Tuesday 06 November 2007 saw the first day of the new British Airways (BA) ban on surfboards along with other sporting equipment including hang gliders, windsurfing boards and sails, kayaks or canoes, pole vaults or javelins. 

To coincide with the ban, BA proudly announced that it is loosening any restrictions on their carriage of skis, snowboards, cycles, diving equipment and even guns, amongst other items. 

To ensure that the airline understands the feelings of shock, disappointment, frustration and marginalisation evident within the ever-growing worldwide surf industry, the British Surfing Association created an online global petition, pushing for a reversal of the ban.  In less than a week and a half, over 8,000 people from all corners of the globe, including the current World Number One, Australian surfer Mick Fanning, have signed the petition (http://www.gopetition.com/online/14891.html) and added comments. The BSA has also been joined in the campaign by the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) and British Canoe Union (BCU).

On the day of the ban, the Acting Chairman and National Director of the British Surfing Association, Karen Walton, personally delivered a hefty document that represented a copy of the global petition to BA’s headquarters near Heathrow Airport.  Although collectively the BSA, RYA and BCU organisations represent tens of thousands of members and the petitions and support groups have gathered major global support in an extremely short time period, the BSA’s request for a governing body group meeting with BA’s CEO Willie Walsh to discuss the ban has not yet been met.   

Neither Mr Walsh, personnel responsible for baggage decisions, nor any other relevant senior members of staff were able to make themselves available to accept the petition and discuss the views of their current clientele, the restrictions that the ban will cause for tens of thousands of traveling surfers, and the effects on small developing surf communities and tourism spots.

Following the delivery of the petition, the contingent made their way to interviews with national and international broadcast media before meeting with more journalists at the Palace of Westminster.  Following the Queen’s Speech, the team joined up with keen surfer David Davies, MP for Monmouth, to discuss the extensive implications of the ban and agree next steps for the global campaign.  Mr Davies has surfed around the world in years gone by and feels extremely strongly that BA has underestimated the size of the global surf and water-sports industries.  He wholeheartedly agrees with the BSA’s viewpoint that, as an island, our national airline should be enthusiastic about encouraging and supporting these valuable and ever growing lifestyle sports.

As a result, the MP has laid down an Early Day Motion (EDM) stating: ‘This House supports the role which surfing, windsurfing and canoeing plays in encouraging active, healthy lifestyles and in creating jobs in seaside areas and beyond; recognises that those who participate in the sport often need to travel abroad in order to improve their standard of surfing; further recognises the huge economic boost that these sports have given to developing countries across the world; notes with concern that British Airways’ decision to ban surfboards, windsurfers and canoes from its flights will vastly increase the costs and difficulties of  travelling to such locations outside of the UK as well as acting as a barrier to tourists wishing to travel to the UK to surf, windsurf and canoe; notes that the sporting equipment used are usually no heavier or cumbersome than musical instruments or golf club sets; and calls on British Airways to urgently reconsider its decision to ban surfboards, windsurfers and canoes from all flights.’  The BSA in conjunction with the Royal Yachting Association and British Canoe Union will now be mounting a campaign urging all members to lobby their local MPs to sign the EDM and a cross-party support group will be formed in the coming weeks.

A whole host of other airlines have come out in support of the surf community, pledging that they will never follow suit and ban surfboards on their flights. BA’s biggest British long-haul rival Virgin Atlantic, has come to the aid of sports travellers by announcing that they can take one piece of sporting equipment in addition to their checked baggage allowance.  This means, that as long as the equipment complies with size and weight allowances, Virgin Atlantic travellers can check in to the hold of the aircraft their diving equipment, golf equipment, fishing equipment, hang gliders, snow skis, surfboards, windsurfing boards, booms and sails, bicycles, paragliders, canoes and kayaks – all free of charge. Sporting wheelchairs are also considered sports equipment.

Paul Dickinson, Sales and Marketing Director, Virgin Atlantic, said, “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. Our new sports equipment policy enables all sports travellers, whether Olympic teams or not, to enjoy their journey throughout.” 

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 travellers.” Quantas, who is part of the One World Alliance with British Airways, has also confirmed that they will continue to carry boards for any passengers. 

