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Flying With Your Tandem

by Bill McCready

(Tipps zum Fliegen mit Tandems - und ein wenig Werbung. Aufbereitet aus der englischsprachigen Mailingliste, 10/2003)

The Safe Case

The SafeCase dates back to 1998. Since 2001 we've offered optional die-cut inserts that eliminate guesswork and wrapping---and cut packing time in half. I've personally checked a SafeCase dozens of times (with and without tandems inside), and our customers have reported hundreds of additional check-ins. To date, ZERO problems.

Because it looks like a suitcase I am rarely asked "What's inside?" My answer "Bicycle parts." Only once did someone ask "Is there a bicycle inside?" My answer was "Don't I wish." Actually, because I always pack the pedals in a separate case, these predictable questions don't unnerve me. And (except for those times when I have too many pieces of luggage) I've never paid to check a SafeCase.

Although the SafeCase exceeds the often-quoted 62-inch guideline, I have not yet received one report of an airline employee actually measuring these suitcase-shaped bike cases. While airline employees invariably count and weigh checked luggage, they won't measure a box or bag unless they think it might jam their conveyor system. Because each individual SafeCase dimension falls within the limit imposed by airport conveyor systems, the sum of these dimensions has never been an issue.

An explanation. The "bicycle" fee charged by airlines is NOT based on size. Even if your bike is small enough to fit in the overhead compartment (or your pocket) their rules allow them to charge you $50-$-$125 for a bicycle. The SafeCase normally travels free because (1) it doesn't LOOK like a bike case, and (2) it doesn't require special handling. Of course, If you want to tell them you've got a bicycle---the airline will be happy to take your money.

What about weight? For the past half-dozen years most airlines have assessed a $100-$150 upcharge for each suitcase weighing over 70 pounds (32kg). The reason for the extra charge (they claim) is that employee work rules now mandate that items heavier than 70 pounds must be lifted by two people. And these same rules divert items weighing over 100 pounds to airfreight (where the employees use forklifts). While cyclists feel targeted, airlines charge LESS for a gigantic bike box weighing 99 pounds (usually $75) than for a normal suitcase weighing 71 pounds (usually $125).

The newest wrinkle appeared last winter, when some airlines started charging $25 for any checked piece of luggage weighing over 50 pounds. In this case the airlines claim their workers need to be warned (via special tag) before straining themselves with a "heavy" case. The $25 fee covers the cost of tagging those bags that might otherwise cause an injury. While not every airline has adopted the $25 surcharge for "heavy" 50-70 pound suitcases, the movement is growing.

For six years SafeCase owners have successfully avoided $50-$125 "bicycle" charges and $100-$150 "overweight" charges. Unfortunately, they won't be able to escape the new $25 charge for 50-69 pound "heavy" suitcases.

Would it be smarter to pack your coupled tandem in two smaller cases? This is a good strategy only if you can get by with checking no more than 2 items per ticketed passenger. Because airlines are cracking down on carry-ons and charge $100-$150 for an "extra" checked bag (over-count and over-weight are typically the same fee), checking one 65-pound SafeCase might cost you $100 less than checking two small cases. Besides, when you ship a tandem in two cases, the airline is twice as likely to screw up your vacation (a lost or delayed tandem is a far bigger problem than a $25 surcharge).

My advice?

  1. Don't phone the airline to ask about their rules. The people who answer the phone don't know the rules and won't give you any guarantees. Even if you could get a guarantee (and you can't), the airport check-in agent is free to ignore it.

  2. Weigh your suitcases and bike containers before leaving home. Unless it will cause you to check extra pieces, stay below the 50 and 70 pound limits that trigger extra fees. No case should ever exceed 100 pounds.

  3. Show up a full hour earlier than requested. This means arriving at the check-in counter 2-3 hours before your flight. This way you'll be calm. Being calm will save you from being "profiled" and enduring lengthy security checks.

  4. Because airlines and their employees are scored for getting planes dispatched "ON SCHEDULE." Showing up late (especially with luggage that can't go through the conveyor) may cause check-in agents to find a way to delay you or your bike until the following flight---which is often the following day. More than one tardy passenger has been instructed to drag their bike to a distant airfreight counter.

  5. Since the check in agent can ignore existing rules (or make up new ones), why not SMILE and be the nicest customer they've encountered all week? I always go through all the ID, frequent flier, and seat assignment pleasantries BEFORE baggage is ever mentioned.

