Gripes of the Fortunate

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

| posted on January 17, 2013

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.”

  • jojo

    hard-hitting surf journalism unearthing a gravely serious first-world problem. cheyne magnusson deserves better than this. i smell pulitzer.


    Anyone tried paying off the teller? Wondering if it’s worked for anyone.

  • Fight Back

    Three words for you: small claims court.

    Costs you just a few bucks to sue for your money back. Costs the airlines a lot of money to send a lawyer down to defend the indefensible. And if they don’t show (hint: they won’t show), 92% chance you win by default then they have to pay the judgment.

    They take advantage of the fact that they are big to punch you in the face.

    You can take advantage of the fact that they’re big to punch right back — exactly what bullies don’t expect but totally deserve.

    Simply file saying they overcharged for a service than gave you bad service.

    Only punish the airlines who have punitive, unreasonable polices. Keep all receipts and other documents to present to the court.

  • Jimmy the Saint

    Here’s my two cents! Maybe contacting the tourism boards of the countries that spend millions promoting their area to surfers might help. Often flights are subsidised by goverments who may not be pleased that the tourists that they have lured to their country are leaving with a bad taste in their mouth, and will tell their friends, twitter followers etc. Surfers may not mean much to the airlines, but they sure as hell mean a lot to places like Bali, Hawaii, the Gold Coast etc. Obviously one or two individuals won’t make a difference, but maybe Surfer magazine could investigate if any of those notorious airlines are being subsidised…

  • charliep

    the government should charge a fee for the environmental impact of surfboards

    like jojo said a gravely serious first world problem

  • Riktus

    Actually teh fairest way t charge is weight and volume. Weight is an obvious that has been described clearly in the article. Volume is an important factor as well. Imagine a plane full of surfers each of them having a board bag. Would all bags fit inthe cargo space ? Anyway the fairest way to charge would be Length + weight + height. ie airlines should have a matrix of these * elements in order to determine clearly the price and get rid of teh freaking mess. A standardized way for all airline to approach it would also foster competition and drive average price down since all oversized luggage will be considered equal. No more privilege for the golf bags. Or if you prefer, if one calculation matrix applies for all, the willingness of the airlines to carry golf bags at low cost will decrease our board bag costs.
    maybe someone knowing the aviation world can comment whether it’s worth for surfers to lobby (through social media) IATA for this standardization.

  • TimL

    Sucks for Mr. Magnusson that he got charged as much as he did by China Airlines, and I totally agree with the “surfers are overcharged by airlines” (most of the time we are). But I would just like to add that China airlines is probably the best airline I’ve ever flown with surfboard wise. Out of the two times (2 returns) I flew from Europe to New Zealand with my board, both times I didn’t have to pay a single cent(!!!) because it fell within my weight restrictions.

    I think the problem of paying for boards comes with flying over the pacific for some reason. So next time you want to fly with china airlines and take your boards for free, consider flying over the atlantic…

  • Mikko Laitinen

    Pretty ironic that I’ve brought boards twice to Europe from Bali with Cathay free of charge…

  • Nathan Sheldon

    Virgin is free.

  • Ryanno

    I have traveled many times with big surfboard bags and snowboard bags. As long as you keep the bags at 20kg or under I have not had a problem. It’s only when it gets up near 25kg or more then you are up for excess baggage. Pack light.

  • Mik

    Cheyne should do his homework BEFORE booking with an airline, not after.

    Surfline has published an online list of Airlines/surfboard fees. All he had to do was read it, and tell his travel agent what airlines to look for good travel fees with, and which ones not to book.

    The list clearly states that China Airlines is very pricey. I had my agent redo my plans to Bali when he ignored my input and booked a trip to Bali with them.

    I switched to Cathay Pacific, which was rad. Great service, great food, and best of all I only expected to pay $100 each way for my board bag (two ultra light 6′ shortboards and a very light 7′ gun). The best part was a surprise in my favor: since my suitcase was also small they didn’t charge me for my surfboards at all!

    So travel light. BTW: my boards were Firewires, and they were all I needed in two weeks of 5–12″ surf, every day. They are light, paddle amazing because more buoyant, perform rad, and no dings, no broken boards. And the waves are heavy in Bali and the other Island I went to. I saw a guy break a board just paddling out. No exaggeration.

