Gripes of the Fortunate

Airlines don't care about surfers, and that affects more than just our bank balances

As surfers, we're lucky if we have the means to travel to exotic locales for surf. But the airlines seem to be taking advantage of us. Photo: Glaser
Cheyne Magnusson chose China Airlines because they offered the cheapest fare. A frequent traveler, Cheyne didn’t check the excess baggage charges ahead of time, begrudgingly expecting more of the same: a fee of about $200 to take his boards with him to Indonesia. Arriving at LAX, he maneuvered his 7-foot board bag through the gauntlet of Asian tourists. “Just one surfboard,” he told the agent at the counter. She stepped over the scale and unzipped the bag. Pulling apart the boards, she counted them aloud. “Four boards,” she calculated, as she returned to the computer. “That will be $450.” That was already more than Cheyne had “saved” by choosing the cheaper ticket.

With little protest, he handed over his credit card. He knew this was a battle that could not be won. He signed his surfboards away, and went to the airport bar to drown the all-too-familiar frustration.

After three weeks in Bali, Cheyne had almost forgotten about the incident. He returned to the airport sunburned and happy. He stepped up to the counter, hopeful that with some sweet-talking, perhaps a little flirtation, he’d have better luck on his way back. But this agent had been well trained. “Six-hundred dollars,” she said plainly. “Six-hundred dollars?” Cheyne replied in astonishment at the sudden price hike. “This board bag weighs less than that guy’s luggage!” he complained. He pointed at a man with a bag the size of a washing machine. The other employees looked over knowingly. With hundreds of surfers flying in and out of Bali everyday, the disgruntled, overcharged customer was one they’d encountered regularly.

Once through security, Cheyne did what all angry people with an Internet connection do: he posted his gripe on Facebook. Within minutes, he had dozens of comments. There’s nothing that provokes surfers more than the universally accepted evil that is airline excess baggage fees. By the time he got back to California, he had hundreds of comments and likes. Fueled by the masses, Cheyne decided to voice his opinion on China Airlines’ Facebook page. Surprisingly, someone promptly replied. A dialog ensued.

“We started debating the topic, and before I knew it there were about 60-plus posts with other surfers throwing their two cents in,” says Cheyne. “Our voices were finally being heard! The thread was up for about 24 hours and then that next night I tried to check up on it, and boom, that page no longer existed. I was blocked by China Air and all of our comments and conversations were gone.”

(Read: SURFER’s updated baggage fee comparison list for 2013.)

But that wasn’t the end of it. Someone had taken a screen shot of the conversation and posted it online. From there it spread to the major surf websites. Kelly Slater posted it on Instragam. It got thousands of likes and hundreds of comments. We felt powerful. We had the most popular surfer in the world advocating for us—the airlines would be letting us fly with surfboards for free in no time!

Unfortunately, reality is far less romantic. Compared to the hundreds of thousands of travelers boarding planes each day, the number of traveling surfers is barely a blip on an airline’s radar. And surfers are hardly the high-rolling segment that airlines can justify pandering to.