When Janet Sinclair made the cross-country move from California to Massachusetts in July 2013, she arranged for what she thought would be the safest travel plan for her six-year-old Bengal cat, Alika, and five-year-old greyhound, Sedona. United’s PetSafe program promised a climate-controlled and pressurized cargo environment, specially trained staff, and a dedicated 24-hour call-in desk. So, after both pets got clean bills of health from a veterinarian (required for air travel) and she’d secured them in approved travel crates, Sinclair felt confident bringing her furry family members to their new home in Boston, through airports in San Diego and Houston.
Before the trip, she confirmed that “Sedona and Alika would be taken in an air-conditioned van to the plane, where they would be the last ones loaded into cargo,” in keeping with United’s pledge that pets will be the last to board and the first to deplane. “I made sure they would be taken for a safety stop during our layover in Houston, where they would be in an air-conditioned pet facility in which handlers would feed them, give them water, and let Sedona out to exercise before boarding the next plane,” she tells Condé Nast Traveler. (According to pet relocation specialists, a “comfort” or “safety stop” often happens on long layovers when pets change planes.)
But things didn’t go according to plan. The story that follows is her account of that day: When Sinclair boarded in San Diego she had a direct view of the cargo loading area. “First, I noticed my pets were brought to the plane in a luggage carrier, not an air-conditioned van,” she says. “Then a handler tried to lift Sedona’s crate and couldn’t do it by himself. He dropped it and Sedona fell over in the crate.”
From there, Sinclair told us, the day got progressively worse. Upon arrival in Houston, Sedona’s crate was indeed unloaded first—but then, instead of being transferred to an air-conditioned vehicle, she was left in the crate on the tarmac in 91-degree heat. (According to United’s PetSafe program, animals aren’t meant to endure temperatures over 85 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 45 minutes.) A handler “kicked her [Sedona’s] crate multiple times,” says Sinclair, in an attempt to push it into the shade beneath the plane’s wing while handlers unloaded the remaining cargo—including, finally, Alika’s crate. Sinclair was horrified. She began recording the scene with her phone.
Janet Sinclair’s pets Sedona and Akila, in crates, sitting on the tarmac. Sedona and Alika’s crates await boarding in a luggage carrier. “I told the attendants and the pilot that I wouldn’t get off the plane until the van picked up my pets,” she says. They asked her to disembark anyway. Inside the terminal, Sinclair says she called the PetSafe desk. A supervisor assured her that her animals would get proper attention during the three hours before their next flight.
But when Sinclair boarded the plane for Boston, her pets were already on the tarmac again beneath the wing of the plane—not, as promised, in a climate-controlled van. One video, obtained by Condé Nast Traveler, shows a luggage handler sitting idly nearby, waiting to load bags, while the crates linger on the tarmac. “I have no idea how long they’d been out there,” she says. Distraught, she asked a flight attendant to help get her pets into air-conditioning. She told the pilot there would be animals in his cargo hold, and asked him to be mindful of its temperature and pressure. Unfortunately, nearly an hour after Sedona and Alika were loaded, the crew found problems with the plane’s air conditioning, and both passengers and cargo were removed.
Eventually, Sinclair and her pets were boarded for the third and final time that day. They arrived in Boston after 11 p.m. The PetSafe van retrieved the animals and brought them to the designated pickup area, where Sinclair found them at 12:30 a.m. She couldn’t believe what she saw. Sedona and the interior of her crate were covered in blood, feces, and vomit. Her food pack hadn’t been opened, and the zip ties Sinclair had used to secure her crate that morning were in exactly the same position, suggesting Sedona hadn’t been let out for the entire span of their journey—about 15 hours. The interior of Alika’s crate was also covered in feces and vomit; she was dehydrated, but stable. “When we let Sedona out, she couldn’t get up or walk. She was shaking and panting—it looked like she was dying right in front of me,” says Sinclair. “When we got home, she began to pee blood and I raced her to the vet.” A Boston-area animal hospital diagnosed her with heat stroke and a urinary tract infection—medical problems that were “secondary to hyperthermia that she suffered during her United Airlines flight,” they concluded. Sedona spent the next two days in the vet’s intensive care. Full recovery took months. “She trusted me. … If I’d known how she would be treated, I would never in a million years have traveled on the plane with my dog.”
United’s official response came on August 28, 2013, in the form of a letter disclaiming any wrongdoing. The airline had submitted Sedona’s report to a consulting veterinarian for review; their conclusion was that the greyhound had a “pre-existing medical condition which may have been aggravated during her air transportation.” They didn’t specify what condition; rather, the company offered $1,000 toward Sedona’s treatment, refunded the PetSafe fee of $684.90, and asked Sinclair to sign a non-disclosure agreement. When Sinclair declined, United upped the reimbursement to $2,700—on the condition, again, that she sign the agreement. She refused. On November 1, United sent its final note: “For the sake of clarity, we withdraw our offer and consider the matter closed.”
Sinclair set up a Facebook page called United Airlines Almost Killed My Greyhound, making it her mission to tell other travelers about the risks of flying animals in cargo. The site immediately got thousands of followers who shared similarly negative experiences with pet air travel. To this day, Sinclair says, she gets at least one message a week from someone with a similar horror story—and some, of course, that are worse.