  6. When flying to tandem rallies and tours (4-6 annually for the past decade), Jan and I often take 3 or 4 full-sized tandems PLUS 5 or 6 suitcases. While we almost always pay something, it's usually a lot less than the airline's published tariff. But after an agent explains the added tariff (I always ask nicely), I simply pull out the credit card. Even if I were to be overcharged (it has not happened yet) I'd simply argue it later via the credit card company. Raising your voice in an airport, never a good strategy, would be especially stupid with today's heightened security.

P.S. I first flew with my tandem in 1967. Since then I've checked tandems onto flights over 200 times (rallies, tours and bike shows). I often check multiple tandems. The most tandems I've checked onto a flight was seven---all in big cardboard boxes. Missed flights: ZERO. Tandems left behind: ZERO. Tandems lost or damaged (when checked as luggage): ZERO.

PPS: How many tandems fit on a plane? To attend Santana's 1995 Santana Bodensee Rally 23 teams flew into Zurich from Cincinnati on a Delta 767. At Santana's 2001 Valetine's Week Tour of Hawaii forty couples and forty assembled tandems flew from Molokai to Maui on a Hawaiian Airlines DC-9.

Summary: Don't let anyone scare you out of flying with your tandem!

Because well-meaning people can get confused about airline policies, the following clarifies some items from my last post

Whatever you've been told in advance won't make much difference when you get to the airline counter. Tariffs change without notice and check-in agents hold all the cards. The recent $25 surcharge for a 50-69 pound suitcase, not yet universal, may disappear. Or it could spread to Europe. And, as Kurt Andersen correctly points out, even if you get a check-in agent to agree that your bike will fly across the Atlantic for free, you might be charged for your bicycle's domestic connection. Further, now that some of the European carriers have instituted a charge for bikes, the entire tradition of free transatlantic bike carriage is in jeopardy.

The argument that 2 cases are safer than 1 is mistaken on two counts. First, the odds of a delayed, lost or smashed tandem become nearly twice as high when you pack it into two cases. Second, because an airline's liability for lost or damaged luggage is directly proportional to the item's weight; the settlement for one lost case will be half as much. If your homeowner's insurance doesn't already cover the contents of your luggage (including your tandem), add this to your policy.

While my rules don't encourage lying, I personally don't feel obligated to pay extra for a suitcase just because there happens to be a bike inside. And if I'm checking a boxed bike, I don't bother to tell anyone how many seats or cogs it has. If an airline employee is willing to let things slide, I graciously accept. If not, here's my credit card. While I sometimes pay more than I'd like, no airline has yet charged me more than their rules allow. If an agent were to rip me off, why should I argue (and risk missing the flight) when a short letter to the airline (with a copy to my credit card company) will set things straight?

Because there can be no perfect method for dealing with an imperfect system, the 6 rules from my last post were merely time-tested suggestions that are meant to allay the fears we all have about flying with our tandems.

Why worry about baggage fees when I can think of two bigger issues: weather and shipping damage?

I mention weather as a way of reminding all of us that many things about a cycling vacation, including weather, are inherently beyond our control. The likelihood of shipping damage, however, can be minimized.

Which brings me to the...

Various ways of packing your tandem

For S&S tandems the debate of one case vs. two will continue. Customers looking at builders' websites often believe they can save money with one smaller case. When they discover the resulting puzzle is worse than a Rubik's cube, however, over 90% will end up buying a second case. Or they start with less expensive "soft" cases and quickly conclude that these cases can't provide adequate protection. Some dealers mistakenly warn customers away from buying a larger "non-regulation" case. While many customers will continue to prefer a two case solution, here's what I know. Even the largest S&S-capable luggage (Santana's SafeCase) travels seamlessly through airports. All of these cases fit in taxis and compact rental cars. Because a hard outer case is only a starting point, you'll need to choose between careful wrapping & padding OR optional die-cut foam. While the extra $250 for 8 layers of super-dense foam (instead of yards of padded wrap) seems outrageously expensive, it prevents your components from migrating and damaging each other. With the die-cut foam, your tandem can survive six-foot luggage cart tumbles, and worse. Further, your packing and unpacking time is cut by half (and actually becomes FUN). Not one customer has yet regretted the added expense of our newer foam system. While some couples may worry about incurring the new $25 charge for items over 50 pounds (a loaded SafeCase will weigh 65-69 pounds), a two case system might sometimes instead cause them to pay $125 to check a fifth piece of luggage. Since neither option can guarantee a lifetime of lower charges, a better measure of value is the likelihood of your tandem's safe arrival. For tandem enthusiasts with an S&S tandem, a foam-equipped SafeCase offers an optimal combination of portability, easy assembly & disassembly, low airline charges and, MOST IMPORTANT, protection from a ruined vacation.

