Join Date: Jun 2005
Location: Washington, DC
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Oversize suitcase -- titled travelling with a tandem
I thought that this was an interesting summary of travelling with an oversize suitcase. It appears that the Santana suitcase for their S&S coupler tandems is slightly oversized at 64". This happens to be the same size as the bike friday and recommended suitcase for the Xootr swiftfolder; although I recall that the dimensions are different. Regardless, it contains some relevant information about getting through the US airline unscathed.
From Mt. Airy/College Park bicycles tandem page ...
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Traveling with a tandem
Hello Team -----
Thank you again for your order.
Larry's been on me to write you a note.
It seems that he's engineered one of his famous European kickstands
onto your new Beyond, and claims I'd be proud of the fact that it
hasn't marred your new frame one iota.
After installing a Flite deck and inspected our assembly, he stuffed
the Beyond---and the kickstand---back into its SafeCase.
He mentioned you had some concern about this case.
Let me start by saying that there is a LOT of misinformation about
flying with tandems: coupled or otherwise.
As opposed to other any other bicycle dealer / end user / or tandem
enthusiast you might talk to, Larry knows a LOT more about flying
with tandems. Larry has not only sold well over a hundred S&S bikes
with packing systems, as the lead mechanic at over a dozen of
Santana's tours and rallies, he is the person that Jan and I have
turned to when a bike arrives damaged from mishandling, poor packing
or (in too many instances) being shipped in a standard S&S case.
Larry has probably collected 10 times as much real information about
flying with tandems as anyone who's tried to scare you about how
tough it is.
There is, however, someone who has at least 10 times more experience
I first flew with a tandem in June, 1967. Between vacations, bike
shows, personal deliveries, tours and rallies, I have now PERSONALLY
checked about 500 tandems onto scheduled flights. I have never missed
a flight, left a tandem behind, or needed to resort to airfreight.
Since 1976 Santana has sold more enthusiast-quality tandems than any
other company. During the first 15+ years most of our new tandems
left our factory via motor freight (trucks). For the past 12+ years
nearly all of our new bikes were shipped via Danzas Airfreight; which
retrieves them with trucks and then loads them onto scheduled
commercial flights. When a new tandem arrives damaged, our company
certainly hears about it. Because, since 1976, Santana has maintained
the world's largest inventory of tandem-specific parts (including
built-up wheels, 40/48 spoke rims, tandem forks, reverse threaded
crankarms, etc, etc.) when their bike is damaged enroute to a tour,
our phone number is the one that panicked tandem owners are most
likely to call first (even if they own a different brand of tandem).
Since 1986 Jan and I have hosted over 75 rallies and tours. As part
of that process we have coached thousands of timid couples how to
pack their tandems and get their airlines to accept them as checked
luggage. If, after following our instructions, the airline turned
them away, who do you think would get an ear-full? If they got
hassled at the check-in counter, who do you think would get an ear-
full? If they think they've been overcharged), who do you think would
get an ear-full? And if their tandem gets damaged by TSA or the
carrier while enroute to a Santana event, I am the one who gets to
oversee the repair (and hope that Larry is there to help).
Since 1997 Santana has produced tandems with S&S couplers. According
to S&S, Santana is their largest customer. We may build as many
tandems with S&S couplers as all others combined. For the first two-
years of S&S tandems, Santana recommended and sold S&S cases. We
quickly learned that two cases were necessary, and that the packing
process was both difficult and error-prone. Attempts to ship new
tandems in S&S cases via UPS were disastrous—the success rate was
less than 50%. Starting in 1998 Santana worked with case-makers,
airlines and customers to come up with a SAFER system. By 2000 we had
a totally safe airline-checkable case (aka SafeCase). By 2002 we had
a proven "Foam Tray System" FTS that went two steps further. Over
1000 SafeCases, and nearly 800 FTS systems have now been shipped to
customers. As opposed to the S&S cases used by others, a SafeCase
with FTS allows Santana to be the only tandem manufacturer that
customarily ships our new tandems via UPS (we do it 2-3 times per week).
While competing builders (and their dealers and fans) would love for
you to believe that Santana's system is flawed, please note that
these same builders, dealers and customers won't trust UPS with their
The current scare-tactic is to tell you that the SafeCase is "too
large." Here is a copy of a letter I wrote to a "concerned" customer
Dear xxxxx and yyyyy.
Thanks for the encouraging note on our new website.
You asked if our SafeCase was "larger than the 62-inch regulation"?
Please excuse the long answer.
