British Airways discriminates against Cross-country skiers

With the Biathlon and Cross-Country ski season now started I thought it time I write about British Airways and its discriminating policy that stops people who partake in these sports from taking their own equipment with the airline.

But, before I explain why BA discriminates against Cross-Country skiers and Biathletes – and for that matter, ski jumpers; a little bit of history.

Having a break on a trail in Norway

Wikipedia’s page on Cross-Country skiing (also known as Nordic skiing) goes into the history in greater detail so it is pointless doing the same thing, but effectively people have been travelling across the land by skies for millennia. Around 550 AD seems to be a popular time for the first real evidence of Cross-Country skiing (XCS) taking place in Nordic areas, though there is also evidence that it possibly took place as far back as 6000 BC in Asia.

The equipment really wasn’t much different to what it is today, though it was obviously all made out of wood rather than the composites used today. Skis were known to be over 350 cm in length for some uses which in the majority was for easy travel in winter periods, though they also assisted in winter hunting.

From this spawned Ski warfare, recorded as such in Denmark in the 13th Century, further spawning into Biathlon in more recent times – although it could be argued that it started at the same time as XCS due to tribal hunting in the winter.

Alpine skiing on the other hand is a recent pastime. Whilst downhill is part of XCS – what goes up, must come down – to actually go up a mountain/hill for the specific reason to come straight back down again, at the same spot rather than on a route, seems to have started in the 1850’s. And even this was part of a military competition in Norway where certain ski disciplines were given for regimental competition – shooting at mark while skiing at top speed, downhill race among trees, downhill race on big hills without falling, and a long race on flat ground while carrying rifle and military pack.

It can be seen then that XCS and Biathlon were the first ski disciplines to have been invented, and that alpine skiing is a follow on to these.

XCS and Biathlon also has a much wider viewing audience, and more people take part in XCS than alpine skiing for physical fitness – millions more in fact. When we attend the yearly Biathlon World cup week in Ruhpolding, Bavaria, the crowd attendance starts at around 15,000 people on the first day – a wednesday – peeking at 25,000 on the sunday.

Our video from the Ruhpolding Biathlon World Cup in 2016

XCS is deemed to be one of the hardest sports on the planet, yet out on the Nordic and Bavarian plains we regularly see people that must be into their 80’s happily skiing round the routes to keep fit and healthy. In the countries where snow is prevalent in the winter, schools teach the skills as part of their physical education lessons from an early age. It is thought near to 100% of the Norwegian population, past and present, have Nordic skied at some stage in their life, with around 80% of the current adult population actively still taking part.

It is because of this that countries such as Norway, Sweden and Germany excel on the professional XCS and Biathlon tracks in World Cups and Olympics. Newer countries are coming to the forefront though, with the USA and Canada getting better with each year.

Britain too has both XCS and Biathlon athletes, though as expected they are not large in numbers. We do have Andrew Musgrave just outside the world’s top 20 in XCS, and for Biathlon Amanda Lightfoot competes in the women’s World Cup – both have participated in Winter Olympics. Going back in time a little, now Eurosport presenter Mike Dixson is one of only seven athletes to have competed in six Winter games; and one of only fifty that has participated in six Olympic games.

Andrew can also be found on Twitter:

The future looks good though for the British teams as more people are getting interested and involved in the sport. Biathlon in particular is taken up by the British military personnel not only for winter warfare requirements, but for team competitions between Britain and other countries militaries. For the first time in a number of years Britain could have a small Biathlon team in the IBU World Cup this year.

There are now many clubs in the UK dedicated to XCS and the advent of social media has made the memberships of these grow in the last few years as information on the sport increases. TV channels such as Eurosport also brings XCS and Biathlon to a wider UK audience, therefore increasing the numbers of people that may become involved. BA in theory are reducing the chances of this happening by not allowing people to buy their own gear and travel.

Amanda is also on Twitter:

So, where am I going with all this? Why is British Airways the target of this blog?

The reason is because, despite XCS being the first discipline in skiing, the airline discriminates against those that partake in the sport by not allowing them to carry XC and Biathlon skis on their aircraft due to a ridiculous bag length policy – max length 190cm! This allowance only allows Alpine skiers the chance to take their own equipment.

BA is only one of three in over 40 airlines that I analysed that have such a restrictive allowance – and one of these was the now no more Thomas Cook Airline. But, out of all the mainline, large airlines of the world BA was the worst that flies to XCS destinations. Some airlines with a mixed fleet do have restrictions, but from my analysis aircraft types that do fly to the XCS destinations fall into the ski length allowance – FlyBe for example, though they do also have some strange policies in ski carriage (see table below).

