A friend was a board director of British Airways. I asked him if he could give me a letter to show at the airport check-in, telling his staff to look after me and to waive excess-baggage charges. He said it was more than his job was worth to do that, and that I’d do better to make friends with someone who worked at the airline’s check-in desk.
That encapsulates the problem of travelling with dive and underwater photography equipment. It’s a totally hit-and-miss system unless you are prepared to pay up. You take your chances and hope the check-in staff will be lenient.
I recently traveled to the Maldives and copped a painful $400 excess charge at Heathrow – - that’s after the first 20 pounds above the limit had been waived. On the return leg, the check-in woman responded to my announcement that it was diving equipment by charging me nothing – - but it could as easily have been $800 extra, and there would have been nothing I could do about it.
Traveling via the U.S. used to be simple. They let you check in a maximum of two pieces, neither of which could be more than 70 pounds. A massive total of 140 pounds usually takes care of my requirements. Now the airlines have reduced that to two bags, neither of which can weigh more than 50 pounds. One bag weighing 55 pounds and the other 46 pounds will see you repacking your bags on the airport floor. I’ve had to do just that, on my way to Houston with Continental Airlines!
I approach the check-in staff with my Gold Card within reach. I wear my most charming smile. I ask if they are having a tough day. I never lose my cool. I smile resignedly if and when they tell me I’m overweight (in the luggage department, that is). I pay without complaint if I must.
Traveling east from London, the baggage charges are even more onerous than going via the U.S. When visiting the Far East I sometimes wonder if it would be cheaper to pay the extra fare to go the wrong way round the world. A trip to Papua New Guinea should have been a breeze. Air Niugini had pre-agreed to waive any excess weight, as it was an invited press trip, but I was soon smiling unhappily at a $900 excess-baggage charge that took me as far as Singapore with Singapore Airlines. I had to re-check my bags there or pay the charge for the whole journey to Port Moresby from London. An unexpected $900 each way could really spoil a holiday. In fact, you can have a good vacation for $1,800!
British Airways has introduced a new and fairer (so it says) checked-baggage system that is especially important for us poor folk who have to sit at the back of the aircraft. Economy Class passengers can now check one bag (note: not two that weigh the same as one) that weighs up to 50 pounds.
If you go via America, Mexico or the Caribbean, you can check two 50-pound bags free of charge. That still hits rebreather owners, who have trouble getting in under the old 70-pound barrier. They say you can also check in one item of sports equipment. They don’t specify what that is. I know a windsurf board or set of golf clubs is OK, but it’s not clear whether scuba gear is classified as sports equipment. It wasn’t under the old rules. I can just see a would-be Schumacher queuing up to check in a Formula Ford!
Here at DIVER, we once fought hard to get diving equipment included as sports equipment on airlines but to no avail. It seems that no important airline bosses are keen divers, though they do play a lot of golf. We once won a concession with KLM for diving equipment to Bonaire but now that KLM is merged with Air France, I guess that agreement disappeared in the economic fallout.
The good news is that BA is being realistic in allowing each passenger to carry on one bag that is small enough to fit in the overhead bin, but It apparently has no weight restriction other than that you must be able to put it there unaided. I’ll wait to see how long that rule lasts and expect to see the 13-pound limit reinstated as soon as a bag falls out on someone’s head. Meanwhile, I can see lots of us going to weightlifting sessions prior to a long-haul trip! I bet even I can lift 45 pounds above my head if it means saving money. It’s just bad luck for those who are vertically challenged. I hope they still cater for an umbrella and a camera, too. The old rules stated that passengers could carry on one of each in addition to one bag. A woman’s purse is another concession.
I tend to carry on my camera in its submarine housing, even though it raises eyebrows at security checks. Well, it’s a camera, isn’t it? I’m still working out how to use that umbrella concession. It’s amazing how many TSA staffers profess to be divers. While screening my camera in its housing, they let the underwater flashgun in my bag pass, even though someone usually squeals that the factory-fitted batteries have to be removed.
My wife has come up with another solution by buying me one of those safari jackets with 101 pockets. I haven’t tested my ability to walk while laden with heavy items, but it will come to that.
In the end, there are few alternatives to paying up and being smart, but excess-baggage charges make it an expensive way to send your stuff. Airlines charge around 50 cents of the first-class fare per pound – that’s a whopping $50 per pound to Singapore with BA. The other trick is to airfreight your luggage ahead. Just pray it’ll be there when you reach your final destination.