Airline counter agents are trained to count and weigh suitcases.
These same employees aren't trained to interpret the 62" rule, and
have not been asked to enforce it. Most counter agents probably don't
even know it exists, and would need to study this obscure regulation
to learn how to apply it. If agents were aware of the rule, and
decided to enforce it, where would they find a tape measure? And even
if they were given tape measures, most would find it annoying to get
down off their chairs and grapple with your luggage before scribbling
down the numbers and making the calculation; which is not nearly as
easy as counting suitcases and checking a digital scale's readout.
Executive Summary: the difficult-to-understand 62-inch rule is
relatively unknown, and almost never enforced. In a word:
What's the point of the 62-inch rule? Airlines are obliged to give
their passengers fair warning that larger items, because they might
jam automated luggage systems, will need to be separated for special
handling, and are thusly subject to extra fees. Will a 64-inch
suitcase jam a conveyer? Never. Every day tens of thousands of
standard suitcases exceeding 62-inches are handled by the airlines
without a glitch. The problem is irregularly-sized items and duffels.
If larger than 62 inches, an irregularly sized case or duffel might
clog systems (which triggers calls for emergency maintenance and
Airline counter agents are taught to avoid putting anything on the
conveyer belt that might jam the system. (If the system gets jammed,
it screws up on-time departures, which is the primary way an
airline's employees at a particular airport are graded.) How do
agents know what will and won't jam the system? The length of scale's
platform plus a mark on the opposite counter alerts agents about
pieces of luggage that are large enough to foul things up. As long as
you remove the wheels before the SafeCase gets lifted onto the scale,
it fits within the visual markers that airline agents are taught to
"Oversize" to an agent is an item that may jam the conveyer and make
the plane late. Things that are "oversize" by this standard need to
be hand carried by a skycap, who needs to be called to the counter.
It is this special handling (and the risk of delaying flights) that
both triggers and justifies the "oversize" fee.
Hence our claim:
"Because each individual exterior dimension (27" x 33" x 14") falls
within universal airline standards, the suitcase-shaped SafeCase
glides through airport luggage systems without a fuss..."
Which is true. In nine years of personal use, I've now checked a
SafeCase onto over 100 flights (7-8 round trips per year for tours,
bike shows and dealer demos). So far, only two agents bothered to
find a tape and measure the case. After coming up with the sum, one
said "close enough," the other agent—a specialist manning United's
"oversize" counter in Denver where the skycap delivered my case—
charged me $80. (Now that I know this that "oversize" counter exists,
the next time I'm at Denver checking my bike onto a United flight,
I'll simply bypass the skycap to avoid paying the fee.)
[Note to Rick: Earlier this month, while returning form our Colorado
Rockies Tandem Tour, I again checked my SafeCase onto a United Flight
originating in Denver: even though my SafeCase was "non regulation"
and weighed over 65 pounds, it traveled no charge.]
Three tips to avoid the oversize fee:
1. Make sure the wheels are off. With wheels on, the SafeCase is tall
enough to obscure the height marker that agents are trained check.
2. Understand that if an agent asks "Is it oversize?," they are
really asking you if your case will clog their system. The honest
answer is "No."
3. If, in spite of the marks on their scales, the agent hesitates and/
or seems perplexed, you'll help the situation by reassuring them with
"It always goes right through." Which is absolutely true.
Unless you wear your helmets during check in, most agents would never
guess a SafeCase holds a bicycle. If they ask what's in the case
(usually because they're curious), my honest answer is "bicycle
parts." While nobody has yet asked me the obvious follow-up question
("Is there a whole bike in there?"), my prepared response is
"Wouldn't that be nice!" Actually, because I routinely pack my pedals
in a separate case, I could answer "No" without hesitation.
Jan and I personally host Santana's 5-6 tours each year, and can
report that our clients flying with the SafeCase don't have their
cases measured either. When they report paying an oversize fee, it is
almost always because they left the wheels on.
Santana's SafeCase was developed back in 1998, five years before some
airlines instituted a $25-50 fee on domestic flights for checked
items over 50 pounds. (This was started after insurance carriers
asked airlines to cut disability claims by putting a special tag on
these heavier suitcases.) Since 1993, this minor fee has become more
universal. Although counter agents collect this fee less than half
the time, because they are getting better at it you should be
prepared to pay $50 to check the SafeCase (and all other suitcases
over 50 pounds).
In light of the old 62-inch rule and the newer over-50-pound
surcharge, many have asked if a 2-case system would be better. With
existing 2-case systems, the answer is no.