With the opening of BA’s new route to Newquay earlier this year, one of the other key airlines servicing Newquay Airport, Air Southwest, has stated that they are ‘quite happy to carry boards for a modest fixed fee because we know that South West England has some of the best surfing beaches in the UK.’  Mike Coombes, Deputy Chief Executive of Air Southwest, said, “Cornwall is a mecca for surfers and with four flights a day, seven days a week between Gatwick and Newquay, and regular scheduled flights to Newquay from Manchester, Leeds Bradford, Dublin and Bristol, we are the surfers’ airline. Air Southwest would like to extend a warm invitation to the hundreds of concerned surfers who have contacted the BSA and we look forward to seeing them in Cornwall.” Other airlines such as bmi have stated that they will be delighted to carry surfboards and water equipment on their flights to Jersey and on onwards travel within their membership of the Star Alliance. 

Despite this,  BA’s spokespeople continue to push the line that they believe that the surf, canoe and windsurfing population is such a small percentage of their overall passenger numbers that it is not worth their while creating the required systems to be able to continue carrying their luggage. This viewpoint comes despite their years of experience in carrying such items and their previous reputation as one of the most surfer and water-sport friendly airlines.  Until now the British Surfing Team and most of the world’s top surfers, windsurfers and canoeists have regularly chosen BA rather than any of their rivals when they travel the world for international contests and events.  

BA has however been busy advertising the free carriage of skis and golf clubs to their Executive Club members and on billboards outside the recent Ski and Snowboard Show in London.  When pushed for clarification on why they can still carry these heavy and cumbersome items, they have said, “The redefined list of sports equipment takes into account a number of factors such as limitations of airport baggage systems and size and weight restrictions in the aircraft hold.  Some items are simply not suitable for airport baggage systems to handle or travel in the aircraft hold due to size and weight restrictions, as well as customer demand. We carry significantly more items such as golf bags and skis, which means we are able to put more robust processes in place to handle them.”  And in an interview with Time.com, the BA spokesman Richard Goodfellow said, "If you look at it as a percentage, the numbers of surfers that are traveling is tiny, miniscule."

In a letter to BSA National Director Karen Walton, BA’s CEO Willie Walsh says, “We have to make decisions based on our ability to be able to support these extra processes with demand from customers.  Our experience is that there is very little demand from individual passengers to carry such items.  The resources and investment required to support these extra processes are extremely difficult for us to sustain.’

Mr Walsh continues to say that, “Our priority is to find a robust, cost effective way of providing our customers with an alternative and we are talking to a number of companies about forging a partnership that would allow customers to book through British Airways.” 

However the National Director of the BSA, Karen Walton has stated that the organisation does not believe that an arrangement like this can be cost effective and that such a system will mean that water-sports enthusiasts will still be discriminated against by the airline.  Mrs Walton says, “BA still seems determined to believe that there are very few surfers, windsurfers and canoeists who use their global flight routes.  In less than two weeks, we have garnered the backing of tens of thousands of water-sports people around the world, the involvement of Parliament and major exposure from local, national and international media as well as strong working relationships with other highly influential surfing and water-sports governing bodies.  Despite this, I am shocked that BA’s spokespeople can still state that they believe that the amount of people affected is ‘tiny, miniscule’!   

She continues, “I think that until now, BA has had little or no understanding of the pioneering nature of tens of thousands of regular surf and water-sports travellers who circle the globe to follow their passions and that these new decisions have been made without significant, in-depth market research or thought.  Willie Walsh may be saying that they are going to create new partnerships with freight carriers but without a doubt these commercial organisations will only agree to carry boards or other water-sports equipment across the world with the charging of a fee.  This means that whilst BA is promoting free carriage of large, bulky, and often heavier items such as golf clubs, skis, snowboards and musical instruments, the other water-sports communities will be out on a limb and having to pay more money if they chose to fly with the UK’s national airline.” 

Mrs Walton continues, “Once again, we would urge BA to take a close look at just how many people have signed our petition and left considerable comments and also read the thoughts of the thousands who have joined the Facebook group.  Many have stated that they are members of BA’s frequent flyer club and that they regularly use the airline to get to surf contests or on business or other leisure trips.  The airline stands to lose financially as well encountering serious negative effects for their reputation if they do not reverse their decision.  Britain is an island and BA is the most extensive carrier to our own islands as well as to hundreds of global surf destinations.  Surf and water-sports tourism is a massively growing global industry and now that we have MPs on board as well as BA’s biggest airline rivals, we will be continuing to lobby for them to reconsider this ludicrous ban.”

Source: www.globalsurfnews.com