Gripes of the Fortunate

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

Often times traveling with boards requires you to pay nearly the price of another ticket. Photo: Glaser
Kelly Slater, a man who’s probably logged more time traveling with surfboards than anyone else on the planet, offers a rational suggestion: “The fairest way to charge? Based on weight and how much it costs to actually fly that weight a given distance. Why should my surfboard cost any more than a bag weighing the same? It’s under the weight allowance so why on earth is there a surcharge ‘per board’? It’s just a racket. I paid more for boards on two flights in Oz than I paid for the seat in the plane! I asked if I could just pay for another seat. The lady looked confused. I also asked if I could get a rebate for my girlfriend who’s 90 pounds and thus using less fuel. It should be quantified: X is the number of pounds flying and Y is number of miles flown. All baggage is paid for by weight strictly. If it’s a ridiculous size, say over 8 or 9 feet, maybe you pay a hassle fee. Just thinking about it makes me mad though. I got charged $600 on United one-way to LAX from HNL for a bag of boards and the guy told me he was giving me a break! Sell me another seat and I’ll carry ’em on!”

But there’s another reason those airline employees seem determined to charge you as much as possible. A former Delta employee explains: “When I worked there we earned points for charging people for extra baggage fees and then could use those points to buy things in a massive online store, similar to Amazon. It had everything on it! Airline workers get paid very little, so it was like a bonus incentive.”

“Of course they get bonuses,” says Slater. “It’s like rental car agents ‘selling’ insurances and extra charges. For sure they’ve run the numbers and get a kickback. Better off just handing them each 20 bucks.” An agent could let your bag slip by without a fee, but when there are Kindles and Panini-makers to be earned, why would they? “I found it really easy to let boards slide without charging people when I first started working there,” says the former agent. “I’d just slap a regular baggage tag on the board bag. I only did it for cool, easy-going passengers. If they were rude, I’d make them pay for everything.”

You’d be forgiven if you have no sympathy for complaining pros. It’s hard to commiserate with the whines of the over-privileged. But the arguments are valid whether you take one trip a year or 500. And perhaps it extends beyond a basic concern for your bank balance. Surfing has always involved a sense of wanderlust, this perpetual urge to explore the world, to find new waves on the edges of the planet. We’ve come to accept the idea that better waves are just around the bend, that what you’ll find at the end of a long flight is an inherently richer experience than what’s at the end of your street. It’s an idea that has been instilled in us since The Endless Summer, and just about every portrayal of surfing since.

But let’s take a moment to consider the implications of a universal price hike—if airlines like China Air, Delta, United, and Cathay Pacific are setting the new industry standard. What will it mean for the very essence of our exploratory culture? Fewer surfers traveling less often? A future where the costs of surf travel far outweigh the rewards? Traveling to surf, which was once a rite of passage, a pilgrimage that cemented your status as a legitimate surfer, is becoming a luxury awarded to those with the time and funds to do so. The dirtbag, shoestring surf trip is becoming a thing of the past, and in its place is an activity for the rich. Think golfers of the ocean, skiers of the sea. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but surf culture as we know it might be the unintended casualty.

This article appears in the January Issue of SURFER. Available for digital download and in print now.