Article by Lauren Zumbach and Ally Marotti
Pets on planes are significantly outnumbered by human passengers. But for airlines, dealing with passengers’ four-legged traveling companions can be fraught with problems.
Within the past year, Chicago-based United Airlines has found itself in the spotlight when a giant rabbit named Simon died aboard a trans-Atlantic flight and when the airline denied a seat to an emotional support peacock named Dexter.
Just this week, the airline said it would “assume full responsibility” for the death of a 10-month-old French bulldog that appeared to have suffocated Monday after it was placed inside an overhead compartment on a three-hour flight. On Tuesday, United reportedly sent a Kansas City, Mo.-bound German shepherd to Japan by mistake.
Travel industry experts say consumers increasingly want to be able to bring their pets on their travels. That leaves airlines balancing the desire to cater to those flyers’ wishes with the challenges of safely transporting animals — and the risk of courting fierce backlash if things go wrong.
The U.S. Department of Transportation doesn’t track the number of animals passengers carry on board with them or incidents involving animals in the cabin with their owners.
But United has been carrying a growing share of pets transported in the cargo hold — 138,178 in 2017, up about 42 percent since 2015 and accounting for about 27 percent of all animals U.S. airlines transported last year, according to the Transportation Department.
Over the same two-year period, the overall number of animals airlines transported fell 5 percent, while the number flown by American Airlines and Delta Air Lines declined 63 percent and 41 percent, respectively.
United also reported an above-average number of animals that were injured, died or lost while in its custody. In 2017, 1.3 out of every 10,000 animals the carrier transported in cargo holds died, according to the Transportation Department, compared with 0.47 out of every 10,000 across all airlines that reported data.
United spokesman Charles Hobart said the airline is “liberal” in what it considers an injury. The overwhelming majority of deaths were due to previously unknown medical conditions or involved animals that weren’t acclimated to their crates, Hobart said.
“Anytime there’s an incident, injury or an animal passes in our care, we do a thorough review … and we use that information that we’ve discovered to help ensure that it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Dog owner says United disregarded her pet’s barks for help before it died in overhead bin
United apologized again Wednesday for the puppy’s death in the overhead bin on a Houston to New York City flight.
The passenger told the flight attendant there was a dog in the carrier, but the flight attendant “did not hear or understand her,” United spokeswoman Maggie Schmerin said in an email.
“We take full responsibility and are deeply sorry for this tragic accident,” Schmerin said. “We remain in contact with the family to express our condolences and offer support.”
United said it would begin issuing brightly colored bag tags to customers traveling with pets in the cabin by April to help flight attendants identify bags holding pets.
Airlines have put restrictions on pet travel, particularly during extreme temperatures or for dog and cat breeds susceptible to breathing issues, but rules vary by airline.
Some, like JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines, only transport pets that passengers can bring in the cabin.
American will not let passengers check a pet if the ground temperature is below 45 degrees or above 85 degrees at any location on the itinerary. It also does not allow snub-nosed dogs, such as Boston terriers and bulldogs, to be checked; those breeds are thought to be vulnerable to breathing problems.
The list of adult dog breeds United Airlines does not allow to be checked is shorter: It includes just five types of bulldogs. The French bulldog that died Monday would not have been allowed to fly in the cargo hold, the airline said.
Other breeds, such as adult Boston terriers, American bulldogs or pugs, can’t fly in United’s cargo holds between May 15 and Sept. 15.
Other breeds must have certain crates or may only be accepted up to a certain weight. United’s policy also touches on adult chickens, piglets, sugar gliders, primates and certain giant rabbits.
“We have decided it is in our customers’ best interests to have the option to fly pets with us,” Hobart said. “They can fly in the cabin if the animal is the right size, but if the animal doesn’t meet that criteria, we provide another option. And the overwhelming majority of those animals travel with no issues.”
Airlines generally avoid marketing themselves as the preferred carrier for pet families, said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group. It’s a “no-win situation” due to the liability and negative publicity when things go wrong and the fact that pet-free travelers, especially those with allergies, aren’t always enthusiastic about sharing the cabin with pets, Harteveldt said.
United mistakenly flies Kansas-bound dog to Japan
But airlines also don’t want to turn away potential customers who want to bring Fido on the family vacation.
Animals have traveled on airplanes for nearly a century, according to the trade organization International Air Transport Association. But the way people think about those furry travelers has changed. They’re not just animals, they’re family members, and experts say more people are traveling with pets.
Susan Smith, the owner of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Pet Travel, said she answers nearly 100 questions a day about traveling with or transporting pets. And the questions aren’t just about domestic flights.
“China to Turkey, South Africa to London,” she said. “We’re a mobile world, and people want to bring their pets with them.”
Baby boomers are traveling with their pets, as are millennials, who have waited longer to have kids than previous generations and bought pets instead, Smith said. Additionally, there’s been an influx of people traveling with emotional support and service animals, which fly in the cabin for free.
On United, passengers who can’t bring a pet in the cabin can use the airline’s PetSafe program. Customers receive information on preparing the animal for the trip, such as familiarizing the pet with its kennel and driving the pet through a car wash while in the kennel, which approximates what it might experience in a plane’s cargo hold, Hobart said.
Animals are taken from the airport to the airplane in climate-controlled vehicles, and they are last to be loaded in the cargo hold and first to be removed, he said.
It’s not cheap to implement those accommodations for pets, Smith said, and pet owners tend to be loyal to airlines that treat their pets well.
“If pet owners have a good experience with companies that provide services for pets, they tell people. They’re very, very loyal and they always come back,” she said. “In this day and age, it’s all about service, because competition has made it that way.”
Still, many airlines are still struggling to keep their policies up to date with how people feel about their pets, said Kelsey Eberly, a staff attorney at the Animal Defense Fund. No one views animals like pieces of baggage anymore, she said.
“So often our laws and even corporate policies are stuck in the past and continue to treat them like a chair, like a bag,” Eberly said. “Really, their value is so much greater.”