Non S&S tandems. Unless you want to build your own case, there are three broad categories.

A few airlines still allow (or even supply) clear plastic bags. Frequent travelers who initially like this idea will soon enough learn the downside of asymmetric protection. While the bag protects their luggage from your greasy chain, it doesn't protect your bike from the force of their luggage. Because you've signed a waiver, the airline isn't liable for the damage to your bike.

A more popular option is a cardboard box. The two subcategories are boxes with and without internal cradles that hold a tandem by its wheels. With the normal box, damage to tandems arriving at our rallies has been about 15% (flattened wheels, taco'd chainrings, scraped crankarms and bent forks). Again, because a waiver has been signed, you won't get much help from the airline.

Twenty plus years ago Santana designed a "trucker-proof" cardboard shipping carton that uses four cradles to suspend your tandem by its attached wheels. Because your bike is suspended away from the ends and bottom of the box, the damage rate from tandems that arrive at a rally in these 8-foot long cartons has been 0%. Because these cartons are only good for one additional round trip (after their original trip from the factory), when you get back home it's ready for recycling. To find a dealer who saves these cartons, phone Santana. If you only plan to fly once, this is the best answer.

Once you see how easy and fun it is to fly with your tandem to an exotic destination, you'll graduate to the third category: a durable bicycle case. Santana helped BikePro USA to develop their soft tandem case a dozen years ago. Later, BikePro USA purchased Profetta's Pedal Pack hard case. After using both, and seeing scores of each at our rallies, I prefer the soft case. While the hard case looks and sounds more secure, the bike inside is relatively unsupported. Not only does Pedal Pack's large rigid shell invite mishandling, when the molded plastic gets cracked, it's impossible to repair. While BikePro's soft case sounds inadequate, the tandem and most of its fragile parts are supported on by an energy absorbing steel base. Damage I've seen is mostly limited to bent derailleur hangers and rear luggage racks. If the case itself is damaged, it can be repaired. Either of BikePro's cases will set you back a bit more than $600 (plus $100 freight).

Co-designed by Santana the newest solution for tandem enthusiasts is a lighter and smaller tandem case that's weatherproof, sturdy, repairable and affordable. Built from rugged corrugated plastic, the case is so small that airline employees will never guess there's a tandem inside. The builder, Crateworks, has been producing single bike cases for years. Working together, our two companies have again figured a way to safely suspend a tandem within a container (a vastly different method than dropping your bike into a padded box). How cool is this system? Because this solution (like our S&S SafeCase and "trucker proof" carton) is secure enough to allow Santana to use it to ship new tandems, it becomes a $189 factory option. Or, since most of you already own a tandem, you can purchase the case alone for $299 (plus $40 for shipping). By the way, the durable new Crateworks tandem case folds flat for easy storage.

Which cases fit in which planes?

My two preceding posts provided a set of rules for dealing with airlines, and a review of available tandem cases. Together, these three posts contain the info you'll need to fly with your tandem.

Not so many years ago the smallest jetliners had 5-across seating and huge underseat baggage compartments. Back then, as long you avoided planes with propellers, checking a boxed tandem was never a problem.

Times have changed. First, the airlines have retired thousands of full-sized DC-9s, and 727s, and replaced them narrower "regional jets." Second, today's tandem cases (especially S&S cases) allow tandem owners to fly "propliners" into hundreds of convenient airports with runways too short for a jet. Popular tandem vacation spots that lack big-plane service include Durango, Friday Harbor, Mackinaw, Natchez, and San Luis Obispo.

But exactly which cases fit into which planes? Unfortunately, a call to the airlines is rarely helpful. The people who answer the phones don't have a clue as to what will and won't fit. Besides, my fear is that if enough tandem owners pester the airlines with phone calls (e-mails and faxes) the response will be a doubled tariff or an outright ban (don't laugh, this was Amtrak's solution).

