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Baggage check-ins: don'cha just hate 'em? It's the not knowing that's the killer: are you going to get the nice lady who waves you through without charging for the brace of cylinders you're carrying as excess baggage? Or will it be the blue meanie who calculates your dues down to the last fin over the weight limit? Diver Magazine and the BSAC are starting a campaign to get concessions for divers to fly without penalty when their kit exceeds the limit, a privilege already enjoyed by other sportsmen, notably golfers. Diver's Nicola Tyrrell (pictured packing her dive bag) assesses the problem and catalogues different airlines' widely varied policies on excess baggage.
W AITING in line at the airport check-in desk, surrounded by suitcases and dive bags, you run through a mental check list. Passport, tickets, traveller's cheques, spending money - you have remembered the lot, so you relax while your mind drifts ahead to the pleasure of that first holiday dive.
When it is your turn to check in, you load your bags onto the scales and, surprise, you are overweight. "That'll be £450 in excess, sir."
When you estimate the cost of your next diving holiday abroad, do you consider how much your luggage is going to weigh? Unlike golfers, who are given a concession for their clubs, you may get to the airport laden with dive kit and find yourself forking out anything up to the price of an extra full-fare ticket as a penalty for excess baggage.
Unfortunately, being aware of this danger does not necessarily make budgeting for your holiday any easier.
Airline regulations governing excess baggage amount to a tangle of red tape, so finding an airline that will give you the best deal is no simple matter. It depends where you are going, in which class you are travelling, which route you take and the latest fare structures.
According to the basic industry-wide resolutions laid down by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), it is recommended that every kilogram of excess baggage is charged at a rate equivalent to 1.5 per cent of the highest economy fare.
In practice, this means that excess charges differ among airlines, depending on their fares, and you will also find some variations on the basic rule.
To further confuse matters, you will find some airlines more willing than others to bend the rules. Booking with an airline that is prepared to give a special concession for sports equipment is not necessarily the answer. Some will offer a small concession for general sports equipment but allow only a modest standard baggage allowance of, say, 20kg, so you are bound to run into excess. Other airlines may offer no special concessions but will have a particularly generous standard baggage allowance of, perhaps, 64kg, which will easily cover the weight of your kit.
On transatlantic routes, airlines work on a piece system, which means they penalise you for carrying more than two pieces of luggage.
With such uncertainty, divers usually end up packing what they want and hoping for the best. But it is possible to manipulate the muddle to your advantage.
By phoning the airline before you book a flight, you may be able to secure a special allowance just for you. For example, BSAC divers Dale and Chris Cherry from Hertfordshire managed to travel to Turkey on Caledonian Airways with two full sets of dive gear, a set of camera equipment, a baby, pushchair, and car seat - for no extra charge. All it took was a polite request to customer services a few days before the flight.
A little forewarning can go a long way, but bear in mind that a concession made by a helpful official on the outward journey may be invalidated by a less-than-helpful official on the return trip.
"We've learned that a phone call to the airline can work miracles, but we always face check-in with trepidation," says Dale. "It's a hit and miss situation, and you've always got that worry that things might not go according to plan."
Usually an airline will not guarantee to waive excess-baggage penalties until it knows how full the flight is. A phone call might give you confidence to pack with abandon, but you could still arrive to find a stony-face behind the check-in counter insisting that you pay the excess. Though the airline might be prepared to waive the penalty, the baggage-handlers on the day might insist otherwise. On charter flights, it is often the tour operators which decide on any special concessions. Regal Diving, for example, has negotiated a 10kg allowance on its Monarch and Britannia charter flights to the Red Sea, over the normal 20kg limit. Regal's Maggie Telford says: "We make no guarantees, but we tell customers there should be no problem with luggage up to 30kg, as long as everyone on the flight hasn't gone mad on the packing."
IT CAN be a galling experience to stand at a check-in desk and watch a golf bag disappear down the baggage chute for a minimal charge, only to be told that your diving kit will be subject to a hefty penalty. Why do golfers get special treatment? The answer lies with IATA.
