In June, a United Airlines pilot made an unscheduled emergency landing to save the life of Dakota, a 10½-year-old Basenji that had been mistakenly placed in a baggage section instead of the cargo area of the aircraft, putting the dog at risk for hypothermia and death. The plane, bound for San Jose, landed in Denver after the pilot was alerted to the situation, and Dakota was retrieved without harm.
The story brought national attention to a subject that has been undergoing a fair amount of scrutiny of late: animals and air travel. Congress recently passed legislation that requires airlines to compile and release information to the Department of Transportation concerning traveling pets that have died, been lost, or injured (see JAVMA, Jan 15, 2000).
Certain provisions in the legislation, the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (HR 1000), require airlines to improve their cargo holds, personnel training, and reporting procedures, while also increasing civil penalties on negligent airlines. Airline representatives had warned that additional regulations could drive some carriers away from transporting animals, leading to a backlog and price hikes.
Extreme temperature conditions often lead to airlines refusing to accept animals on their flights. At the same time, airline spokespersons say the number of people taking their pets on vacation is on the rise. With the advent of summer and the hot weather the season brings, several major airlines decided not to accept certain pets as accompanied baggage with ticketed passengers in the cabin. Some airlines will not accept animals as checked baggage at any time of the year.
Certain airlines do still permit transport of small animals — cats, small dogs, hamsters, and other pets — which can be kept in under-the-seat kennels, with limits on numbers. Service dogs are exempt from restrictions and will continue to be welcomed aboard all US airlines.
Pets booked as cargo are accepted by some airlines, in limited numbers to allow greater control. Temperature and time of day are other factors that are considered in these situations. Whether shipped as checked (excess) baggage or as cargo, animals travel in the same cargo holds, but some airlines have indicated they have more control over the animals when shipped as cargo. For instance, there are often more options available regarding departure times and routing to avoid adverse conditions.
Industry sources say seasonal embargoes are only the beginning. For instance, Continental Airlines no longer accepted dogs as checked baggage effective June 1 (but will accept animals through a special Petsafe program). Airlines may soon require that only commercial shippers handle pets traveling by air, an expensive prospect for pet owners. Some reports say that commercial shippers will accept only the pets of relocating families, not vacationing families.
The Air Transport Association outlines rules for shipping animals at its Web site, www.air-transport.org (click on "pet travel guidelines"). The USDA has a Web site link to pet travel guidelines at www.aphis.usda.gov, or the agency can be contacted by phone, (301) 734-7833.