Bikes by Air

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Loading bikes at Málaga Airport
Much as we might prefer to use other, less polluting transport, for the time being the only practicable means of access to most other countries, with a bike, is flying.

Although airlines have latterly brought in extra rules and charges for the transport of bicycles, these are generally less problematic than the complex restrictions confronting the international bike-rail traveller. If you'd like to know what CTC is doing to ease these journeys, visit our campaigning pages.

Bags and boxes

Although some people still get away with simply rolling their bike up to the desk, removing the pedals, turning the handlebars and letting some air out the tyres, most airlines insist that the bike is enclosed in a bag or box. The main reason for this (and the pedals and bars thing) is to avoid damaging or dirtying other passengers' luggage or the baggage handling staff, and to ensure smooth passage through the baggage conveyor system. These rules are also about protecting your bike, but they don't.

When bikes fly naked, they paradoxically seem to suffer no more damage than when they go covered – usually less. We guess that’s because baggage handlers really are human, and don’t deliberately kick in the wheels etc! But a bike in a bag or box is just a package: that can be dropped, thrown, shoved and kicked into place just like any other bag or box. To prevent damage in that case you need a really hard case, that will only be big enough for a racing or mountain-bike and yet be heavy enough to make quite a dent in your luggage allowance.

Proprietary bike bags are also quite heavy, too bulky to carry on the bike (if you need to ride to or from the airport) and a bit too small for a touring bike, resulting in hours of work to dismantle luggage carriers, mudguards and lighting systems.

Polythene bags

But bikes cannot usually fly naked nowadays. British Airways was one of the first to insist on full enclosure and used to give a big polythene bag to any cyclist who turned up without one at Heathrow. These bags were large enough to wheel the bike straight into, and being transparent, the packed bike was no more (or less) likely to arrive with its wheels kicked in than when it travelled bare. These BA bags had two other advantages: they were big enough to contain a touring bike, were not too heavy and packed up small enough to carry on that bike. This is important for touring, when it can be difficult to find anywhere near the airport to leave a large bag, and is essential for place to place tours.

The CTC Bike Bag

About the same time as other airlines began to insist on bikes in bags, BA stopped dishing them out as freely. To safeguard the future of cycle-touring, CTC arranged the manufacture of a similar specification bag using the thickest gauge of polythene available for that purpose. These bags are generally available from the CTC Shop, described as CTC Plastic Bike Bag.

Regrettably, in spite of the fact that bikes travel just as well (or badly) like this, some airlines have written their bike carriage rules in terms that cause doubt as to whether such a bag will do and check-in staff occasionally look askance at bikes that are, as they put it: "just in a plastic bag". So cyclists using these bags occasionally have problems at check-in and often have to sign a damage waiver before their bike is accepted. For this reason we strongly advise printing out this page, which clearly describes the CTC bag as a real bike bag. That will usually ensure the grudging acceptance of your bike at least. Try to elicit the sympathy of stroppy check-in clerks by agreeing that it isn't much of a bag, but unfortunately it's the best you can do!

We know it would help to have bike pictograms and "CTC bike bag" printed onto them, but have not yet located any supplier who will print on a bag this heavy - only thin plastic and we will not compromise on thickness. 

Packing tips

Although some bags (including the CTC bag) are big enough to wheel a bike straight into, such a large package is not as acceptable as it used to be, due to the increased use of conveyor systems etc. Reducing the height of the bike to under 1 metre will generally avoid any problems, delays or fees for manual handling. Laid on its side (preferably left side down), the 1m wide packed bike will generally fit the “out of gauge” conveyor. If you can get it down to 80cm, that’s even better.

Most bikes can be reduced to 1m by removing the front wheel and putting the saddle down. The seatpost may need to be removed from very large frames, or to achieve the even more acceptable 80cm. Below is a picture of a touring bike prepared in this way, pedals out, bars turned and front wheel toe-strapped on the same side as the other delicate stuff, ready to go in the plastic bag.

Other things to note on this picture:

  • 10cm piece of metal tube used with the front wheel quick-release as a dummy front axle, to stop the forks being squashed together.
  • Handlebars not only turned but also twisted downwards in stem so that the levers are sheltered – essential if you have dual controls (easy to break, hard to replace).
  • This exposes bar-end controls though, here protected by pieces of PVC waste pipe jammed on the ends of the bars.
  • Rear mech unscrewed from its frame-end “hanger”, tethered by a zip tie to the chainstay, so they can’t bend it or the hanger.
  • Bike computer mount removed from exposed top of bar, tethered to a brake cable below, and bell rotated under the bar
  • Bottles in their cages strapped to the frame with PVC tape, to protect cages and save space in luggage. Pump may be attached likewise, but risk of theft if visible in poly bag or denting if metal
  • Front mudguard stays with safety-release fittings (plastic, easily broken) detached from dropouts and tethered with PVC tape instead
  • Exposed rear lamp should be removed from mudguard, which should be adjusted down against tyre at this point to avoid damage when it is forced down later!
  • Saddle cover fitted.

If you're bothered about scratching the frame etc., the best way to protect against that is lengths of foam pipe lagging - available from any DIY shop. Bubble wrap is good for components. And if your bike has disc brakes it is advisable to remove the discs and pack them elsewhere, for example in the back of a pannier - but NOT the one you plan to carry into the cabin!

When the check-in staff go to place flight labels on the packed bike, either pierce the plastic so they can loop it around the top-tube (crossbar) or handlebar (closer to the stem than the brake lever, so that stops it sliding off) or a wheel (if the gap between spokes is wide enough), OR - which they are likely to prefer nowadays - stick the whole long label on the RIGHT side of the packed bike. That's the side with all the sticking-out things: the gears, the removed front wheel, the turned handlebars.

If you've used a proprietary fabric bike bag, where you can't see the bike, try to remember - or tell by feel, which side of the frame all those slicking-out things are and try to get the label attached to a bag handle (etc.) on that side. 

Then, when you take the packed bike to the out-of-gauge luggage conveyor, you can easily ensure that it's laid onto the belt left (smoother) side downwards, which the staff will probably want to do anyway because that way the label on the right side can be scanned more easily.

Deflating tyres

This is not really necessary with bicycle tyres, since the maximum possible reduction in external pressure (about 10psi) has the same effect as that much extra inside the tyre at ground level. Bicycle tyres are designed to stand way more than that. And even if one should blow off, it won’t contain enough air to damage anything apart from its own inner-tube.

In fact: leaving the tyres inflated helps to protect both tyre and rim from damage when the bike is handled. Some airlines (e.g. BA) have realised this and exempted pedal cycle tyres from the usual restriction on the carriage of pressurised gases. Check-in staff prefer nice simple rules however, with together with a dose of corporate amnesia means that you’ll often be asked “have you deflated the tyres” even when flying BA.

Always say “I have deflated the tyres”. No need to say when or how much. One advantage of the packing rule is they cannot easily check – but if you argue they will. You’ll have deflated the tyres last time you had a puncture, won’t you, but it doesn’t do any harm to let a little air out when you’re packing the bike. 10psi is plenty.

The reason they have a rule about this is the amount of energy stored in a big tractor tyre, if it blew, could send the wheel through the side of the plane! And tractor tyres work at such low pressure, an extra 10psi might really make it happen.

CTC views on cycling and air travel

For information on CTC views see our Cycling and air travel policy document

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