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY
Those stories paint a picture only hinted at in official data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The DOT estimates that two million animals fly via cargo each year. The problem with the DOT’s numbers is that less than half of the animals traveling in cargo are considered “pets,” says Jeff Pierce, legislative counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). The agency is only required to maintain reports involving pets and commercial dogs and cats, such as those traveling between breeders and a new home. To this day, other animals shipped by cargo—laboratory animals, for instance; endangered monkeys; birds on their way to sanctuaries—don’t count. “Because the reporting requirements don’t reach other commercial animals, a large percentage of problems goes unreported,” says Pierce.
According to the DOT’s newly released annual report, just over half a million pets flew in cargo in 2016. Of those animals, 26 died and 22 were injured, an incident rate of less than 1 per 10,000 pets. Nine deaths and 14 injuries occurred on United flights, a rate double that of the U.S. industry. Only Hawaiian Airlines had a higher incident rate—nearly double United’s, with three pets dead of 7,518 transported. Alaska Airlines flew the most pets by cargo last year—112,281—during which two died, and one was injured.
Admittedly, United is one of the largest U.S. carriers with one of the most robust pet travel programs. It has reported the most pet deaths per year since 2014, but a spokesman says it has an excellent track record. “If there is an incident—of a lost pet, injury, or death—we report those to DOT, but we ship over 200,000 animals per year and the rate of incidents is astronomically low,” says Charlie Hobart, a United spokesperson. “The overwhelming majority of animals go through without any problems whatsoever.” In a recent email regarding Sinclair’s story, he reiterates: “Our PetSafe team is committed to the safety and comfort of all the pets that travel with us. We are an industry leader. … That said, we regret that Sedona did not have a good experience and we offered to provide compensation but Ms. Sinclair declined.”
Concerns about the United PetSafe program are still real, and recent. Yesterday, an Oregon woman told a local news station that her seven-year-old golden retriever, Jacob—cleared following a mandatory physical before he flew from Detroit to Portland—died shortly after the flight. She blames United.
Much of the evidence is self-reported—be it anecdotes from pet owners or incident numbers from airlines. U.S. carriers that operate at least one aircraft with 60 or more seats have to report any death, injury, or loss on a domestic or international flight to the DOT. “When you look at the numbers, it’s pretty reassuring,” says Caitlin Moore of PetRelocation.com, a private company that helps travelers navigate the ins and outs of shipping their pets via cargo. Her company prefers to work with United domestically, she says, and KLM, Lufthansa, British Airways, and Qantas for international pet travel. Moore acknowledges that there are always risks with pet air travel; her organization advises clients to fly their pets in cargo only when they have no other option (for example, when moving overseas). But she notes that “there are lots of great success stories. We wouldn’t do this if it weren’t safe.”
In 2015, 35 deaths, 25 injuries, and three lost animals were reported. It was the highest death toll since 2011.
Pet safety—and transparency—have received attention from federal legislators in the last two years. It was only as recently as January 1, 2015 that the DOT expanded its reporting requirements to cover dog and cat breeder shipments at all—a change made in response to pressure from the ALDF and several U.S. senators. Now, U.S. airlines are required to report each January on the number of pets and commercial dogs and cats transported during the previous calendar year, as well as to report any incidents monthly. Failure to do so can result in a $27,500 civil penalty, according to a DOT representative. In the year following the expansion, 35 deaths, 25 injuries, and three lost animals were reported. It was the highest death toll since 2011.
That uptick could be evidence of the reporting mandate in action, but Pierce is skeptical. He doesn’t think accountability has improved. “The reporting requirements are designed to encourage better behavior on the part of people who handle pets as cargo, but our experience has been that airlines underreport these incidents,” he says. The DOT is required to post reports on its website as well as forward them to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act. “You can read them for yourself. Rarely does the airline believe they did anything wrong. In virtually every case, you’ll find that the probable cause of injury or death is that the animal had some underlying or pre-existing condition. Any incident that arose was due to that condition, not to the airline’s actions.”
CARGO VERSUS CARRY-ON
Amie d’Autremont had no choice but to fly with her two-year-old English bulldog, Mabel, when her husband relocated to South Korea for work. Even though bulldogs are a brachycephalic (short-nosed) breed and considered to be at higher risk for respiratory problems in the air, a USDA-certified veterinarian determined Mabel to be in good health and fit to travel from Seattle to South Korea in the fall of 2015, as long as she was kept in an ambient temperature (between 32 and 85 degrees F). “We knew there was a risk but we felt confident she would be fine,” says d’Autremont. But after boarding the chartered Omni Air International plane in Seattle, they were grounded for almost two hours because the air conditioner was broken, she says. When they arrived at her layover in Japan, she was told Mabel had not survived the flight. “When I finally got to hold Mabel, she was rock hard,” says d’Autremont. “All I can hope is that she didn’t suffer.”
