Flying with your bike: tips from a baggage handler

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Flying with your bike can be a nerve-wracking experience, particularly if the bike is new and/or you’ve spent a lot of money on it. Will the bike make it to your destination in one piece? And what’s the best option for keeping your bike safe – soft case, hardshell or cardboard box? CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef spoke to an aircraft loading supervisor with more than 10 years experience to find out how best to pack your bike when flying and, just as importantly, how to reduce the risks of your bike getting damaged.

Paul* has worked at the Adelaide Airport for more than a decade now, supervising the loading and unloading of passenger luggage and freight for many different types of aircraft. The one thing he gets asked more than anything else is: do baggage handlers take as much care with passengers’ luggage as they should?

“I know there’s one or two YouTube clips out there of guys throwing bags from bridges at an airport but it’s not an everyday thing I can tell you that, because someone’s going to wind up in an office with disciplinary action”, Paul told CyclingTips. “We basically work in a fishbowl — the public sees our every move and we’re aware of it. With the people I work with, there is general care taken with items.”

Of course passenger luggage does sometimes get damaged in transit (less than 0.05% of the time, at least according to this sample data from the US Deparment of Transport (pdf), but when it does, Paul believes it’s likely to have happened before baggage handlers have even touched the bag.

“A lot of it has to do with conveyor belt systems. We don’t really manually handle the bags until they come downstairs”, Paul told CyclingTips. “A lot of it’s automated where they have different ramps and a lot of this equipment is quite strong, to pull the weight of all the people’s luggage. They also have arms that knock the bags down certain chutes so sometimes the damage is actually done through this conveyor system.”

When you drop your bike bag off at the oversized luggage counter it gets set aside with other large items such as prams, car seats, guitars and fishing rods and, generally speaking, loaded on to the aircraft last. Why?

“It’s actually easier for us to load those items last, after all the other items of luggage like suitcases, so they’re easier to get off the aircraft and don’t get damaged.”

Choosing a case

If you’re about to fly with your bike for the first time, a big question you’re probably asking yourself is “what should of bike box/bag should I get?” Your three main options are a hardshell case, a softshell case or a simple cardboard bike box.

Back in 2008, in one of the earliest articles on CyclingTips, we wrote about a memorable incident while flying with his bike packed in a cardboard box:

I was once on a flight where it was raining heavily upon arrival and the box got drenched while sitting outside on the tarmac. My gear was delivered on the luggage carousel piece by piece since the box had been reduced to mush while sitting out in the rain.

That’s certainly one disadvantage of opting for a cardboard box but the upside is that it’s the cheapest option by far — often free from a bike shop — and with appropriate padding the bike can be well protected. A softshell case is considerably more expensive (several hundred dollars for a decent one) but does a better job of protecting the bike. And a hardshell case will do an even better job of protecting your bike, but at the cost of weight and cost (more than $1,000 in some cases).

As well as being a baggage handler, Paul is himself a keen cyclist that has raced for many years and travelled extensively with his bike. So what sort of box or case does he recommend?

“I’m a big fan of the padded bag. I’ve actually got an EVOC bag, which I think is brilliant. There’s a couple other guys at work that have them and they prefer using them as well.”

While the padding in a softshell case generally does a good job of protecting the bike inside, Paul recommends taking extra precautions.

“I quite often put bubble wrap around the frame as well. I might put a towel towards the rear derailleur just in case, not a beach towel or anything like that, just a little bit of extra protection. I haven’t had any problems at all.”

And there’s another reason Paul recommends travelling cyclists use padded bags; one related to how luggage is loaded on to some aircraft.

“The 737 is a non-containerised aircraft so they use what’s called a belt-loader. It’s a machine that they position at the rear and front of the aircraft and the bags are placed on the conveyer belt on this belt loader, and loaded manually in the hold of the aircraft.

“If people are using padded bags they generally have a bit of traction on the belt loader. It just makes for a smooth delivery of the bike bag into the hold of the aircraft.”

Hardshell cases, by contrast, can sometimes prove to be a hassle.

