The Devil is my copilot

A cyclist walks into an airport and goes to the United Airlines counter to check in.

The woman behind the desk says, "Where you going today?"

The cyclist says, "Switzerland."

The woman behind the desk says, "How many bags?"

The cyclist says, "One."

The woman behind the desk says, "That'll be $525 for the bag, please."

The cyclist says, "Wait ... this isn't a joke?"

The woman behind the desk says, "No."

The cyclist then understands that United Airlines is the Devil. And so began my trip to the 2009 world championships in cycling, where I was wallet-raped by United Airlines in broad daylight in the middle of the Phoenix airport. While this might seem like an essay on the complaints of modern-day baggage robbery, it is actually a glimpse behind the iron curtain of how the otherpro athletes -- as in, the not-yet-famous-but-hoping-to-get-there -- make it or break it in their respective fields of dreams.

Lance Armstrong, for example, didn't need to worry about bike-baggage fees because the dude has his own jet. I, on the other hand, race for a small country (St. Kitts and Nevis) that cannot offer sponsorship or financial assistance to help get me to races. So baggage fees and travel come out of my pocket. That's OK. That's how it goes in sports. I don't want a medal or a cookie or a pat on the back for my efforts. What I do want is fair play. United, it seems, is the worst opponent an Olympic hopeful could ask for.

One upon a time, my bike flew to Europe for free on United. A couple of years later? It's $525… one way. But wait, there's more! First, a disclaimer: I am very, very, very poor at all things mathematical. If there is a clinical level of mental retardation in math, then I possess that diagnosis. At the very least, I can add and subtract most numbers with three digits or less but I do have to use my fingers and/or talk out loud while problem solving. Now, back to the Devil.

In front of me, a family of five (two adults and three young children) checked the allotted two bags per person onto their international flight. The parents obviously enjoyed their shopping trip to the United States, as they had a total of 10 bags, each of which weighed 50 pounds. They were using their three children as luggage mules, but according to United this is not a problem. The family was not charged any baggage fees. I even watched as one bag weighed in at 52 pounds, but the ticket agent sighed and said, "Well, OK, I'll let it go for this one." So tell me, United, how a 5-year-old can legally check two bags totaling 100 pounds for free, but a grown woman gets charged $525 for one box weighing 75? Something doesn't add up. But wait, there's more!

I do understand there is a fee for overweight bags these days. Fifty dollars is the norm, it seems. Bikes sometimes get charged $100. Annoying, but I'll pay it. But when the woman at the ticket counter charged me $175, I told her it was outrageous. When she then added the $350 heavy-weight charge, I was outraged but also confused. If the bike fee is supposed to incorporate the bulky, large, heavy charge, then why was I being charged twice? She cleared it up by saying, "There is nothing I can do."

Yeah, right. I asked for her supervisor. That's when things got nasty.

Supervisor Devil came over and said there was nothing she could do. I pointed out the luggage-mule-children family before me, and she said, "Those people have normal bags. You are not normal."

Well, my un-normalcy is not news to me, but being outright insulted by a United rep was a new one. Only family and friends have the right to un-normalize me. Not strangers! The ticket lady then said, " Can you take anything out of the box to make it lighter?"

Then things got just plain stupid. Inside my bike box were two bike frames and the little bag that holds their disassembled components (saddles, pedals, etc). I told her I could take out the little bag, but what difference would that make? Isn't it all going on the same plane? And worse, why would I want to risk losing two bags when I can combine them together? And wouldn't it save United space on the plane if the two bags were combined? Again, my math skills are weak, but I felt my logic was adding up. The ticket woman shook her head and said, "There is nothing I can do." She then added, "You have 10 minutes to check your bag, or it won't get on the flight." So there I was. I had to pay the $525 or my bikes wouldn't make it to worlds and I wouldn't get to race. I forked over the money.

A moment of clarification for those wondering, "Hey, dumbass, why didn't you ship your bikes by UPS or rent a bike in Switzerland?" Good questions. But improbable solutions. If I ship my bikes (time trial and road) to Europe, I am left without my bikes for two weeks prior to the most important race of the year. This would be the equivalent of asking a marathoner not to run for two weeks leading up to the world championships. Renting a bike, similarly, would be like asking a baseball player to use someone else's glove during the World Series. Or maybe like asking the Devil to use someone else's pitchfork to spear some poor soul into air-travel hell. Yeah, just doesn't work as well.

Destitute, I made my way to the terminal. A man approached me. He observed my ticket counter escapades and introduced himself as an elite wrestling coach, also traveling to a competition in Europe. He told me he'd checked seven bags for his athletes, and was not charged a penny because United supports his Olympic-hopeful team. I went back to the counter and found the She Devil supervisor. I told her that I, too, am an Olympic hopeful for 2012.

"Do you have a coupon?" she asked. "A voucher?"

"I need a voucher for hope?"

"Yes, you do for United."

"Please, ma'am. I'm representing a country at the world championships."

"There's nothing I can do."

I got on the plane, broke in wallet and spirit, and spent the next 12 hours wondering what happened to customer service, mourning the death of common sense and nearly crying tears of laugher over the fact that United sponsors the charity Feeding America, but won't give its 250 passengers a freaking sandwich.

When I got to Switzerland, I came in 37th in the stacked field at the world championships. It was a good day. Then I got charged $220 for the bike box on the way home. At a total of $745, the cost for my bike to race at worlds actually exceeded that of my plane ticket. So goes a week in the life of an Olympic-hopeful cyclist.

Now, I may suck at math, but I'm pretty sure my real problem with United's equation lay in the fact that not all are considered equal. I don't know much about devilish corporate policy, hellish baggage monopolies or why common sense went belly-up, but I do know that one girl with a bike and a dream, one wrestling coach with magical vouchers and one 5-year-old with bags that outweigh him need to be treated as equal players in the consumer game. I also really want to return to my career as a sports journalist and not spend any more time attempting to reach United's customer service department (so far the count is three disconnected, half-hour calls in the past six hours). Hopefully United will come around and fix this issue. Until then I'm afraid my new motto is: United we fall, divided I…wait, division. That's the one with the little line and two dots, right?

After weeks of calling United, and sending extensive emails to their corporate office, the airline issued me a voucher for $500 good toward a future United flight. I used the refund to bring my husband to my next race. I poked holes in the bike box so he could breathe.

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