Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Wheel trouble at check-in with a folding bike
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The Independent Travel

During my career as a sound engineer, from which I am presently moonlighting, it was considered part of the job to carry absurd amounts of hand luggage on board flights. On a series of outside broadcasts across Russia, I became adept at filling every pocket with small but weighty pieces of equipment such as batteries and microphone stands.

During my career as a sound engineer, from which I am presently moonlighting, it was considered part of the job to carry absurd amounts of hand luggage on board flights. On a series of outside broadcasts across Russia, I became adept at filling every pocket with small but weighty pieces of equipment such as batteries and microphone stands.

An essential adjunct was to cultivate an air of nonchalance at check-in while carrying a shoulder bag bulging with tape, amplifiers and loudspeakers. I staggered aboard one Aeroflot flight to London carrying a good 40kg in cabin baggage, not to mention pockets that drooped, cartoon style, with none-too-portable electronics. With each excess kilogram costing one per cent of the full first-class fare of close to £1,000, this bit of back strain saved the equivalent of four or five licence fees.

These days, I travel a little lighter - but usually accompanied by my folding bicycle. I have flown happily around the world with the trusty Brompton as normal hold luggage; last month alone, it took 16 flights on six different airlines. Wrapped innocuously in a bag, the bike requires no special handling, and all the world's airlines have checked it in without fuss. Even Ryanair staff rarely quibble. But when I turned up last week at American Airlines check in at San Juan for a short hop to Florida, I was offered a straight choice: (a) leave the bike behind; (b) pay nearly $100 in extra fees ; or (c) forfeit the flight.

My mistake was to answer truthfully when asked what was in the bag. Upon learning it was a bicycle, the check-in agent insisted I bought a cardboard box from the airline for $10, and paid a man named Luis another $4 to swathe it, Christo-style, in transparent wrap.

After this operation, the bike was so thoroughly concealed there was no way anyone without X-ray vision could tell what it was. Nonetheless the agent said an extra charge would be payable "for special handling". The fee: an extortionate $80, bringing the price of telling the truth about my baggage to $94 (£55).

American Airlines, the largest carrier in the world, has endured a terrible three years. During the summer, when airlines should make a mint, it lost £15 every second. Evidently it is trying to limit the damage by penalising owners of folding bicycles. As a business strategy, this may not be enough on its own to turn around the company's fortunes, but as the minutes ticked away before the flight to Florida, the agent knew she was on to a winner.

All around me, families were arriving with preposterous quantities of baggage: Tony Hawks, who famously hitchhiked around Ireland with a fridge, travelled light compared with the industrial quantities of domestic appliances and other baggage piling up at the counter at Luis Muñoz Marin airport. Forget kerbside check-in; why don't they just drive the family car right onto the scales and get it tagged, too?

The airline's luggage limit is a generous 64kg per person, and since my now-invisible bike weighed less than a quarter of this I felt inclined to try to dodge the $80 penalty. My cunning plan was to abandon the first attempt to check in, take my mystery box to the back of the queue and try my luck at a different desk. But not only had she alerted all her colleagues to the fact that the good times were once again rolling for American Airlines - she also had my credit card, which I had used to pay for the cardboard box (not a purchase I had ever imagined I would make with plastic). I could sign on the dotted line or abandon my bike.

With the queue building behind me, it seemed inconsiderate to embark on a existentialist debate about the nature of matter, and in particular whether a collection of metal and rubber wrapped inside a bag, enclosed in a box and smothered in plastic could truly be said to be a bicycle. I signed, and visualised the executives at company HQ in Dallas picking up the phone to Boeing to order some new jets on the strength of my involuntary contribution to the company's financial well-being. At this rate, they might even bring back meals on domestic flights.

"One thing about trains: it doesn't matter where you're going," says the conductor in Polar Express, which opened yesterday. Tom Hanks' main character in the movie continues: "What matters is deciding to get on."

Sadly, fewer passengers than ever are deciding to get on board in North America, where the action is located - a wide range of trains were axed last month. And when the rail schedules change in Europe next weekend, other trains are on the fast track to oblivion. The Lille-Nice night train is to be cut, except for a service in July and August.

Brendan Fox, editor of the Thomas Cook European Timetable, laments the loss: "Only a few years ago, this train - then named the Flandres-Riviera - ran daily throughout the year from both Calais and Lille to Ventimiglia." The summer service from Calais via Lille to Cerbère (at the border with Spain, on the Mediterranean coast) has also been lost to the low-cost airlines. Unlike long-distance trains, the no-frills carriers know exactly where they are going.

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