“In all honesty, when [hardshell cases] are on the belt loader, because they’re plastic, they actually slide quite a bit. It’s a rare occasion but … they can actually slide off the rubber belt, especially when it’s wet.”

Thankfully there are processes in place to stop that happening more often.

“The in-hold operator has stop-control buttons and he can stop it and the guy on the ground can help him position it back on the belt just in case it’s going to fall off.”

But it still happens.

“The perception is that [hardshell cases] are more rigid and tough, but the likelihood of them falling of the belt-loader on their way into the aircraft is actually a lot higher than padded bags.”

Another way to reduce the risk of your bike getting damaged is to keep the weight of the bag or box down.

“We’ve seen bike boxes — whether it be a hard case, padded or even the airline-provided cardboard box — and guys will put nearly all their cycling gear into the bag and the bag or box is up to around 30kg. And I guess you’re not breaking any weight restrictions in that regard but from our perspective these bags are not only awkward in size to maneuver inside the aircraft, but when they get heavy, generally speaking the guys are less tolerant, to some extent, maneuvering these bags inside the aircraft.”

Getting caught out

Regardless of the sort of bag or box you decide to put your bike in, there are some seemingly obvious things you should take into consideration. Liking making sure the bike isn’t hanging out of the box.

“Quite often you get triathletes travelling with their tri bike with the time trial bars still on there, actually poking out of the bag. They might put a bit of bubble wrap around the time trial bars in an effort to protect them. I’m not saying they will get damaged but there’s a likelihood they will get damaged in the hold [of the aircraft].”

This is largely due to the protruding bars getting caught on parts of the machinery during loading.

“On the 737 aircraft there’s what we call a ‘magic carpet’ and this rolls forward and rolls back as the loader loads it. So if you can imagine that the bikes are going on last, the conveyer belt has to retract and quite often if you’re putting quite a few items in the back of an aircraft the tri bars will get caught or rub.”

A similar situation arises when people don’t remove pedals before packing their bike, particularly when using a cardboard bike box.

“The first thing the pedals do is pierce the box. If you have pedals hanging out — or sometimes bike skewers — they [can] actually get caught on the belt-loading system or caught in the webbing in the door of the aircraft. On the rare occasion, bikes have actually fallen from the belt-loader on the way into the aircraft because a bike skewer or a pedal got caught.”

We asked Paul what the worst bike-related accident he’d seen was in his time as a baggage handler. He spoke of a brand of padded bike bag with four wheels on the base.

“There must have been about 20 team bikes, probably around the Tour Down Under, and a couple fell off because they’d been placed on the wheels and these wheels don’t have any locking positions on them. So the guys thought they were positioned fairly tightly on the barrow and they started to move and then the bikes fell off the barrow. But that’s the probably the worst I’ve seen, other than bikes falling off belt loaders.”

But as someone who’s been responsible for the safe loading of luggage for more than a decade, Paul reiterates that unfortunate accidents with bikes are thankfully rare.

“I guess the perception is that there’s horror stories about broken frames and broken wheels and that sort of thing but in my experience I haven’t seen any of that. Hopefully the travelling public aren’t afraid to take their bikes on trips!”

Some tips for packing your bike safely

– If possible, opt for a padded bag, as opposed to a hardshell case or cardboard bike box

– Remove your pedals, tri-bars or anything else that will leave part of the bike hanging out of the case.

– Regardless of the type of bag or case you opt for, make sure you put some padding around the most vulnerable parts of the bike, including the rear derailleur.

– Keep the weight of your bike bag down, and not just so you’re inside your weight limit. Heavier bags and boxes are more difficult to manoeuvre and have an increased risk of being dropped or manhandled in the tight quarters of an aircraft’s hold.

– If you are going to fill up the bag or box, make sure rigid items like bike pumps aren’t free to move around the bag, potentially scratching the frame or damaging the components.

– If you’re using a cardboard bike box, be sure to tape up the handles as well as the top of the box. It’s common for the handles on cardboard bike boxes to tear when you go to lift up the bike, particularly if the box is quite heavy.

*Name has been changed so that the person being interviewed can speak freely about past incidents.

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