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.

A beautiful view that encompasses why surfers travel, albeit at a high price. Photo: Glaser

The board bag's privileged cousin, the golf bag, is our favorite contrast--the go-to argument. Golf bags fly free. I asked an agent at American Airlines whether they've ever considered charging per club. She scoffed, "Of course not." Probably because that would be ridiculous.

Worldwide, there are an estimated 50 to 61 million golfers. According to the action-sports research company Board-Trac, there are somewhere around 2.9 million surfers. The number of them traveling with surfboards is significantly smaller. And just to get some perspective, the average reader of Golf Digest has a household income of $117,900 and a median net worth of $941,300. Let's just say many surfers aren't in that tax bracket. Put simply, surfers are too poor and too few to matter, meaning complaints, threatened boycotts, and angry social media posts probably won't change much.

Some of us know that, and have accepted our fate. But the real problem, perhaps, is the inconsistency. Different airports, different partner airlines, even different agents at the same airport for the same flight all potentially lead to different outcomes. "Please see our policy," the over-trained robot in customer service will tell you when you call to complain. You will offer articulate arguments. They will offer nothing. "But why did my buddy get charged half as much as I did?" you ask. They will politely recite the company line. No explanation. No sympathy.

A look at China Airlines' policy listed online might explain the erraticism. According to their policy:

"One board not exceeding 109 inches (277cms) to be charged at the applicable rate for 5 kilograms of excess baggage; one board exceeding 109 inches (277cms) to be charged at the applicable rate for 8 kilograms of excess baggage; additional boards at the applicable excess baggage charge," which is explained as, "One board not exceeding 109 inches (277cms) to be charged at 100% of one excess baggage charge; one board exceeding 109 inches (277cms) to be charged at 150% of one excess baggage charge."

No wonder the employees at the check-in counter are confused.

(Click here to see what airlines will hurt your wallet the most with baggage fees.)

And they are not alone. It took two Cathay Pacific reservation agents 25 minutes to decipher their policy and calculate the fee when I called to inquire. They finally came upon the nice round sum of $600. Per board bag. Each way. And this doesn't guarantee that your boards will arrive at your destination in one piece, or that they will arrive at your destination at all.

"I agree there should be a fee," says Magnusson. "Board bags are giant, oddly shaped, clumsy, massive pains in the ass to deal with. So yes, charge us for the extra work. But I think a board bag should have a set fee. I don't think it should matter how many boards are in your bag, but the weight should also be a factor. Right now, they are opening the board bag and charging customers per board. That's the same thing as opening your clothing bag and charging a fee for each T-shirt you brought or how many socks you have. It makes no sense."

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.