For pet owners, the fear is palpable. You arrive at the airport with a family member of the four-legged variety, and you have to check him or her in with an airline. How will they take to being flown at 30,000 feet? Will they make the connecting flight? Will your pet be injured or escape while in the airlines’ care? And if you are not traveling with the pet but sending one in cargo, what happens when there is a problem?
Some owners know firsthand the anxiety of putting a pet on a plane, especially airplane travel with dogs. Alyson Chadwick, a PR professional from Washington DC, had to send her cat from Florida to DC through Atlanta on Delta but when delays threatened to prevent her pet from reaching her until to the next day, she feared the worst. After heated discussion, Delta had someone meet the cat at the gate and deliver him to DC, only six hours late. But this is not always the case as the infamous 2006 disappearance of Vivi, a prize-winning whippet who had just competed in the Westminster Dog Show illustrates. Vivi, who allegedly escaped from her cage while in the charge of Delta, was never found even though airport workers and volunteers searched for weeks.
We’ve all heard the horror stories. But how likely is it that something bad will happen to your pet? Incidents involving the loss, injury or death of animals on U.S. carriers are compiled by the Department of Transportation in a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. A scan of 2009 monthly reports shows that U.S. carriers report about two deaths a month and a handful of lost animals, usually due to airline staff not following procedures for securing crates before loading them into baggage. However, about 2 million animals are flown each year by U.S. carriers, meaning the vast majority arrive with no problems. But there is no accounting for the stress of the ordeal, on both the owner and the pet, not to mention factors such as animals being left on hot runways or freezing warehouses while planes are loaded.
Coming to the rescue for concerned pet owners is the newly launched Pet Airways (PetAirways.com), which had its first flight in July 2009 after being in development since 2005. The airline, which exclusively flies pets, termed “pawsengers” in its materials, aims to provide a safe and consistent service for delivering pets across the U.S. Unlike major carriers, animals of all sizes are flown in the main cabin, rather than cargo or baggage, and are tended to by an attendant. The airline currently services several cities including Atlanta, New York, Baltimore/Washington D.C., Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Fort Lauderdale and Co-Founder Alysa Binder hopes to be in 25 in the next two years. Rates range from $99 to $249 one-way, include a free pet carrier and can be booked online.
Pet Airways’ owners themselves understand the stress of flying with a pet in the cargo hold. Binder recounts the origins of the airline, dating to when she and her husband Dan, now President of Pet Airways, had to fly with their dog Zoe. “When we relocated from San Francisco to Florida we had no choice but to transport Zoe in the cargo hold of a commercial carrier. We were stressed out during the duration of the flight worrying if she was okay. After the flight, Zoe who was a gregarious Jack Russell Terrier just wasn’t the same. At that point, we said there had to be a better way. We researched it and found out that there wasn’t. That is when Dan said let’s build Pet Airways where pets can fly in a safe, comfortable and caring environment.”
But passengers traveling with pets on board are not immune to the stresses either. Most major U.S. airlines allow a small number of pets (generally 2 to 4) in the main cabin for a fee ranging from $75 to $150 one-way. Pets are required to remain in their carriers under the seat but this is not always practical. Eugene Marginean was 82 when he was flying a major carrier with his dog Buttons, a 13 pound terrier. They had flown quite often between Florida and Ohio without a problem until one flight where it was too warm in the cabin. Marginean removed Buttons from her carrier to give her some water and a flight attendant gave him a difficult time. An argument ensued and according to his son Jeff, author of the book My Buddy Butch and associated blog, he “politely told the fight attendant to land in a cornfield and he will happily walk the rest of the way!” Luckily there was no air marshal onboard and the other passengers laughed at his remark.
Even worse is the misinformation given to passengers even when they are diligent about following the rules. “I came back from judging a dog show in Vaasa, Finland, in May, on Finnair,” says Sharon Sakson, author of Paws & Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs. “I had booked one Brussels Griffon to fly with me in the cabin…and two puppies to fly in their crate underneath in baggage. When I got to the airport, the desk person said, we don’t fly dogs on Mondays. It’s because we don’t have the special baggage handlers on this day. The US agent should not have taken this reservation.” After consultation with airline staff, Sakson was allowed to bring all three dogs onboard if she agreed to sit in the last row of the plane.
Maureen Mack, a human resources consultant from the San Francisco bay area, was flying to Phoenix with her two cats and she thought she had everything covered. The ticket agent told her two things – that the aircraft had a closet where their carrier would fit securely and that she needed to get certificates of health from their vet. “The certificates cost me $80 at the vet and no one ever asked to see them,” she says. “When I got to the gate on Christmas Eve morning, a gate attendant told me that the aircraft did not have anyplace where their carrier would fit and I would have to go back to baggage check-in and put them in with the luggage. It was about 20 degrees. I canceled the whole trip, found a shuttle to take me home, and left.” While airlines do not always ask for certificates from a vet, experts agree it is a good idea to have your pet checked prior to flying since the experience is stressful and animals with heart or respiratory problems may not survive the trip.
Sometimes it is not only pet owners who are inconvenienced. Emma Clarke flew her dogs from London to the US on Virgin Atlantic and was assigned an early hour to deliver them to the airport only to find there was no record of the dogs. Eventually, she says, “they made the flight, it was all ok, but we got a phone call a couple of hours after they’d taken off to say that the plane had been turned around because the hold the dogs were in had no climate control, it was 90 degrees and I guess it was only going to get hotter! So the dogs had to spend a night at Heathrow, they were put on the next flight and arrived safely 24 hours late. The whole experience was much more stressful for me than it was for them…We paid around ₤1,000 for each dog.” Though she was pleased the pilot turned the plane around, it’s unlikely that other passengers shared her feelings. Even more serious was an incident aboard a Belgian airliner in 2004 when a cat got out of its carrier, made its way into the cockpit and attacked a co-pilot, forcing the plane to return to Brussels.
However, airlines seem to be making an effort when it comes to transporting pets. Continental, named the “most pet-friendly airline” by Petfinder.com, flies pets in climate-controlled cargo holds and has a PetSafe program with a 24-hour Live Animal Desk (800-575-3335) that tracks the pets throughout their trip. Sakson has been flying with dogs for twenty years and approves. “When I go to Newark, it is a pleasure to see Continental’s animal shipping area. It’s big and there’s a young woman there employed to do nothing but make sure the dogs are comfortable. They are really catering to the dog owners.” Delta has a Pet First program that prioritizes the handling of pets when they are shipped as cargo. Internationally, El Al Israel recently started the first frequent flier program for pets.
Pet Airways hopes that the commercial airlines will treat pets better as a result of their existence. In the meantime, experts recommend you don’t travel with pets in the middle of the day in the summer and that you don’t sedate the animal. Make sure your pet has a clean bill of health and make sure the airline is responsive to your needs. One organization, BC Rescue (website), ships hundreds of dogs a year and has excellent point by point suggestions for transporting pets. You can’t prevent the unforeseen but with some planning, you can minimize the stress for yourself and your pet.