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When Congress reconvenes in January, consideration also resumes for an aviation funding bill that includes better safety standards for animals traveling on airplanes.

The amendment to the Animal Welfare Act, the Safe Air Travel for Animals bill, requires airlines to improve their cargo holds, personnel training, and reporting procedures, while also increasing civil penalties and consumers' monetary claims from airlines responsible for injury to their animals.

Sen Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) first introduced the bill (S 1193) in June, then amended it (No. 1921) to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill (S 82) in October. The Senate approved the proposed legislation, but the version cleared by the House did not include the senator's amendment. When Congress adjourned in November, the bill was in a conference committee, where select members of both legislatures attempt to reconcile differences between the versions.

animal transportIn August, Rep. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) had introduced a bill (HR 2776) similar to Sen Lautenberg's. However, that bill remains in the House Agriculture, and Transportation and Infrastructure committees.

According to the Air Transport Association, more than 500,000 animals are transported by air each year. Only one percent encounter problems. These range from minor issues such as unapproved kennels, no health certificates, and missed connections and flights to those more serious, such as loss, injury, or death of the animal. Most injuries to traveling animals result from mishandling by baggage personnel, severe temperature fluctuations, insufficient oxygen in cargo holds, or damage to kennels.

The Animal Welfare Act outlines airline requirements for temperature, shipping documents, food and water, and cage sizes for animals traveling on commercial airplanes. But budget limitations have resulted in an inadequate number of inspectors from the USDA-APHIS's Animal Care program to properly police the airlines.

In its Oct 15, 1999 issue, JAVMA reported that Trans World Airlines had been charged by the USDA with negligence nearly three years after a Golden Retriever died during a domestic flight. The charges ranged from TWA's alleged failure to prevent overheating and unnecessary discomfort, to not providing an APHIS investigator with information about the dog's death within a reasonable time frame.

There are several similar accounts of mishandling of animals by airlines each year.

Airlines are not required by law to report incidents of animal loss, injury, or death. Furthermore, consumers have no way of knowing about the airline's safety record with regard to transporting animals.

As it stands now, Sen Lautenberg's amendment would require several practices within the airline industry to change. Cargo holds would have to be improved to increase ventilation and maintain a safe temperature. Airlines would provide the USDA with advance notice of each flight carrying a live animal, and detailed information about the animals and flight times.

Fines for each violation in which an airline is deemed responsible for injury or death to an animal would be increased from $2,500 to $5,000. Additionally, claims on lost, injured, or killed animals would be assessed at twice the amount of a piece of luggage.

Airlines would be required to provide consumers with a description of the conditions under which animals are transported and the carrier's record with respect to transporting animals. The Department of Transportation would begin reporting negative incidents in its Air Travel Consumer Reports and other consumer publications.

In a letter to Sen John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which was reviewing the aviation reauthorization bill, the AVMA said that, although the intent of the Safe Air Travel for Animals bill is "laudable, [the AVMA] cannot fully support the language as currently written."

There exists a paucity of detailed information, the AVMA said, and what little does exist is often contradictory or inconclusive. For instance, a USDA-sanctioned study concludes that, on the basis of environmental data, the class D cargo hold is a relatively safe area for animals, yet reports of deaths and injuries continue. Meaningful statistics do not exist, with the carriers not required to record the number and species of animals they transport.

Only with such information, the letter continues, can problems encountered during transport be identified and properly addressed, while areas requiring additional study are also recognized.

In the letter, the AVMA expressed its support for the following:

  • an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act requiring airlines to track the number of animals they transport by species and to report any animal injury, loss, or death to the USDA-APHIS Animal Care unit on an annual basis
  • APHIS Animal Care participation in rewriting language pertaining to annual reporting requirements
  • education and training for airline personnel in humane care and handling of animals, to be established by APHIS Animal Care
  • a recommendation that APHIS Animal Care be required to conduct a thorough study to evaluate the safety of the cargo C and D bays for transport of live animals, to be funded and completed within two years
  • identification of problems in air transport, research gaps, and corrective and preventive measures

Commenting about these Association's position, AVMA Executive Board member Dr. Robert A. Dietl (District VI) said that such legislative decisions must be based on statistical data rather than emotions.

Dr. Dietl, who spoke about the Safe Air Travel for Animals bill during the International Pet and Animal Transport Association's annual convention in Chicago late last year, said humane organizations are pushing for changes to the law by emphasizing the negative portions of the Air Transport Association estimate. What is often not mentioned, he said, is that the one percent figure includes missed or delayed flights, and other innocuous events.

For instance, airlines will not transport animals when the temperature at the place of departure and/or the place of entry is considered too hot or cold, ie, less than 10 F or greater than 85 F. "Airlines do a very good job of transporting animals with a minimal amount of problems. What they're lacking is statistics," Dr. Dietl said.

Dr. Dietl was invited to speak at the conference about health certificates and certificates of acclimation. His practice is located near the Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport and every month he examines animals for transport.

Airline representatives attending the conference warned that, if imposed, the regulations set forth in the bill would drive some carriers out of the business of transporting animals, or severely limit transportation and create a backlog or price increase.

According to Dr. Dietl, "The truth and reality probably fall between the Lautenberg amendment and the airlines' position."