Theoretically only children and very small, lightweight adults would be able to take XC skis on a BA flight – I’ll explain why shortly. But even then there may be issues. Most XC ski bags are generic and designed to take all lengths of skis, therefore pushing the chance to fly with BA out of the window. OK, this isn’t a problem if you happen to live near Heathrow where you have a huge choice of airlines, but up here in Scotland where the choice is basically BA via Heathrow you are limited.

Lufthansa flew direct to Munich last year from Glasgow but ended this schedule due to low passenger numbers; and EasyJet runs services from Edinburgh but the times/days of the week do not fit in well with most holidays as they are not a daily service, and the destinations are limited. Norwegian Air Shuttle also fly out of Edinburgh, but obviously only to Norway and so limited in destinations also.

I mentioned earlier about children and small adults possibly being able to take their own equipment. This is because of the way the required ski lengths is calculated.

There’s mixed methods but it is either done on the weight or height of the skier – sometimes a mixture of both – to come up with the required length. On average then, most male adults need skis of approx 200 cm with women needing 195 cm. Steph fits into this 195 cm category despite being relatively short and lightweight; I’m at 201 cm.

BA’s policy takes none of this into consideration and they have thrown a blanket length on ALL items that go in the hold. So you can have 190 cm golf clubs if you want – perfect if you were over 8ft tall.

But this isn’t the end of it. There is no real reason as to why they have chosen this length. They fly aircraft that other airlines fly, they use the same hold baggage containers – in fact, most airlines just interchange the hold containers with no airline using their own each time. On my first enquiry call to BA, their customer services agent informed me that they were too long for the width of the aircraft they operate!! Errr, the A.380??? Then I happily pointed out that the likes of Lufthansa and Finnair (a code-sharer in OneWorld – I’ll get to that bit in a minute) happily manage in their A.320’s so why not BA?? No answer.

A pool of baggage containers at Montreal airport being used by Air Canada. Most actually “belong” to other airlines but are used by any as required.

In a later email – a copy of which is below – I was then told that it was in fact Terminal 5 that was the issue and that the conveyors and baggage machinery cannot accept bags of this length – except for the fact that Iberia (another code sharer and a merged airline with BA) also operates out of T5 and guess what? They allow ANY length of bag but with a weight restriction and possible fee depending on short haul/long haul. So the T5 argument is also complete rubbish.

The final, and quite frankly, ridiculous problem is the OneWorld alliance differences in the allowances. BA is the only airline in the group that will not allow most XC ski lengths – the next nearest has a limitation of 203 cm, American allow up to 320 cm!

With these differences you really could find yourself in trouble if you have booked a code-shared flight with BA. For example, if you were to book a flight from the USA with American Airlines via Heathrow connecting onto a BA flight to Oslo, your bags would, in theory, be abandoned at Heathrow.

But it’s not as simple as that.

For travel that involves more than one carrier, the “Most Significant Carrier” concept helps determine whose baggage rules apply for the itinerary. This is based on IATA Resolution 302, effective since 1 April 2011.

These rules are based on a “checked portion” concept, which refers to the point where baggage check-in occurs, until the next stopover where the passenger collects their baggage. The Most Significant Carrier between these two points of travel, chosen according to IATA definitions, will define the baggage policy for the whole itinerary. 

So, in the above case, the bags SHOULD go on to Oslo on the BA flight as American were the significant carrier – the longest portion of the flight.

But, what makes the whole thing ridiculous is that if you buy a BA ticket just from Heathrow to Oslo, and happen to be on the same flight as people that have flown from the US to Oslo – you can’t take your XC skis, but the US ones can – on the same aircraft!! This also makes a mockery of the T5 argument mentioned earlier.

BA seriously need to sort this out, and nearly one year ago they stated to me that they were going to change their allowances to be in line with the rest of OneWorld. This appears to have been a complete lie.

Response from BA in January:

I fully understand your disappointment with the current baggage dimensions we permit under our policy, compared to that of our oneworld partners and other airlines.

I recognise that you feel strongly that this policy should be changed to match those baggage dimensions offered by other airlines.  At this time, there are certain areas of inconsistency within oneworld partners’ policies.  Many of our policies are currently being reviewed, in order to try to provide consistency and standardisation.  This is being performed to benefit our customers and the business equally.  