So, here is my slightly simplistic guide that errs on the side of what won't be a problem:

I've divided planes into 4 categories based on number of seats and (especially) how many seats are in a row. If you aren't sure which category applies to a certain plane, pull up a seating chart on the 'net or, because this is one question they can answer, phone your travel agent or airline.

The first category is planes that have a large enough fuselage for 5-across seating. Because these planes have spacious underfloor baggage compartments, they can easily accommodate the largest tandem containers. Every jetliner built by Boeing, McDonald-Douglas, Airbus, Fokker and BAe/Avro fits this profile. If you'll use a cardboard box or Pedal Pack to haul your tandem, you are advised to limit your flights to these planes.

The second category includes Canadair regional jets ("CRJ") and the biggest propliners. The distinguishing characteristic is 4-across seating. Because of their narrower fuselage, these planes can't have an underfloor baggage compartment. Instead, luggage goes into holds in front of or behind the passenger cabin. With this size of plane, the largest hold (and its access door) will accommodate tandems packed in either a soft case from BikePro USA or the new corrugated plastic tandem case from Crate Works. In addition to the CRJ regional jets this category includes propliners from ATR, BAe, Fokker and de Havilland. Built primarily for commuters, limited luggage space on these planes may occasionally cause a full-size tandem (but NOT an S&S tandem) to be bumped to the following flight.

The third category includes the popular Embraer regional jet ("ERJ") and a dozen other passenger planes with 3-across seating AND 19 or more seats. On these planes the baggage hold (and access to it) is often too cramped for a full size tandem case. Don't book flights on these planes unless you have a coupled or hinged tandem that can be stowed in one or two large suitcases.

My final category includes planes with 18 or fewer seats. With these planes luggage is often scattered among a number of teensy compartments (in the nose, tail, under-belly pods and engine nacelles). Because the openings to these compartments can be too small for a bicycle wheel, S&S cases may need to fly within the main cabin. If the plane is full, your S&S tandem could be left behind.

Repeat: the above 4-category guide is simplistic, and errs on the side of what won't be a problem when you arrive at the airport with your tandem. Because airlines equate oversize luggage with delayed departures, arriving very early prevents an automatic "won't work" reaction. And when the ground crew sees your bike case before the plane arrives, it helps them with their planning.

P.S: Since I already reported stuffing 40 full-size tandems onto a DC-9, here's the other end of the spectrum. A couple with an S&S equipped tandem belted their SafeCase into the rear seat of their 4-passenger Cessna and flew to Santana's 2000 Vermont Rally.

PPS: Because the rally's resort facing Lake Champlain had its own grass landing strip, this couple didn't need a car. If you'd like to arrive at a tandem rally in high style, Santana will return to Vermont's Basin Harbor Club in 2005. If you can't wait that long, next summer's Frank Lloyd Wright Tandem Rally stays at Nemacolin Woodlands---an exclusive golf resort with a paved runway long enough for Tiger's jet.

S&S tandems: 1 case or 2?

First, full credit for both a breakthrough in tandem utilization AND a whole new generation of droolworthy tandems must be given to Steve Smilanick of S&S Machine---a fellow Californian whose combined passion for cycling, clean design and precision machining caused him to produce a device that the world did not yet know it needed. While Green Gear and Montague had previously stuffed tandems into suitcase-sized containers, the efficiency hit was simply too great to allow these earlier designs to be a tandem enthusiast's primary ride.

And while I originally questioned the concept of a heavier and more expensive coupler-equipped tandem in order to avoid airline fees, I now appreciate that the real advantage is not the purported "savings" (no one has yet saved enough in airline charges to pay for their new tandem), but is instead the seamless convenience of (for instance) taking SuperShuttle to the closest airport, catching a feeder flight on a 30 passenger commuter plane to reach a major hub, landing in Paris a few hours later, using the terminal shuttle bus to reach the escalator down into the Metro, to board the TGV for a trip to Bordeaux, where a taxi takes you to a hotel and your tandem accompanies you in the tiny elevator to your upstairs room. While thousands of us had taken tandems to Europe before Steve invented his couplers, the itinerary I've just described (where every conveyance except the transatlantic flight would have been a challenge) was too intimidating or difficult for thousands of additional couples who enjoy tandeming AND exotic destinations, but had not yet combined these activities.