  • james

    Hey guys

    i have been bitching about this problem for years.
    Last year I went from LAX threw Panama to Ecuador for a surf tirp
    We stuffed 4 surfboards into one big coffin. We learned from trips before the airline now count each board and have changed it on their website to state per board not per bag. we packed the four boards into two separate board bags then into the coffin making it look like we only had two boards. Lax was not a problem they charged us $400 for the board bag. On the way back the airline in Ecuador did not charge us for our bags we thought great!!! We had a layover in Panama and thats where we got called to the counter for our surfboards. The lady at the counter said we did not get charged for our surfborad bags and wanted $800 for us to get the bag home. We went round and round with the person showing her what we paid for the same bag to get there.
    It did not matter. I put the charge on my Amex and when I got home called Amex to reverse both charges the first chrage for giving me a hard time over my bag and causing me to have to fight with them. Amex reversed the charge and I reveived a call from the airlines. After a few calls and providing them a copy of my bill from LAX they still wanted to charge me. I told the person to sue me and I’ll deal with them in court. I also told them I would be calling Amex to let them know the airline was harrassing me over my charge back. I never heard from the airline again.

    Here is something to note:
    In Nov threw Dec my wife and I went to Moscow to visit family and brought 8
    guitars with us to her father. I taped three together and made a box for them to fit into with one handle to carry. We each carried one guitar on the plane.
    ANyone want to guess how much I had to pay for this??? $000000
    Why?? Musicale instruments are FREE
    Next surf trip my boards will be packed to look like large musicale instruments!!
    I now look at the airlines as us against them with my boards. I have had them put a hole through a board and they refused to pay for a board saying in was not in a hard case!

  • sami

    Just keep your keep your luggage under 20 kg and travel with only 1 surfbag (no other checked luggages) and u get them free..Unless u travel with cheap airlines like jetstar,airasia..then you have to pay the fee but thats not much..

  • byron

    There are many airlines which do not charge for surfboards – they work on pieces of luggage and a total baggage weight allowance . Emirates , Etihad, Qatar Airways , Malaysian airways, Singapore and many others. Like the other guys say – do your homework and find out the airlines policy.

  • Elliot

    Interesting POV in this article but I have to disagree with the the paragraph almost at the end where Kelly Slater and also a Delta employee talk about incentives for employees by airlines to charge surfers more….As a current employees of 19 years for a US airline under bankruptcy as I speak, the employee that check the surfer in and its surfboards have to charge whatever the policy said in the computer is to be paid, if not said company take great lenghts to find you, investigate you and terminate your employment on the basis of fraud…In other words no incentive to buy kindles or anything for that matter, charge what you have too or else no job, no paycheck so no food on the table for families that count on it and be glad you have a low salary job…The people with incentives are financial analysts and executives driven to make more money for their own profits and shareholder, this way more profits means more bonuses in forms of stock that make these people, that make these policies while seated in some HQ office cubicle, lots of money and very very rich as in millionaires, and they have no contact with you the surfer so off course you as surfer wont ger no simpathy on the phone or at airport from the employee that have no other option but to charge you to keep his job…Just saying…


    If you are going to Costa Rica there are plenty of shops in Jaco, Tamarindo, and Nosara that have quality shortboards and longboards to rent so you don’t need to bring your own boards (unless you are a pro surfer). Most ‘high quality’ boards rent for $20 a day so if you are staying for 10 days or less, you’ll save money over paying baggage fees on American, Spirit Air, or Taca (Copa and JetBlue are only $50 each way)

    Cheaper boards rent from $10-15 a day, but may have a ding or two on them or may be an older board. For these, take a picture of both sides of the board and the rails so you can’t be accused of dinging it up even worse.

    Another benefit of renting vs. BYOB is that if that the wave sizes change during your trip, you can bring the board back and exchange for another better suited for the conditions. And you are supporting a local business and not the airlines.

  • Craig

    Put your boards in a cardboard box… label it ” ART WORK” Fragile etc. If the box is rectangular the staff will be fooled everytime… worked for me for years now… no charges ever! Plus I dont get the usual baggage handler dings as well… dont pay anyone off… just beat the system!

  • wyatt

    this is another reason why I bodyboard.

  • mike koenigs

    Im travelling to Bali next april through waterways and we are going to use China Air. Is it really true that they charge per board? I plannng on bringing a 9’0 longboard, a 7’6 gun and a 7’0 mini tank. What should i do? Should i not bring all the boards and buy a board up there? Do you have any suggestions. Please help, this is nutz!

    from Hawaii, Bruddah Mike……..