It’s only through your feedback we’re able to focus on areas where we need to improve, so we can offer you the best possible service.  I’ve fully logged your comments and observations about the current permitted item dimensions.  Sometimes it can take time for us to fix any problems we’re having and make changes to our policies, but we’ll always work hard to make sure they get resolved.  Our Chairman and CEO, Alex Cruz, makes sure we improve continuously across all areas of our business, and I know our customers will see a number of positive changes being introduced soon. 

However, as I advised in my previous correspondence, the maximum baggage dimensions we currently permit is up to 190x65x75cm for items our customers carry within their allowance.  This is due to airport and aircraft baggage systems restrictions, which we state on our website.  Until any changes are made to the current equipment in operation, then the policy for these eligible dimensions will remain in place for all our customers. 

I’ll be sending a copy of this blog to Alex Cruz seeing as he seems to want to improve the airline.

Should you still insist on taking your own equipment it can only go as cargo. Their website points you to IAG Cargo to do this. However, it doesn’t travel with you! You have to to package it up – in other words box it all up – deliver it to the nearest IAG Cargo airport days before you travel, and hopefully receive it whilst you are actually on your holiday. Of course, this counts for the return flight too! On requesting a quote for this from IAG for taking our equipment to Canada, our ski bag with fours pairs of skis, four pairs of boots and 4 poles weighing 15 KG in total was nearly £600!

When you consider that we are going to Bavaria in January with Lufthansa who allow a ski bag as an extra bag – either at a small cost or free depending on class of travel – and to Norway in March with Norwegian – for £80 return as an extra bag – you can see just how much BA have lost the plot and what they think of their travelling public.

In the last year I have communicated with BA on numerous occasions. They lied to me nearly each time. They have also sent me around 10 customer survey requests asking them to comment on their airline to help them improve their services. I, of course, mentioned all of this in the surveys, also requesting that they reply to it. On no occasion did they respond, instead just sending me another survey hoping I’d say they are the best at everything.

They are currently celebrating their 100th year and pumping out lots of propaganda about how amazing they are, respraying a number of their aircraft in “retro” markings of the airline. The irony here being that back in the days of these retro schemes they were one of the best airlines in the world. Now they’re just expensive offering a cheap service.

From the tables below you will see that British Airways is by far the worst airline when it comes to Cross-country skiing and Biathlon equipment. Cathay and JAL would be a squeeze but they’d fit, the rest would be easy. You could give BA the benefit of the doubt that they may not have done it intentionally as they didn’t know the differences in equipment but I have made them fully aware of their discrimination over the last year, and yet they’ve done nothing about it.

There is absolutely no doubt that airline baggage allowances – be it for ski, other sport equipment or just normal baggage – is a mess with so many differences between the airlines it makes it near impossible to find any consistency. 300 cm seems to be the most common baggage length though – over a third more than BA.

Come on BA, countries that are basically 100% desert allow more for XCS than you! And if that doesn’t make you think about changing, even Ryanair have a better allowance – that’s how bad an airline you’ve become!

Selection of OneWorld alliance Airlines

British Airways190 cm or approx £600 by cargoPart of baggage allowance
American Airlines320 cmPossible fee depending on class of travel
Finnair220 cm, max 23 kgFee depending on class. Extra bag outside of allowance
IberiaNo length, max 23 kgShort haul £40 Each way
Long haul part of allowance
Cathay Pacific203 cmPart of baggage allowance
JAL203 cmPart of baggage allowance
Malaysian 300 cmPart of baggage allowance or fee depending on class of travel

Selection of other airlines of the world

Lufthansa315 cm, max 32 kgFee or free depending on class of travel. Extra bag outside of allowance
RyanairNo length, max 20 kgFee £25 each way. Extra bag outside of allowance
EasyJetNo length, max 32 kgFee
Norwegian250 cm, max 32 kgFee £35 each way. Extra bag outside of allowance
SASNo specific restrictionsPart of allowance for class
Air France300 cmPart of allowance
KLM300 cm, max 23 kg or 32 kg depending on class of travelPart of allowance
Air CanadaNo restrictionsExtra bag regardless of allowance and class
WestJet300 cmPart of allowance. $50CAD fee
Emirates300 cmPart of allowance or possible fee
Etihad300 cmPart of allowance
UnitedNo length, max 23 kgPart of allowance
Turkish AirlinesNo length, max 23 kgPart of allowance
FlyBe250 cmExtra bag outside of allowance. Certain aircraft types only.
Fee is £30 each way per “kit”. That would mean £120 each way for us as we take four “kits” between us in one bag. Moreover, even though these would be pre-booked, because they would be in one bag and therefore saving space, the airline would put these as stand-by and they may be refused. Because of this, FlyBe are pushing the ridiculous too.