. I challenged them saying I was not charged on the way over; but they said it was because I got an upgrade to business class. As Leo Herskowitz (North York, Ontario) learned while returning from Panama on Air Transat, this is a common occurrence in remote areas. It seems airlines are very hospitable to incoming visitors, but dont care how much grief they inflict on those leaving the country.

As you can see weight limits and enforcement vary, depending upon the agents whims, the length of the lines, and who knows what? If youre good at negotiating the price of a gold chain in an Arab market, then apply those skills.

William Schlegel (Jefferson City, MO) says his pet peeve is Caymans Island Air. All they do is fly divers from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman, he grouses, but every time I get on their planes, they act like this is the first time they ever had a bunch of divers with a lot of gear and start complaining about how much extra this will cost.

And problems will increase for travelers to Bonaire, now that Air Jamaica is pulling out of that route.

On overseas trips, photographers Dick Gamble and Juli Tracy of San Diego pack very sparingly in three check-in bags, keeping barely under the foreign limit. When we dive travel within U.S, says Gamble, we are forced to pack four bags (max allowed for two travelers) to meet the 50 lb. per bag limit. Gamble further points out that Cayman Air and Garuda Air in Indonesia are notorious for charging $.50/lb. for any bag over 50lbs.!

Indonesia and the South Pacific offer their share of baggage hassles, as well. In March, Merpati Airlines in Indonesia tried to charge Chicagoan Charles Menbeck $110 for overweight luggage. Fortunately, a local divemaster from Menbecks liveaboard, Grand Komodo, explained to the officials that he hadnt been charged on his incoming flight for the same baggage. After staring at white walls for 20 minutes, as part of their interrogation-like techniques in their office, they let it slide, says Menbeck, adding They found out I was not intimidated by their revenue enhancement games.

Allan and Barbara Jones (Anaheim, CA) discovered in Indonesia that allowable luggage weight dropped to as little as 30 lbs. and you get charged for excess weight on every flight leg. They travel with four bags weighing 68 lbs. each -- just under the international allowance. But on most in-country legs, they were charged between $85 and $100. Again, negotiation works. On several legs, the local dive reps were able to get the charge reduced or waived.

Retired travel agent Roberta Skidds knows her way around a check-in counter. When traveling with a group of divers, she says, We always show up as a group just as the ticket counter opens up and let the rest of the passengers line up behind us. She also packs her husbands underwater camera and their computers in carry-on knapsacks. Nevertheless, things hit the Skidds while they were traveling from Papeete to Fakarava in Tahiti. Although Air Tahiti Nui Group Sales had assured the group that passengers are allowed one 44 pound bag and one carry-on each, the ticket agent insisted on weighing their knapsacks and checking them in with the other luggage. After a half hour of haggling, a supervisor agreed the bags could be carried on, but still insisted on weighing them. We then asked him to call Group Sales as a weight waiver had been placed in the records for the divers, says Skidds. The supervisor finally allowed the group to carry the bags on board without weight charges.

David Dornbusch (Berkeley, CA) reports that Air Tahiti allows an additional 5 kilograms for scuba divers. Their normal baggage allowance per passenger is 10 kgs., or 20 kgs. upon presentation of international tickets. With a C-card, its 25 kgs. However, it helps to travel with plenty of cash. Last year Air Tahiti charged Chris Davies (San Francisco, CA) an extra $38 for a hop from Papeete to Bora Bora. Adding insult to injury, says Davies, the agent refused to accept her Master Card.

Travel agent Christine Blake (Dive Fish Snow Travel in New Zealand) has found, the cheaper the ticket the more likely you will be charged for excess luggage. In the South Pacific, says Blake, there has always been a 20kg luggage allowance, and Dive gear was included as sports equipment so we (as a specialist travel agent ) made notes in the flight bookings and an extra allowance was made. However with the advent of cheaper flights, Blake finds that airlines are now charging [up] to the letter of the law. Some group leaders opt for higher airfares with an extra allowance for dive gear. She suggests that airlines offer an option to pre pay excess luggage beforehand, which would ease some of the strain at the check-in counter.

Heres a tip Undercurrent cant endorse, but well pass it along for entertainment value. While checking in at Air Kirabati, going to Christmas Island, Owen Babcocks dive buddy put his foot under the scale and lifted until the right amount of weight showed on the gauge. Says Babcock, Agents usually do not look at the scales when one first puts luggage on. But, he adds, The agent did look at the rest of us in hysterics for no apparent reason.

Next issue: when your bags are lost, stolen and/or confiscated by security personnel.

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