In a letter to d’Autremont and her husband, an Omni Air International representative wrote: “Knowing how beloved pets are to their owners, we take our responsibilities for their carriage very seriously.” However, five other dogs were transported successfully that day, the representative notes, and it’s the up to the passenger and his or her vet to “make the decision whether or not to accept the risk of travel” with a snub-nosed dog. In a follow-up letter, a representative reiterated that they were “very sorry for their loss” but that Omni “does not accept liability for pets and as such cannot offer any reimbursement.” D’Autremont filed a complaint with the DOT, which led the USDA to open an investigation. The USDA has since removed public animal welfare documents from its website.
Undeniably, cargo is the more dangerous option for pet travel. The safest way for any animal to fly is in the cabin as carry-on luggage, provided that’s an option. But only animals small enough to fit beneath the seat are allowed: A cat, a rabbit, or a Maltese is fine; a full-grown Labrador isn’t. Pets must fit in an approved carrier—generally, a hard- or soft-sided kennel about 17 inches long by 11 inches wide by 9 inches high, though requirements can vary (check with the airline prior to your departure date). Pets must remain in their carriers for the duration of the flight, and so should be able to stand up and turn around comfortably inside them. On domestic flights, all pets must have recent health certificates and immunization records from a vet, and most airlines require pets to be at least eight weeks old. The fee is typically $125 one way for each in-cabin pet. For international flights, regulations and fees vary according to the laws in the country of your final destination.
Service animals or emotional support animals are a different story. There are no size requirements as long as your pet doesn’t block the aisle and can sit between your legs on the floor in front of you, or, if small enough, on your lap. You’ll have to provide documentation from a physician stating that you need your animal for medical or psychological reasons—a prescription, in effect, for that potbellied pig. And, of course, all other veterinary documentation requirements and fees will still apply.
Meanwhile, in the age of premium economy and private suites on planes, some airlines have upgraded their pet-class options as well. American Airlines now offers a service for first class passengers and their dogs and cats that runs exclusively on the Airbus A321T planes between Los Angeles or San Francisco and New York’s JFK. This First Class Pet Cabin enables you to stretch your legs and relax while still keeping your pet close by in a compartment roomy enough for its carrier. There are restrictions, though. Only dogs and cats are allowed, and no short-nosed breeds.
If your pet’s too big to fit beneath the seat and VIP travel isn’t an option, your only choice on domestic airlines is to fly your pet in cargo. That always involves risk, no matter how good the airline’s track record or what DOT numbers indicate. Still, veterinarian David Landers, DVM, owner of AirVets Pet Relocation and former director-at-large at the nonprofit International Pet and Animal Transportation Association, says that “shipping a pet [in cargo] is very safe when the proper precautions are taken.”
IN CARGO, WITH CARE?
Animal advocates such as Mary Beth Melchior, founder and CEO of Where Is Jack?, believe that pet relocation services may be giving pet owners a false sense of security. She launched her website in 2011 after her friend Karen Pascoe’s cat, Jack, was lost for 61 days inside JFK International Airport. Pascoe got a phone call from an American Airlines employee when Jack escaped his crate, which had fallen and opened on its way to boarding. They discovered Jack when he fell through the ceiling of the Customs and Border Protection office. He was malnourished, and had been wounded so badly that, despite treatment in a veterinary ICU, he had to be euthanized. Like Sinclair, Melchior now works to educate people about safe air travel for animals, and advocates for better policies at airports and legislation to protect traveling animals.
“I think airlines have enjoyed a lot of immunity from liability,” says Pierce, partly because of the contractual terms passengers are forced to accept when surrendering their cargo to an airline. Unless you declare a specific value for the cargo, major airlines may only give you $.50 per pound or $50, whichever’s greater, in exchange for its loss. That holds true whether the cargo is a suitcase or a live animal.
Josh Brown, co-owner of Far North Kennel with his wife, Theresa Sheldon, in Anchorage, Alaska, breeds German Shepherds, and has had dozens of positive experiences shipping and receiving dogs via Alaska Airlines and Delta. “If I thought that it put any undue risk on a dog’s life, I wouldn’t do it,” he says. He notes, though, that he only trusts those two airlines with his dogs’ safety. “It really matters which airline you choose when you’re shipping your pet.” The safest way for any animal to fly is in the cabin, provided that’s an option.
United, however, stands behind its PetSafe program: “It’s an esteemed position” to be a pet handler, says Hobart, United’s spokesperson. “The folks who are transporting animals have experience with general cargo and then we discuss where their interests are, and we may move them to pets; they take extra caution when working with them. We take them for walks and throw them a lot of love and care. It’s something we take very seriously because we understand how important those animals are to our customers. They’re often considered part of the family.”
The bottom line, according to both animal advocates and the airline industry: There are no guarantees when you ship an animal in cargo. You can—and should—take safety measures such as acclimating your pet to her crate in advance, making sure she’s healthy, and traveling when temperatures are moderate; but cargo should be your last resort, not your first. Even under the best of circumstances, cargo travel is quite stressful for animals, says Justine A. Lee, DVM, board-certified veterinary specialist and author of It’s a Dog’s Life…but It’s Your Carpet. “I don’t recommend flying with your pet unless you’re moving,” she says. “If you’re traveling for vacation, it’s safer to just get a pet sitter.”
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