It took me some time to get to the bottom of the question of flying with a Brompton. There is no shortage of information on the web but I came up against two main problems – a lot of people were flying with their bikes but not actually getting them out until they were safely at their destination and unpacked (I intended to leave home and arrive at my hotel on my bike), and nobody seemed very interested in baggage allowance – some of the solutions seemed to call for the full allowance to be taken up by the bike and its packaging.
There was also a difference of opinion between people who advocated transporting their bike heavily protected and others who took it to the check-in unwrapped, on the grounds that, if people could see what it was, they would handle it with more care.
Eventually I found Mr Pumpy’s Biking Southeast Asia website which contains the most practical and helpful advice that I have found on the subject. Mr Pumpy (aka Mr Felix) gives a very clear and practical guide to bikes on planes – the main points being:
Don’t fly American – American airlines are hostile to bikes, although to be fair they are equally hostile to people so they are not discriminating.
Fly Asian – Asian airlines are the most helpful, understand bikes and give much better service all round. I flew with Malaysia and, although you wouldn’t usually use them from Europe to Japan (I had some business in Kuala Lumpur on the way) I certainly felt they gave a good service. Other people tell me they aren’t a patch on Thai or Singapore Airlines. I don’t know whether Japan Airlines match the general Asian pattern and if you are flying to Japan from Europe most of the best prices are on European carriers so this may not be very helpful advice.
Don’t pack your bike – Mr Pumpy believes in wheeling the bike up to check-in and handing it over (he does some preparation to eliminate the worst sticking-out bits). Actually I part company with him on this because I decided to pack my Brompton up but I can see that, for a conventional bike, his might be a reasonable approach.
13+7+5kg – Mr Pumpy’s formula for packing (with a conventional bike and two rear panniers) assumes that the bike is around 13kg, he takes one pannier bag loaded with 7kg of kit to complete the 20kg baggage allowance, and another with 5kg as hand luggage. This gave me some confidence that the job was do-able although I had more stuff than I would pack for a purely cycling trip. I ended up checking in around 23kg and carrying on another 6kg but nobody seemed to mind.
On the return trip, with a full load of gifts and conference proceedings I checked in 26kg and again there was no problem. I’m not sure what rules the airlines operate about going over the 20kg – on a recent flight within Europe with Easyjet I was politely admonished for checking in 23kg and told that was their absolute maximum but since their fare was less than the price of a pair of very ordinary trousers I wasn’t complaining. (things have tightened up a lot since I wrote this in 2003 – most low cost airlines flying from the UK now charge by the bag)
Protecting the bike – Having chosen the bwh Koffer soft case I needed to find a way to protect the bike inside against the worst impacts, and I needed to be able to assemble the package at the airport. The answer was a combination of short lengths of pipe insulation taped on to the frame, particularly any projecting items, with duct tape, plus two large bike inner tubes, inflated to a moderate pressure and taped to each side of the bike, to protect the most vulnerable areas.
I removed the two frame clamps as they are particularly vulnerable (Make sure you pack these where you can find them again at the other end). I also deflated the tyres slightly to ensure no mishap when the air pressure falls at high altitude – the Japanese security staff insisted on checking that I had done that on the return journey but nobody else was very interested.
I finished the job off with two heavy duty luggage straps on the outside which made the whole package more stable. I made the mistake of buying these at London Heathrow airport, probably the most expensive place to get them. I had seen some at my local supermarket the day before for a lot less money but they were not quite right, so look around for some suitable ones well before your trip. Still mine were a very cheerful yellow and purple (one strap of each colour) which certainly brightened up the ensemble.
The lengths of pipe insulation and roll of duct tape went into the external pockets of my Brompton front touring pannier when on the road (The whole lot was finally dumped in a rubbish bag at Paddington station in London on my return journey – thanks very much to the owner of the bag, a helpful cleaner, since anti-terrorism measures mean there is just nowhere to dump rubbish in British Rail stations.
My only other problem was what to do with the bike on my overnight stop in Kuala Lumpur (you really don’t want to ride a bike in KL if you don’t know your way around – the traffic can be murderous) but the left luggage office at KL airport provided a good service for a very small charge.
The only damage occurred on the return flight. When I arrived at Heathrow I found that the rear mudguard had been pushed in to foul the wheel and twisted so the little idler wheel that the bike sits on when parked was at a strange angle. I was able to bend it back enough to be usable and later on I restored the whole assembly to something like its original shape with a pair of pliers.
However the rear mudguard and its stays are not intended to take the kind of abuse that baggage handlers dish out so the Brompton rear carrier started to look more attractive. It might also be worth putting a luggage strap around the Brompton touring pannier as there was evidence that handlers had grabbed it by the wrong bits (the steel handle is partly hidden when it’s full)
I left home on the bike in the early morning, cycled to Sheffield Station for the London train, cycled across London from St Pancras Station to Paddington Station for the Heathrow Express train service. There is a tube line from St Pancras to Heathrow but the access to the tube is pretty brutal if you have stuff to haul.
Anyway it was a real pleasure to cycle through London on a beautiful Saturday morning, guided by the free London Cycle Network map. I had a fun half hour packing up my bike by the check-in desks at Heathrow, providing a cabaret for a number of waiting passengers (make sure you allow time for this part of the job) and checked in with no problems.
Coming back I repeated the procedure, unpacking the bike while waiting for the Heathrow Express to take me back to Paddington. Next time, I think, I’d do it the same way