BOBBY MAGILL

Journalist • Photographer

Bobby Magill is a senior science writer for Climate Central in New York and a journalist who has covered fracking and the environment in Colorado and New Mexico since 2001. 

Flying With A Brompton Bike As A Carry-On

I bought a Brompton folding bike in April because I was tired of the hassle of riding the NYC subway, and MetroNorth, which I ride south down the Hudson River from Westchester County, only allows folding bikes on the train during rush hour. So for me, the ultimate sense of freedom in NYC is riding the Brompton. 

Last week, I took my Brompton out to Colorado. My partner, Jacob, and I drove out to Denver, then spent six days visiting friends in Denver and Fort Collins. The plan was for Jacob to stay in Colorado for several weeks to take care of some business, and for me to fly home with my bags and Brompton in hand. 

One of the reasons to get a folding bike is the freedom it provides while traveling. Most airlines charge extra to check a bike, and they're never permissible as a carryon. So, when I read that it's possible to bring a Brompton on board a plane as a carryon, I decided to give it a shot. 

The internet is full of mostly horror stories about attempting to fly with a folding bike as a carryon. Flight attendants and crew members insist on gate checking the bike, or they refuse to allow it aboard at all, the stories go. My experience flying with my Brompton on Southwest Airlines from Denver to New York-Laguardia Airport was simple. 

Before the flight, I was worried that I'd either have to spend hundreds of dollars on a hard-shelled case for the Brompton and check it, or the flight attendants would insist on gate checking the bike like a stroller, getting damaged along the way. I bought a cheap canvas flight bag for the bike from a military surplus store a few days in advance of the flight just in case I'd have to protect the bike if it had to be checked at the gate. 

When I arrived at Denver International Airport, this is what my luggage looked like with the Brompton in the canvas bag:

My Brompton folding bike in Chinatown, NYC. 

My Brompton folding bike in Chinatown, NYC. 

Flying with my Brompton required a bit of strategizing. Before bagging the bike, I removed the seat to ensure it would fit in the overhead bin, and protected the seat post with a tennis ball. 

I'd read in Brompton online forums that the TSA insists that folding bikes ride naked on the security X-ray scanner belt, so when I arrived at the checkpoint, I removed the bike from the bag after arriving at the airport and strapped the rolled up canvas bag to my black backpack carrying my camera and laptop. DIA was extremely busy on a Monday afternoon, so I skipped the big lines and headed for the more obscure TSA checkpoint at the pedestrian bridge between the main terminal and the A Concourse, where there was nearly no line at all. 

Security was a mild hassle. The bike went on the scanner belt first, then my laptop, shoes, jacket and backpack, all in separate bins. The Brompton fit through the scanner perfectly, and once through, I headed to the gate:

I wanted to make sure ahead of time that I could board the plane early, so I paid $12.50 for Southwest's EarlyBird Check-in, placing me in the A boarding group. That way, I could head to an empty section of the plane to make sure there is enough overhead bin space for the bike. 

Once boarding began, passengers asked me all kinds of questions about the bike. Will it fly in a Cessna? How does the bike work? Where did it come from? How much does it cost? Are you a bike tourist? It's quite a conversation piece. 

Boarding was easy. The gate agent didn't say anything when he saw the bike. The head flight attendant asked me what I was carrying when I stepped inside the plane. When I told him it's a foliding bike, he said, "If you ride that off the plane when we get to New York, you know we're going to have to shoot video of you, right?" He smiled, and then I headed directly to the back of the plane. Hoisting the bike into the overhead bin, I made sure the handlebars were facing upward to ensure I wouldn't damage the shifter, bell and other accessories on that side of the bike. 

And, it fit! 

... with room to spare! 

When flying Southwest with a Brompton, you have to pay attention to what kind of plane you're on. Southwest flies only Boeing 737 jets, but they fly four kinds of 737s. The older planes, the 737-300 and 737-500 series aircraft, have smaller overhead bins and may not fit a Brompton. The newer and more common 737-700 and 737-800 aircraft have larger bins, and can easily fit your bike. Southwest will tell you what series aircraft you're flying when you buy your airline ticket. If you're not sure what kind of 737 you're on, you can figure it out at the gate if you look at the plane carefully. Look closely at the plane's wings, and you'll see wedge-shaped "canoes" on the trailing edge of each wing. If the "canoes" are bare metal, you're in a -300 or -500. If they're painted red, you're in a -700 or -800. Also, -800s have two emergency exits over the wings instead of one, and only -700s and -800s have the hump on the top of the plane that allows it to receive streaming internet and satellite TV. 

Success!