Southwest Airlines and Bikes=minor twitter disturbance

 This is another of those livejournal entries, really written so it would show up in the right places on facebook, but might still be useful and found by people searching for details on taking the bikes on planes.

The folks over on twitter including the Statesmans Pamela Leblanc, my own friend Jack and Adams Bicycle shop all around good guy Drew Wolff, and even @lancearmstrong himself have been retweeting the answer to a challenge that the Livestrong CEO, Doug Ulman  himself posed Southwest Air via twitter.

The challenge from Doug was:

 Hey @southwestair - idea: SWA should be the first airline to take bikes for free! Bags are free. How about bikes?

Southwest Air responded, quoting existing policy: Here is our policy on bikes (scroll to non-motorized bikes) u can check bikes for free:

Doug responded by tweeting: @SouthwestAir thanks for the response! Tons of people will be excited to know the specifics. Bags and bikes fly free.

So, does the policy say that bikes are free? Well sorta. Is this any different from other airlines, actually mostly not. It does though reveal one new interesting twist, Southwest have said CO2 cartridges are OK in checked luggage.

Now, I'll state I've never tried to fly with my bike on Southwest. Equally, I've flown as an amateur with my bike around the world twice, once from London via Australia, Los Angeles to Canada for the 2001 ITU Triathlon World Championships and then back to London, and on over around 100 other flights with my bike. I'm sure there are a lot of pro cyclists, especially team cyclists who do this, and a few pro triathletes. However, most of them don't really care what the cost is, some don't even know as someone else pays it or covers it.

It REALLY matters though to regular working athletes and cyclists. With the ever escalating costs of races and tours, and the recent changes to the regular baggage rules made by airlines, sometimes flying with your bike just isn't worth the hassle. Twice last year I just couldn't be bothered, and drove. In hindsight it was a dumb thing to do, it wasted hours of my time and on both trips I picked up a speeding ticket. I blogged here many times in the past on flying with bikes, I even used my column in the British Triathlon Magazine, TriNews, to cover the issue once. You can find my prior entries here.

So, what does the current(March 2010) policy say?

"The following items may be checked at no charge (unless a charge is specified), and will count toward the two-piece free baggage allowance for each fare-paying passenger. Overweight and/or oversize charges may apply."

"Non-motorized Bicycles, including Bike Friday and Co-Pilot, will be accepted in substitution of a free piece of checked baggage at no additional charge provided the bicycle is properly packaged and the box containing the bicycle fits within the 62-inch sizing limit and weighs 50 lbs or less . (Maximum weight is 50 pounds and maximum size is 62 inches (length + width + height) per checked piece of luggage). The handlebars, kickstand, and pedals must be removed and placed inside the box. A $50.00 each-way charge applies to bicycles that don’t meet the above criteria. Bicycles packaged in a cardboard box or soft-sided case will be transported as a conditionally accepted item."

What's really important is how this will be interpreted, because the policy really isn't any different from other airlines if you don't stick within their rules. What most of the tweeters have not done is think about the rule, they've just jumped on the free part.

First up, you can take your bike as one of your two pieces of entitled luggage. You can only do this if it's in a box and measures LESS than 62-linear(Height+length+width) inches. There are NO standard bike boxes of this size. Yes, if your frame has couplings which allow the frame to be taken apart it can fit in a box this small. If you maybe have a frame that is 42cm and 650c wheels it can go in a box this small. Otherwise, as they say in the business, you are (S) out of luck. Now, if you are clever and creative, you can do what pro Ironman triathlete, Jocelyn Wong does and build/disguise your own bike box. Some of you will know I'm Jocelyns travel sponsor, I'm also her travel mentor... the less she spends, the less I pay!

Next-up the Southwest policy says "cardboard box" and "soft-sided" cases will be accepted s conditionally. This means that they may not take them and if they do, they won't be subject to the normal rules of carriage. While you'd never get $7000 out of Southwest or any airline if they lost your carbon tri-bike and race wheels, you do have some comeback. Conditionally carried means you have none. Thats the condition you'll be asked to sign when you check a cardboard box or bike bag.

So, that leaves us with a $50 each way charge. Thats better than many current US Airlines but it's far from free. Beware that if your flight includes an overnight stop over when you collect your luggage, that will likely mean a 3rd charge.

International travel with bikes is an entirely different animal, and US Dosmetic flights where the first or last segments are overseas, are also subject to International baggage rules and these are governed by the Warsaw and Montreal conventions on luggage and NOT up to the airlines to interpret.

Before everyone goes ape-sh*t promoting Southwest Airlines free bike offer, Southwest might care to actually update the policy to include bike boxes of 92-inches linear and categorically state that they will accept them for free on all Southwest point to point domestic only flights. Note, they cannot do this if you are travelling on a Southwest flight which connects to an International flight, since the International carrier may not accept the box, and isn't able to change the International rules. See my entries here with links to the various conventions.

Of course my advice is:
  1. Don't over pack your bike box, mostly even if within 62-inches it can't be over 50lbs and be free(they do weigh it)
  2. Show up as early as possible for check-in for your flight
  3. When challenged to pay for your bike, say "it is within the 62-linear inches rule as directed by the 1929 Warsaw Convention on luggage, amended in Montreal(they never measure it)

Right down at the bottom of the Southwest policy, you can see they allow "two small spare gas cylinders". I can tell you from experience that the CO2 cartridges for bikes are exactly the same as those used in life jackets. Now thats news, thanks Southwest!
Yeah, I replied to Drew that it's really not different than any other airline if you can keep your bike & bag under 50 pounds and within the standard sized luggage. Granted the other airlines have a typical first luggage fee (usually $25 each way), unless you fall into other exceptions like you have frequent flier status, flying with someone with FF status, are flying a code share flight, are military, etc.

I must disagree and say you do NOT need to be limited to 650 wheels to fit into standard luggage. Both Jay and I have S+S coupled Gurus and fly it with a bag that fits the standard w+l+d. Mine is 650 wheels and his are 700. To pack his, he does have to let his air out of the tires. That is all. Mine can be fully inflated.

Keeping under 50 pounds is relatively easy with my tri bike. I usually pack all my bike tools, mini pump, water bottles, cycling shoes, and whatever else will fit in there and just check it on the home scale ahead of time.

PS - Glad to see someone else is as anal as me and read through the whole specifics of the rules to see what the deal actually was. ;)
My point was, you need either a frame with couplers, or a very small frame with 650 wheels. If your frame is big enough to take 700 wheels, it wont fit unless it has couplers...

Jack offered me S+S Couplers for my new Guru, I declined, just because, well, I hope not to travel enough to need them ;-)
Ah, I read it too fast! You're absolutely right. I missed the point about if it's a very small frame.

Glad Jack is pimping the S+S! I think it's worth the consideration.
two boxes
Do you think you can put your frame in one box, and your wheels in another, in order to fall under 62" rule?