Airlines' New Baggage Fees Worry Ski Retailers

Eddy Korbel has spent 14 years in what might seem an especially challenging profession: selling ski equipment to the perpetually tanned customers at Peter Glenn Ski & Sports in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Since there's nowhere to ski near his shop, the majority of Korbel's customers are "destination skiers" flying from the Sunshine State to resorts up North or out West. As this year's ski season approaches, Korbel is a little worried—and not just because of the weakening economy. Like most ski retailers, he's facing a different challenge: the onerous new fees that airlines are instituting for people who want to check bags on flights. "This year is definitely going to be different, no doubt about it," says Korbel.

Like golfers, surfers and cyclists, skiers who travel by air face an unfortunate predicament: no matter how judiciously they pack, there's no way to stow their equipment in an overhead bin. And since last winter, American Airlines and US Airways have begun charging passengers $15 for the first checked bag, $25 for the second bag and $100 for the third. (That's each way.) As of Dec. 5, Delta will add fees, too. United now charges $130 to check two bags round-trip. (Most airlines count skis and boots as a single item.) While day-trippers fill lift lines at smaller ski areas, typically 45 percent of skiers who stay overnight at bigger resorts arrive by plane, according to the National Ski Areas Association, so many skiers are likely to face the new fees. And while those costs may be small compared with the total tab (air, hotel, lift tickets) for a week in ski country, retailers are still worried the extra charges will surprise customers or deter them from bringing their own equipment; they say adding the fees on flights to ski meccas like Vail, Colo., or Park City, Utah, is particularly unfair. "It's like charging for briefcases on a plane to New York City," says Doug Roberts, who runs Ski & Tennis Station in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The surcharges are the latest threat to an industry that's already hurting. Ski-equipment sales have been steadily declining for a decade, according to Snowsports Industries America. That's partly because the total number of U.S. skiers was down from 9.3 million in 1995 to 5.5 million in 2007, largely due to defections to snowboarding. But the slide in equipment sales is also attributed to a different trend: more skiers are opting to rent skis at the mountain. Years ago, rental equipment tended to be beat-up junk that was used exclusively by beginning skiers, but in recent years manufacturers have begun offering more top-of-the-line samples for daily use. These "demo" skis go for about $40 per day, and lately more skiers have been deciding that's a great deal. That's especially true with the average cost of a pair of skis, poles, bindings and boots hitting $911 in 2007, and with many would-be buyers skiing just a few times a year. "You can get the latest and greatest, brand-new, tuned skis," says David Perry, senior VP at Aspen Skiing Co. Renting also allows skiers to choose the equipment that's most appropriate for the day's conditions. At Park City Mountain Resort, the number of skiers who've reserved a rental package with their lodging reservations for this year are up significantly. "It's a lot easier to not have to schlep them around," says spokeswoman Krista Rowles.

Some skiers refuse to succumb to the allure of demos. "I like my own skis and am very particular about them," says Jon Rucker of Chapel Hill, N.C. Skiers who bring their own stuff also avoid the long rental lines and a fitting process that can easily take an hour—no small factor when you consider a one-day lift ticket at the top resorts will hit $90 this winter. For travelers determined to schuss on their own K2s or Rossignols, Southwest is an attractive options—so far it isn't charging for passengers' first piece of checked baggage. Some resorts are also helping defray the costs: Vail Resorts recently began promoting a "baggage bailout" of $50 for anyone booking a four-night stay by Dec. 1. Some travelers have also taken to shipping their skis, which can be cost-effective when compared with $100 airline luggage surcharges. "It costs less than $20 to ship skis from New York to Vail," says Paul Hields of Sportube, a company that sells hard plastic cases to protect skis while they're shipped. For diehard skiers, those sorts of hassles are the price of admission to a winter wonderland.