Some Big Items Fly for Free

The airlines cite two major reasons for charging fees on sporting equipment: Bulky items take up valuable cargo space, according to spokeswomen Lise Olson of American Airlines and Nancy Vaughan of USAir, and they require special handling. American charges $75 one way on domestic flights to transport a sailboard, says Olson.

Generally, any item is considered oversized if it weighs more than 70 pounds and the sum of its external dimensions--length, height and width--exceeds 62 inches. Two or three pieces of luggage not exceeding these limits can be checked free on U.S. airlines, depending on the carrier. On some foreign airlines, the luggage allowance is based on weight. Passengers usually are limited to no more than 44 pounds of luggage for each economy-class ticket and 66 pounds for business and first-class travel.

On domestic flights, however, some large items, such as ski equipment, golf clubs, fishing gear, bowling balls, backpacks, bows and arrows and sporting firearms, usually fly free. They are considered a substitute for one piece of the free baggage that passengers are allowed to check with each ticket. For security reasons, hunting rifles and other firearms and archery gear are never permitted in a plane cabin and must always be checked.

On international flights, the rules are different. Pan Am flies skis and bicycles free, but there is a charge for golf clubs.

If you were headed for Chile from Washington, the cost for a bag of clubs is $40 one way.

The fees for checking oversized items vary by airline, as do the requirements for special packing. Some sporting gear may not fit on little commuter aircraft. If you know you will be flying with a large or unusual object, you should phone the airline in advance to obtain specific details.

Reservations clerks have the information stored in their computers. It is wise to get the name of the person who provides the information, noting the date and time you called.

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