First, since many couples may need more than two 50-pound suitcases
for everything else, adding another bike case may trigger higher
"excess item" fees; which are always higher than "over 50 pound"
fees. While many agents ignore the domestic "overweight" fee, they
never miss the excess bag fee, which will set you back up to $260 on
an international flight.
Second, since this whole 1 vs 2 case argument revolves around your
uncertain "odds" of incurring higher fees, please realize that when
you put a bike in two cases the "odds" of an airline losing your bike
is doubled. While fees for a heavier case can be irritating, losing
half a tandem can ruin your entire vacation.
Third, putting a bike in two cases also doubles the risk of having
your bike destroyed through gross mishandling (i.e. if a truck runs
over the case).
Fourth: a more-likely circumstance is damage from normal mishandling.
When you talk to couples who've used a two-case system for more than
two round trips, about half will report having their bike damaged in
the process. As near as Jan and I can tell from guiding tours where
this damage is too-often discovered, the risk of damaging your
tandem in existing two-case systems exceeds 20% per tour. When our
SafeCase is combined with our FTS system, the risk of shipping damage
becomes zilch (no reports yet!).
Fifth: The SafeCase also fits through all of TSA's automated
scanners. If TSA opens a Safecase, they can quickly see that it
includes bike parts. They'll usually lift up a couple of layers—to
reassure themselves that nothing is hidden—before closing the case.
Consequently, we have not received any reports of damage related to
TSA's inspection of a SafeCase. With other systems TSA inspectors
will encounter a large number of mysterious tightly-wrapped packages.
They will need to take valuable time to remove and unwrap a number of
them before they can determine that you are neither a terrorist nor
an undercover auditor. Because TSA won't re-wrap and re-pack your
bike as carefully as you did, occasional resulting damage must be
Sixth: Although your question regarded airline rules, our SafeCase/
FTS system is the only S&S solution that invites UPS shipment—which
is why Santana is the only builder that will ships out new S&S
tandems via UPS.
Seventh: Our Safecase/FTS is not only more damage resistant, because
you don't have to take the time to unwrap and wrap each piece, you'll
build and/or stow your tandem 30% faster.
Eighth: At the beginning or end of a tour, you may be suffering from
fatigue or jetlag. The area might be too hot or too cold. You may be
in a hurry and the light may be poor. The FTS system with its
numbered trays and die cut recesses is not only faster, it's also
simpler. Simple enough to eliminate most of the potential errors.
Summary: even if you might, over the next few years, pay a few more
dollars in airline fees, with our SafeCase the risk of the airlines
either losing or destroying your bike is halved, and the risk of less-
catastrophic damage is eliminated. The SafeCase also takes up less
room than a pair of smaller cases, is cheaper and safer to ship by
UPS, and allows faster and easier assembly/disassembly. For nearly
all customers the SafeCase FTS is clearly a better answer.
Nearly all? In spite of the above cost/benefit analysis, Santana
understands that about 20% of our S&S customers have an over-riding
obsession to avoid airline fees. Minimizing all other considerations,
these customers will choose a pair of "regulation" S&S cases in order
to "win" their self-proclaimed war against airlines. A much smaller
number of our customers (maybe 5%) are too frail to handle a 70 pound
package. To meet the disparate needs of both groups, in the summer of
2006 Santana designed a safe-and-secure two-case FTS system, and
displayed a mock-up at last year's Interbike. With two custom cases
plus many more compressible inserts, however, our price for the
"TwinCase FTS" was projected at $1250 (instead of $799 for SafeCase
Santana was on the verge of incurring TwinCase tooling costs when
British Airways announced a new limit of only one free checked item
per Economy-class passenger. Because BA's new $260 charge for the
second item follows a trend started by many of Europe's younger and
faster-growing airlines (including RyanAir and EasyAir, who charge
for every piece of checked luggage), some experts now predict that a
hefty charge for a second checked item might soon become an industry-
wide standard. These same experts note that since the all-important
business fliers rarely check a second suitcase, charging economy
class passengers for a second checked item will be a smart way for
the major airlines to raise revenue without angering their best clients.
Because a hefty fee for a second case would cause "fee haters" to
change their mind about Santana's original Safecase, our TwinCase FTS
has been shelved while we wait to see if other major airlines join
BA's recent move.
As the largest builder of S&S equipped tandems Santana is happy to
offer a choice. You can choose our SafeCase (with or without FTS),
S&S's line of cases, or no case at all.
Veteran Tandem Flyer