Skiing: Skis as baggage: what a carry-on

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The Independent Online
All the big six ski operators now make a charge of pounds 12 or pounds 13 for checking skis and snowboards on to their charter flights. Why? asks Stephen Wood.

Skiers, says Paul Carter, are not the sort of people "who judge a holiday just by its pounds 299 brochure price". Mr Carter is head of marketing at Crystal Holidays, Britain's biggest ski operator, so he is familiar with customers who consider the cost of all the extras. And when he's asked why skiers must pay extra to have their skis carried on a charter flight, he's ready with his defence.

If you've been skiing for a few years, you will remember the time when skis were regarded as luggage, and travelled as part of an allowance of 20-odd kilos. And you will have noticed, creeping into the small print of the brochures, a paragraph that normally starts "with a growing number of skiers and snowboarders taking their own equipment on holiday ..." and ends with your having to reach into your pocket.

Paul Carter's argument goes like this. "Scheduled airlines will tell you that in-flight meals are free," he says. "But of course that isn't true: the cost of the meals is simply included in the cost of the ticket. There is a cost to us in carrying skis and snowboards, because they involve extra handling costs and add weight to the plane - which increases fuel consumption. And our view is this: that those who benefit from a service should pay for it, and those who don't should not."

On scheduled flights, Crystal buys tickets for its clients, who can (like the other passengers) take their skis and snowboards without charge. But when it runs a charter flight, it hires a plane (with a full tank of fuel) and a crew for a specific flight, and pays a fee to cover all the costs of the charter airline. Crystal doesn't pay separately for fuel or baggage handling; they are, like airline meals, included in the price of the plane. But since the hire price will reflect those increasing costs, says Paul Carter, it's reasonable that those who push them up should pay up: "So rather than spread the extra cost of carriage among all the passengers, we just charge those who have taken their skis and snowboards with them."

Fair enough? Not quite. The operators claim that the bulk of boards and skis which passengers are attempting to get into the aircraft hold has increased the chances of this luggage having to be off-loaded from charter flights; hence the pounds 12-pounds 13 charge which does, in Crystal's words, "improve the reliability of carriage". But when I asked whether ski equipment often has to be off-loaded, Gary Greenwood, operations manager of Gatwick Handling, said that "it's a rare occurrence, although it does happen, particularly with smaller planes". Such as the Boeing 737? No, Mr Greenwood's examples were the BAC 1-11 and the BAe 146, planes that are too small to be used on any normal skiing charter.

And did Gatwick Handling charge a charter airline more for humping a lot of boards and skis on to a plane? No, said Mr Greenwood; they charged a flat fee for the plane, no matter how much luggage there was to be loaded.

When I enquired about charter-flight fuel charges, Britannia Airlines was unhelpful. Monarch, however, was quite straightforward: a spokesperson said that airline charter costs were "something that the charter companies and the tour operators don't usually like to discuss with other people". But her exposition of fuel charges was simple: every aeroplane has a maximum payload, and a charter airline would have to be very stupid, when working out the fuel costs for a trip, not to assume that the plane would be fully loaded. So there was no likelihood that the hire charge would be increased for extra boards and skis. Could I quote the spokesperson on that? "I'd rather you didn't," she said.

But if Paul Carter's justification of the carriage charge may not carry much face value, it is sound: those passengers taking skis or a board are responsible for a higher proportion of the fuel consumption and airport hassle than those who do not, so charging them a higher ticket price is justifiable. And anyway, Crystal isn't doing anything that the other big operators don't (except charging pounds l more for carriage, something that Paul Carter says "will have to be looked at next year").

The deal offered is this: you pay the carriage fee, and your board or skis will arrive at your destination at the same time as you do. Or not. If they don't turn up, your fee will be refunded. This isn't a great offer - if you pay for a service and it is not delivered, the least you expect is to get your money back; but Neilson and First Choice sweeten the expensive pill by promising that, if necessary, skis will be provided for you free of charge at the resort until your own arrive (and Neilson even guarantees that the replacements will be "quality skis").

But one operator's offer is unique. The small print in the Airtours brochure looks familiar, promising as it does that boards or skis for which the carriage fee of pounds 12 per person has been paid will, if they cannot be checked on to their owner's flight, be "immediately placed on the next aircraft and transferred to your resort".

So why isn't a refund mentioned? Because it isn't paid: amazingly, Airtours keeps the carriage fee even when your equipment fails to turn up. If you are not the kind of person who judges a holiday just by its pounds 299 brochure price, you may wonder whether that pounds 12 fee is worth paying.

SKI TIPS

To increase the tempo of your short turns imagine that you are bouncing on a trampoline. Feel the pressure build up under your feet and then release. Make this the tempo of your turning as you start skiing.

Chris Exall

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