Brian Parsons, the Rockville-based director of the U.S. Olympic kayaking team, got a frantic call this time last year from two team members waylaid at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. The paddlers, en route to New Zealand for training, had found themselves in deep water when their airline demanded $600 apiece to load their kayaks on the plane.
On previous flights, team members had been permitted to check their ultra-light craft gratis with the rest of their baggage. But this time, an airline employee deemed the banana-shape slalom boats -- about the length of a minivan but weighing less than a pair of bowling balls -- too large to count as luggage and assessed the hefty cargo fee. After some haggling, Parsons got the fee dropped, but he wonders if he'll have similar luck next time out.
For those accustomed to traveling with bulky sports gear, Parsons's saga may sound familiar. While airlines typically allow certain types of large gear to fly for free -- most notably golf clubs and skis -- you may face an unpleasant surprise at check-in if you ignore the fine print regarding other hefty baggage: Fees charged on select items can easily exceed the cost of a ticket.
Airline baggage allowances that limit the size and weight of each piece checked aren't new. But some carriers may have appeared lax in their enforcement of such rules in the past. Now, however, change may be in the air.
"Without a doubt, airlines are tightening up," says Ed Perkins, a travel consumer advocate and author of several travel guides. "Given a choice between making it easier for travelers or collecting every cent possible, they'll collect the money every time."
As someone who frequently flies with a bike, I was reminded of this emerging trend when I was charged $25 by Independence Air to check my bike on a September flight to Manchester, N.H. I was warned by an airline employee to expect a similar charge on my flight home to D.C. -- but I didn't argue when baggage handlers cheerfully waved my bike through on my return without assessing the fee.
No such luck for Harold Datz, a D.C. labor attorney who had flown up on United to meet me. Though the airline had not charged him for his bike on the way to the Granite State, he was required to pay an additional $80 to check it on the return leg.
Longtime scuba diver and trip leader Susan Schmidt, manager of the Dive Shop in Fairfax, had a similar shock when she was charged to check scuba gear in June while shepherding divers to Nassau in the Bahamas on US Airways.
"At check-in, the airline asked what we were going to be doing once we got there," Schmidt said. "When we said we were on a dive trip, the next question was whether we had any scuba equipment with us. A lot of us did, and the airline person said, 'Well, we're going to have to charge you.' " Schmidt had never been charged before.
When she asked an airline rep for a copy of the carrier's baggage policy, she was surprised by the range of items subject to the $80 handling fee. "They put scuba masks in the same category as deer antlers," she says.