31 July 2010

National Excess

The UK's largest scheduled coach operator has made modifications to its luggage policy, which sees an airline-style excess charge applied to oversized and overweight items. With very little publicity, this has become live only recently.

National Express' luggage policy ostensibly remains the same, however:
  • One item of hand luggage may be brought on board the coach, provided it can be stored in either the overhead compartment or beneath an individual seat
  • Two items of luggage may be stored in the coach's boot, provided neither item exceeds 20kg
  • 'Outsized' items, such as skis and surfboards will be carried provided sufficient room exists at the point of boarding
  • Excess luggage will be carried provided sufficient room exists at the point of boarding
However, on the matter of 'outsized' items and excess luggage, a fee will now be charged per item: £10 single, £15 return. The fee will also apply to the two items of permitted boot luggage if either exceeds 20kg. Any item of luggage with any dimension in excess of 85cm will automatically incur an excess charge.

Furthermore, the definition of hand luggage has been (rightly) clarified, in so doing, made stricter:

With the exception of brief cases, no hard-shelled cases, wheelie bags or hard-framed rucksacks/back packs will be allowed on board.

I'm sure there are hundreds of readers who travel with National Express regularly and, while their luggage provision may be sensible, have seen plenty of people's whose aren't!

With such strict guidelines imposed with virtually no advance warning to passengers, it came as quite a shock to us when we were told by one driver (and since received clarification from many others) that scales and tape measures have not yet been supplied by the company. It would seem that while National Express want to introduce similar luggage restrictions to airlines, they are not yet equipping their drivers with an adequate means of clarification. There's a very good reason why an airport check-in desk has scales.

The prospect of arguments between cashless tourists and drivers will be high. Until tape measures and scales are issued, one driver's consideration of what is 25kg will be what another driver believes to be 20kg; one driver's consideration of 85cm will be different to another's. While NX is encouraging a common sense approach, one has to wonder whether the introduction of such an excess baggage policy to the coach industry is itself common sense. There seems little point of such new rulings when, to save a loss of custom, drivers are to be asked to effectively back down when confontation occurs.

Megabus don't charge for excess luggage and neither does Greyhound. It is true that there have been occasions when NX has found itself with more luggage than certain coaches can handle. This used to take place on overnight journeys between London and Cornwall when Trathens operated the only double-deckers on the network (Neoplan Skyliners). Then, a van would be hired and follow the coach to somewhere like Exeter. At £500 a pop, any profit from the journey was wiped out, so it's understandable to see why these 'deckers no longer operate NX services.

Even with scales and a tape measure, alienation is what will occur when a driver demands £10 else refuse to load the luggage. Especially on competing services to university cities. You might pay the excess once, but when the term is over and you're lugging all your worldly possessions back home, you'll stay well clear of NX and choose Megabus, Greyhound, the train, or - worse still - arrange to be collected by car.

Unless Megabus et al are to follow suit. We can but hope not.

If you take care of your luggage and ensure you never exceed 20kg and that the cases are compact and well packed, you may be of the opinion that those who do not ought to be charged. Drivers are not permitted to lift any item of luggage in excess of 20kg - asking a passenger to load his luggage alone if in excess of 20kg is punishment enough?

The company recorded 1% growth last year, which isn't too far off what is recorded normally, so the effects of recession don't appear to have forced this ruling's inception as a means to offset lost revenue. Perhaps the nature of coach travel is to change? NX's very skilled and capable route team is currently working on the largest shake-up of its coach network since privatisation, with the results expected to take place next year. Dean Finch, the group's new chief executive, has said that there are some aspects of the coach business they do better than others and that they should concentrate more on these.

Creating ambiguity through the interpretation of their new luggage policy, regrettably, isn't one of them - not if drivers aren't yet properly equipped and passengers not properly informed of the financial consequences of travelling with more than they should.

NX Luggage Policy (in full)

**UPDATE** from an anonymous emailer: I have been issued with my scales and tape measure as of start of work today. 'Argumentsville' here I come....

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