British Airways: No to Surfers

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British Airways' ban on surfboards causes a stir.

British Airways' abrupt decision last week to reverse its generous policy for some sports enthusiasts traveling with their equipment has outraged the world surfing community. As of today, passengers are banned from checking surfboards, kayaks, canoes or wind surfing boards. BA's decision is what surfers might call a roundhouse cutback — a 180 degree shift in direction — from their original policy that still allows passengers to bring most sporting goods free, including golf clubs and bags, skis and snowboards.

World No. 1 surfer, Australian Mick Fanning said, "As a British Airways Platinum One World frequent flyer, it's really hard to take that people who have been so loyal, and spent so much money with BA have been dealt this blow." The British Canoe Union, which supports the 1.5 million U.K. residents who canoe and kayak is similarly alarmed. In a statement, it wrote, "We are concerned about the irony of 2008 being Olympic year. Our athletes will need to transport their equipment to pre-Olympic events, training camps and to the Olympics themselves in Beijing, China. This will significantly limit our athletes' ability to prepare for important events. And it will have further significant implications as we head towards the London 2012 Olympics." Newly crowned European long board champion and English champion Ben Skinner is also raising his voice in protest, saying, "As part of the British team I have always traveled with BA. I think it's a disgrace that they have thrown this ban back at us. BA seems to have totally underestimated the amount of business they stand to lose."

BA spokesman, Richard Goodfellow isn't so sure about that. Despite the uproar, he says, the airline is not considering changing its decision. "If you look at it as a percentage," he says, "the numbers of surfers that are traveling is tiny, miniscule."

Several airlines that serve high-profile surfing destinations such as South Africa and Australia are poised to gain BA's lost customers — and none is ready to follow suit with BA by banning surfboards. BA's reversal is particularly drastic: going from allowing these items for free to banning them entirely, while other airlines like Qantas, SAA, Delta and American charge extra for surfboards and similar equipment and will continue to do so.

A South African Airways spokeswoman says, "There won't be any decision to follow in BA's footsteps. For us, every passenger is essential. We would never take a standpoint to alienate such a large population of our travelers." A Qantas spokesperson told TIME, "We have no plans to change our existing arrangements." Virgin Atlantic, well regarded in the surfing community, and always eager to land a dig at British Airways announced today that it was expanding the types of sporting goods it would allow on board for free. "Virgin Atlantic continues to be the airline for sports enthusiasts, unlike others who are doing everything they can to prevent the gold medalists of the future transporting their equipment," it said in a statement. As long as the equipment complies with size and weight allowances, Virgin Atlantic travelers can check their diving equipment, golf equipment, fishing equipment, hang gliders, skis, surfboards, windsurfing boards, booms and sails, bicycles, paragliders, canoes and kayaks all free of charge. One roundhouse cutback deserves another.