So, while people will continue to argue about one or two cases, and fret over (loosely enforced) airline fees, this is a little like arguing over the number of spokes. The real issue is TANDEMING (no matter how many spokes you have) combined with hassle-free TRAVEL to faraway destinations. Airline baggage fees, if assessed, will never exceed a tiny fraction of the cost of your vacation.

From my experience guiding tandems-only tours in Europe (since 1986), the biggest issue facing cyclists flying with their tandems is NOT airline acceptance or fees, but is instead the possibility of a delayed or damaged-in-transit tandem. While the chance of this happening to any one couple is less than 10%, if it happens to you it can ruin the first 1-3 days of your tour. Even if the airline reimburses you for delays or damages (they won't), the cost of needed repairs is insignificant when weighed against lost days of vacation.

How do you protect yourself? I covered this in my preceding 3 posts. But the primary issue is using an adequate packing system. Santana has designed or helped to design 4 systems that suspend a tandem within a container in such a way that the tandem will reliably survive repeated 3-foot drops. Beyond survivable airline travel, all four of these systems are rugged enough to earn the label "trucker proof."

While our standard shipping carton is disposable and won't survive a rainstorm, you can buy a used one from a Santana dealer for $25-$50. Because your tandem's still-attached wheels are suspended by four energy-absorbing cradles, it offers at least 5x greater protection than a normal cardboard box.

With the tandem cases we helped BikePro and Crate Works design, the wheels come off but the tandem frame and parts are still suspended in a system that tolerates mishandling. Because the slightly smaller Crate Works carton is collapsible for easy storage, we can ship this via UPS.

Speaking of UPS, as soon as S&S tandems could be fitted into suitcases, dealers and customers wanted us to ship their new S&S tandems via "Brown." Following three years of dismal results, Santana and a trio a package design experts invested thousands of hours and dollars to devise our smallest "trucker proof" solution---a SafeCase with die-cut layers of dense foam. At bike shows in Seattle, Portland, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Las Vegas hundreds of tandem enthusiasts have watched me pack a complete new aluminum tandem into this vault-like case and then demonstrate the stength of the system by lifting and tossing the case 4 feet onto a carpet or cardboard covered concrete floor. In the world of tandems (or single bikes) there is not a more damage-resistant method for shipping a bike. Might you pay an extra $25 to check a SafeCase onto your next flight? Maybe. And if you do, it's cheap insurance. Further, you now have the option of safely shipping your tandem via UPS.

In a recent post someone "guessed" (?) about bent frames that resulted from our one-case system.

Here's an up to the minute report on our 3-1/2 year old and 200 plus units delivered SafeCase/FTS system. Bent frames to date: Zero. Bent wheels: Zero. Bent forks: Zero. Bent controls or derailleurs: Zero. Bikes requiring new parts prior to use: Zero. The secret of the system is that the various frame and component assemblies are suspended in die cut layers of dense foam that become compressed as you close the lid, which keeps the pieces away from each other and the sides of the case. This is entirely different from the previous method of individually wrapping each piece and then attempting to wedge them tight enough to prevent settling, migration and damage. While champions of the older routine will buy a second case and then cram in clothing, bike shoes and helmets to further separate fragile bike pieces, this hodgepodge of wadding cannot be compared with compressed foam suspension.

Someone also guessed that packing a SafeCase would require extra time (due to removal of cables and derailleurs?). Actually, the cables and derailleurs are NOT removed. Further, there is no need to remove the fork, drive-side chain, cogset, Arai drum brake or a disc brake rotor. The sole Velcro pad secures the drive chain and protects the right chainstay. Here is my bet. When it comes to putting a full-sized tandem into suitcase-sized luggage and then dropping it from the height of three-feet, the SafeCase is both faster AND safer than every other system.

P.S, Does Santana offer a two-case system? Sure. It is a bit less expensive, and each of the two cases is smaller and easier to lift. Based on poor experience, however, we will not ship a new bike in these cases.

PPS: What about the stuff that won't fit in one case? Except that the weight can climb over 70 pounds (which nearly always creates an additional fee) the pedals and tools fit in an included internal container. In practice, I put my tools and pedals in my rack pack, which is stuffed in a suitcase. And this way if someone does ask what's in the case, I can honestly answer "bike parts." If they ask if it's a bicycle, I can truthfully say "No." While no check-in agent has yet asked to inspect the contents, they'd find nothing more than foam and an incomplete collection of bicycle parts.

D. Bettge; letzte Änderung: 14.10.2003