Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on June 10th, 2009 at 1:45 pm
"I know she wasn't responsible [for the fee], but I was still tempted to ask her, 'how much are you charging for golf clubs again?'"
-- Slate Olson, upon being told his bike would cost $175 each way
On Wednesday, May 20th, Portlander Slate Olson was headed to Washington D.C. on a business trip when a woman working the United Airlines ticket counter at Portland International Airport (PDX) told him it would be $175 to take his bicycle along. Each way.
Olson wrote to me later that, "I know she wasn't responsible, but I was still tempted to ask her, 'how much are you charging for golf clubs again?" (Golf clubs fly free on United).
Olson's experience has put him on a mini-campaign to rid PDX of baggage fees for bikes.
Olson is the general manager for Rapha, a U.K.-based bike clothing company with its North American headquarters in Portland. The way Olson sees it, if Portland wants to continue to be the spot for bicycling and bike tourism, this issue needs to be resolved.
"I think any cyclist that flies in/out of Portland ought to fly their bike for free," he wrote via email, "or at least highly, highly subsidized. Within Europe you don't pay - and we're arguably better than Europe most days." (Note: Olson has nothing against Europe, that was meant as a joke.)
Olson admits that the box is awkward, but that many bike boxes come with wheels, making them easy to pull. The shape is also easy to stack and sort, he says. And, if the issue is weight (as some service reps at the airport told him), he says a bag of golf clubs is no lighter (and neither, he points out, is the typical golfer).
Olson's experience reminded me of Carl Larson's plight with JetBlue back in January. Larson was charged $50 for merely for having a folding bike stuffed into a box that also included clothes and other belongings. JetBlue said it fell under the category of "sporting equipment," hence the fee.
"It would be hard to mandate something across the board for all airlines for one particular item."
-- Jason Gately, Port of Portland
Larson thought that was bogus -- and pretty quickly, so did JetBlue's upper management. They changed their policy a day later and now folding bikes can fly free.
But that's folding bikes, and that's JetBlue (an airline that once showed the Tour de France live in their seat-back TV's and let all bikes fly free for the month of July in honor of the race). But what about United and the many other airlines that fly out of PDX?
I asked Jason Gately, a planner and project manager with the Port of Portland (they own the airport) what he thought about a "Bikes Fly Free at PDX" policy.
Gately said he's still looking into it, but shared his initial thoughts:
"My guess is that airlines charge for the transport of baggage, bikes, golf clubs, skis, dogs, and other item based on their own business model and that it would be hard to mandate something across the board for all airlines for one particular item... I would compare it to other things that an airline provides (or doesn't) such as food and drinks on the plane, or if an airline allows you to switch flights for a fee or no fee, etc."
I can see how airlines might balk at having the Port tell them how to set baggage fees, but I also understand the power of good PR and marketing. If the Port created a "Bikes Fly Free" program, don't you think at least one airline would take the marketing bait? Then, once one airline stepped up, others would surely follow suit.
Travel Oregon has made a major commitment to attracting the bike-curious to our great biking cities, and tourists to our legendary event rides and country roads. But traveling with a bike is for much more than just recreation. Many Portland business travelers take their bikes with them so they can mimic their low-car lifestyles on the road.
PDX regularly touts its green credentials and bike-friendly infrastructure (note the graphic from their website above and their effort to create a dedicated space for travelers to box up and/or rebuild their bicycles once they land), and what better way to make a compelling green commitment than to get on board with a "Bikes Fly Free" initiative.
As for Olson, he says, "There's a lot of talk about cycling being the new "country club", but until it's as easy to travel with the bike as it is the clubs, traveling to ride great parts of the country will continue to be for those few "crazy cyclists".
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