If IATA recommends that certain items of sporting equipment should be granted a special concession, most airlines will adopt the policy. Some sportspeople, including golfers, skiers, windsurfers and anglers, have been granted concessions after pushing their case with IATA. Golfers are allowed one golf bag with clubs weighing up to 15kg, at a charge equivalent to 6kg of excess. Skiers pay the equivalent of 3kg excess for a pair of skis.
So far, no one has put forward a strong case for scuba divers, who still represent a much smaller minority than golfers or skiers. There is nothing to stop airlines charging divers the full whack of excess charges, which can quickly add up, given that an average set of diving kit - excluding cylinder and weights -comes to 15kg.
Some divers, particularly when carrying heavy camera equipment, have been known to pay excess charges of up to £600.
BSAC Technical Support Manager Jerry Hazzard says it is time for divers to campaign for fair treatment: "This certainly feels like discrimination, but we are small-fry trying to shake up a very big international organisation. If we want to make a stand we need to swallow our differences with all the other diving organisations worldwide and put pressure together on the airlines and IATA." If the diving community were to make a plea to IATA, it would find the experience of the International Water Ski Federation instructive if sobering.
The IWSF lobbied IATA more than three years ago and was invited to present its case at the 1994 annual IATA conference. After spending the following few months hounding IATA with letters, the sport was finally granted a concession - one slalom water-ski or pair of standard skis can now go into the hold without excess penalty.
Kuno Ritschard, Secretary-General of the International Water Ski Federation, considers it a meagre concession, given the amount of time and energy expended on lobbying: "But at least we got ourselves into the famous little book of exceptions."
If IATA were to agree a concession for divers, the baggage issue would be clarified, but not entirely, because an airline's interpretation of IATA's resolutions is allowed to vary.
Any new IATA resolutions must be approved by the airlines and national governments concerned before they take effect, and any government can choose independently to qualify a specific resolution or clause. This means the resolutions can apply differently in different countries.
Airlines can also choose to put forward their own interpretation of IATA resolutions, and may even ignore IATA's minimum industry-wide recommendations altogether. This means that one airline may grant a special concession as a matter of policy, but if you are travelling on more than one airline, there are no guarantees that you will not be charged for excess baggage on your next connecting flight.
"It is all part of the democratic process," says an IATA spokesman. "Regulations used to be more standardised but today many governments are talking about creating a fair market environment. All IATA does is try to make transport safe, by recommending rules which are acceptable to the whole industry."
In considering whether or not to grant a concession for a particular sport, IATA takes into account a whole list of factors, including how the kit needs to be loaded, the kind of containers it needs, what pressure is required, and how safe it is to carry. Perhaps most importantly, given the rising number of divers worldwide, IATA considers the extent to which making a concession will attract business - "IATA is definitely not blind to potential new markets."
A concession for divers, while not solving the weight problem once and for all, would be a step in the right direction by securing, in principle, industry-wide agreement on a minimum allowance. According to IATA, the best way forward would be for divers to secure the backing of one or more airlines, which could then put pressure on IATA in conjunction with any direct lobbying divers may wish to do.
Following that advice, Diver Magazine, in conjunction with the BSAC, plans to get the ball rolling by making a formal request to the major airlines for their support.
In the meantime, divers may be wise to bear in mind a few general tips. If you do get the promise of a concession by special request, ask for written confirmation from the airline. Find out whether baggage is checked in by weight or by number of pieces, which is usually the case on transatlantic routes, and pack accordingly.
The less excess weight you have, the more lenient the airline is likely to be, so take as little as possible. Get to the airport at least two hours before the flight so that you have time to argue your case if necessary.
If you think you have extra weight, overloading your hand luggage will probably not work, as airlines have a tendency to weigh carry-on luggage. Indeed, Solomon Airlines has such strict baggage regulations that it even weighs the passengers!
Despair not. If all else fails, you could heed the advice of a marketing manager for one of the major international airlines: "I'd suggest divers take their gear in a golf bag!"
We would like to hear from readers about your experiences.