Airway Robbery

posted by / News / July 9, 2008

I had a feeling I was in trouble when I got her. Standing in line for over an hour at the San Diego Airport en route to South Africa this past weekend, I saw my baggage-handling future narrow down to two agents: a pretty Asian lady with a genuine smile and a stout, stone-faced German woman who clearly didn’t see a good fireworks show the night before. Please get the friendly lady, please get the friendly lady, I begged.

“Next in line,” said the German woman while the other lady got stuck answering a last-minute question. Damn. I tried my best to crack jokes and stay upbeat, but she wasn’t having it. “Any other bags to check in?” she said.

“Um, yeah, just my surfboard over there,” I said, pointing to my 8-foot boardbag off to the side (usually a good strategy).

Suddenly, she perked up. “Surfboard?” she said. “How many boards?”

“It’s just one surfboard bag,” I said.

“Yes, but how many boards?”

“It’s one bag.”

“Then let us go see,” she insisted, walking over to my board bag and zipping it open. “Ah, ha!” she said, pawing over my paper-thin, 4-pound 6’1”s. “One, two, sree, four!”

Without saying another word, she marched straight over to the counter and started writing things down. I sauntered back, dreading the verdict. “OK,” she said, showing me her scratch work. “It is {{{90}}} dollars for the first board and 180 dollars for each additional board, which makes…” she did the math in front of me just to rub it in. “Six hundred and sirty dollars!” How will you pay for it.

“There’s no way I’m paying that,” I said, defeated.

“Well, that is our policy. There is nothing I can do.”

At this point, it becomes a little hazy. I do remember losing my temper, telling her how much she must enjoy doing this, getting a lot of stares and the German lady finally walking away to talk to her manager or security – I wasn’t sure which. Moments later, a tan, older guy in shirtsleeves walked over. It looked like he might be a surfer, so I pleaded my case. “Hey, I’ve been traveling with multiple boards internationally for over 20 years and I’ve never had a situation like this,” I said. “Really, is there anything we can do here?”

He looked sympathetic, said he’s surfed in Indo and Mauritania (?) before, and admitted the United Airline policy sucked. “I’ve been begging corporate to do it all by weight,” he said, “but policy’s policy.”


Planning on bringing more than one board? Get ready to pay.

I then tried logic. They don’t charge golfers by the club, do they? Or hunters by the gun? This surfboard bag would be exactly the same size whether I had one board or six boards. He acknowledged it all, but still wouldn’t budge. Much. Finally, after a minutes-long standoff, he said, “Look, here’s what we can do. We’ll charge you ${{{200}}} to Washington Dulles, you can pick up your boards there and deal with South African Airways for the other portion of your flight. How much time do you have in between flights? An hour and 40 minutes? Yeah…well, that should give you enough time.”

He sounded doubtful. But knowing I had no other option, I took it.

Washington Dulles. Inter-terminal people movers that took way too long. Watching every second tick in front of the Oversize Baggage Claim. Then sprinting down the hall and up several flights of stairs with all my gear. I was the last one to check in at the South African counter, the lady took my board without charging me and I OJ’ed the last half-mile to the gate. Drenched in sweat and 17 more hours of flying ahead of me, I didn’t really care because I thought I won the San Diego standoff.

That is, until I arrived in Johannesburg and my boards failed to arrive with me. More delays, more report-filing from a guy who seemed very uninterested and for some reason asked me to repeat every single one of my responses.

And that’s where it stands. It’s three a.m., I’m wide awake and boardless in South Africa and all my only hope is a claim check and a reference number. “Your boards might come tomorrow, maybe Tuesday, who knows?” said the South African airways representative.

Thanks for getting me here, United Airlines. Let’s hope a swell doesn’t arrive.

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