There's a Dog in Seat 13 B...Are You Okay With That?

by  Gowri Chandra | Jan 5, 2017
Ryan Jello/iStock

Airlines are more crammed than ever, leg room is dwindling, and the question of in-cabin pets is more contentious than ever. Pet owners and adjacent passengers have strong opinions on the matter. All concerned parties seem to agree that pets flying on planes should be a last resort for travel. Sometimes though, it is the only resort -- for example, when a military family with a pet is asked to move overseas. That said, how are airlines’ policies striking a balance between fairly and safely transporting animals, and being considerate of other passengers’ comfort?  

First, a bird’s eye view (double pun intended): the Department of Transportation reports that over 2 million animals (some, not all pets) are transported via air each year.

How does this fare for pet owners? Well, if you’ve ever tried to take your furry (or feathered) family member on a plane, you know that it’s akin to a SAT question just to figure out if you’re allowed to or not. We’ve detailed a handy summary guide of 11 different airlines’ policies here, but there are also size and breed restrictions to navigate which are a veritable maze.

Some airlines don’t allow snub nose breeds like bulldogs in the cabin or in cargo, because these dogs’ shortened snouts make them acutely sensitive to breathing problems at higher altitudes. Other breeds are permitted, but only in cargo. Sometimes airline employees themselves aren’t clear on what animals are allowed where, and the facts may change depending on whom you ask.  

Angelina Brewer, the founder of Doggies Inc. Animal Rescue, who also routinely helps transport pets overseas, explains: “The workers at the counter, flight line and cargo facilities sometimes don't even know the airlines’ own requirements. This is a huge problem with not only safety but also with customer service for people trying to fly with their pets. I had an American Airlines employee tell me [incorrectly] in 2012 that American Airlines does not transport pets at all.”

If the “x not y if z” restrictions are giving you a headache, it might be worth it to hire a pet transportation service like Pet Airways. Some people even go so far as to hire a charter plane to avoid the stress of commercial flying all together (and, despite the big bucks, it’s not as uncommon as you might think).

Any which way you look at it, bringing pets on board will be inconvenient, and, unless you’re dealing with a service animal that flies for free, costly. Cabin fees for non-service animals currently run in the ballpark of $125 for United, Delta, and American airlines. Undoubtedly, some pet-toting passengers have been tempted to evade fees by claiming that their animal is for “emotional support,” even though their Pomeranian is probably just a dear pet.

While none of the airlines we reached out to would directly comment on this breach of regulation, Ashton Morrow of Delta Airlines did share the statement that the company “reserve[s] the right to review each case and make every effort to accommodate our customers’ travel needs while also taking into consideration the health and safety of other passengers.”

Where is that line drawn, however? Ruksana Hussain, a Los Angeles-based frequent traveler, has witnessed first-hand health flare ups due to animals on board: “I’ve seen multiple times where a passenger sitting next to a pet-carrying person has an allergy or severe reaction… and the crew had to move them or offer them medication.”

Every passenger has a right to ride in comfort and safety, and there needs to be a better way of passengers with these health concerns to avoid these situations before they arise. These severe reactions seem to be experienced among a minority of travelers, however.

And, admittedly, when we examine cargo conditions, it’s easy to see why pet owners would do anything they could to keep their animals in the cabin. Temperatures in cargo can fluctuate wildly, as do air pressure and oxygen levels. Add to that the stress of being locked in a cage in the dark, and it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that 17 animals died during transport on U.S. airlines in 2014. Twenty-eight additional animals were lost or injured during transport, according to a 2015 Bloomberg article. United and Delta had some of the worst statistics for pet transport in the past few years.

Forty-five compromised cases among the hundreds of thousands of pets that fly every year isn’t terrible -- assuming faithful reporting by U.S. airlines -- but, of course, to the owners of these animals, that’s of little comfort.

Some pets, because of their breed or size restrictions, simply don’t have a choice between the cabin or cargo at all -- unless they’re disability animals, they are simply not allowed to fly. In these cases, Angelina Brewer acknowledges that, “Although not a justification when the airlines give people two options to either abandon their pet or get a letter from a doctor stating they need the animal, most people will choose to make their dog an emotional support animal.”

In the end, are breaking these rules wrong? Yes. Is it affecting other passengers? It seems like in most cases it isn’t, but it does happen. In the end, there isn’t an easy solution for any party, but what airlines can do is make rules as clear as possible for pet-carrying and regular passengers alike to understand them, and take appropriate precautions. It’s a work in progress, but needs to be done. 

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