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Have pet, shall travel

As I drove Red the Doberman to Baltimore for his flight to New York, my mind was on some other canines: those poor puppies in Chicago. This August, seven of them who had flown in the cargo hold died after their American Airlines flight from Tulsa, Oklahoma, got delayed and the plane apparently sat too long on the tarmac. According to the airline's own policy, the day was too hot to fly pets, but American accepted them from a shipper anyway.

world Updated: Oct 23, 2010 23:09 IST
Joe Yonan

As I drove Red the Doberman to Baltimore for his flight to New York, my mind was on some other canines: those poor puppies in Chicago. This August, seven of them who had flown in the cargo hold died after their American Airlines flight from Tulsa, Oklahoma, got delayed and the plane apparently sat too long on the tarmac. According to the airline's own policy, the day was too hot to fly pets, but American accepted them from a shipper anyway.

Such stories make headlines periodically, which is why I have never considered flying a pet: not my 6-year-old rescue dog, Red; not his goofy predecessor, Gromit; certainly not one of the many cats I've owned over the years. Not until now, that is.

Red and I were trying out Pet Airways, which, as its name indicates, is dedicated to animals. Since it started in 2009, the airline has flown 5,000 pets, a fraction of the estimated 2 million live animals that fly every year on commercial airlines. But it is trying to set a higher standard: no cargo hold, no tarmac delays and, in fact, no human passengers.

Red would be flying on the Beechcraft 1900 twin turboprop without me. Pet Airways makes room for up to 50 “pawsengers” per flight, but we “pet parents” (these are the airlines' terms, not mine) have to find our own transportation. While Red would be winging it from BWI Marshall to MacArthur Airport on Long Island, at a fare of $99 one way, I would be driving.

Unless you have a dog small enough to fit in a carrier under the airplane seat in front of you, flying a pooch is inevitably going to involve some separation anxiety, and Pet Airways is no exception. I had pored over the website's encyclopedic FAQs, and an airline staff member had called me days earlier to go over procedures: health certificate, accurate measurement (for crate selection purposes), discussion of Red's demeanor and crate training. Still, I was nervous: Was I putting my gentleman of a dog at risk?

Pet Airways didn’t know I was a journalist working on a story until later, but the staff inside the “pet lounge” put us both at ease, although my dog didn’t really need much calming. Lounge manager Denise Rocks immediately asked, “Is this Red?” and reached out to scratch him. Pilot Casey Martin called out “Hey, buddy!” from behind the counter. Rocks took the leash while I filled out paperwork and led him around so he could sniff, sniff and sniff some more. Separation anxiety? It was all mine. Red paused to look at me quizzically when I turned to go, then went back to sniffing.

Is flying in cargo dangerous?

Since May 2005, the Department of Transportation has collected monthly data from airlines on pet incidents. Through August 2010, the total was 154 pets who died, 63 injured and 38 lost. (That last number makes it difficult for anyone to argue that animals aren’t being treated like luggage.)

Continental has had the most deaths, at 44, followed by American (33), Delta (22), Alaska (19) and United (16). Those numbers might sound minuscule given the millions of animals that fly every year, but in fact the DOT figures include only pets, while that 2-million-a-year figure is from the Department of Agriculture and includes many non-pets. The airlines don't have to report how many pets they fly every year.

Some say that the airlines have gotten somewhat of a bad rap and that the situation is improving. All large jets have pressurised and climate-controlled cargo areas, says Rachel Ferris, PR director for Petrelocation.com, so it's more important how they handle the pets when they’re not on the plane. She praises Continental’s PetSafe program, which among other things promises that pets are held in climate-controlled cargo offices and transported to planes in climate-controlled vehicles. Even though Continental has had the most deaths since the DOT started tracking the figures, the airline says that’s simply because it flies so many animals: about 110,000 a year. “The animals are cared for at every point by trained ground personnel and handled with extreme care,” said Continental spokeswoman Christen David.

Some airlines won't allow pets to fly in cargo during warmer months or when the temperature exceeds certain limits. Continental, for one, prohibits adult English bulldogs and other snub-nosed breeds from flying mid-May to mid-September. These breeds’ breathing difficulties make them more susceptible to medical problems from stress and lack of ventilation on flights, and they have accounted for about half of the canine deaths, according to the DOT.

Ferris and others stress the need for dogs to have a thorough veterinary exam before flying, especially if they are older, and be trained to be comfortable in a crate. “If people approached air travel the way they approach major surgery — is your pet healthy enough to fly, young enough to fly? — pets would fly a lot more safely,” said Ferris.

Pet Airways, meanwhile, echoes what groups such as the Humane Society and PETA, along with the Web site Petfinder.com, say: If your pet is too big to fly in the passenger section of a plane with you, resist resorting to cargo.

For one thing, even if the pet has been handled well up to that point, when the cargo door closes, unlike on Pet Airways, no humans can monitor the animals for the duration of the flight. “It’s good luck, Buffy,” said Betsy Saul, founder of Petfinder.com. “You're putting your pet in a dangerous situation, unsupervised.”

Saul’s site studies the pet-friendliness of airlines every year and announces its favorites. Last year, before Pet Airways had really gotten off the ground, the top honor went to Continental for its PetSafe programme. This year, the fledgling airline won the top spot, while JetBlue was also singled out for its refusal to accept animals in cargo. While she acknowledges that airlines have made “huge strides,” Saul added: “It’s pretty cut and dried. No airline that still allows pets in cargo doesn’t have deaths. Shipping them in cargo is frankly inconsistent with being assured of your pet’s survival.”

If cargo is the only option and you can’t drive, Saul said, maybe you should reconsider taking your pet in the first place. “I’m sure your pet would love to be with you,” she said, “but there are probably a lot of other people your pet would be happy to be with, too.”

Pet Airways co-founder Alysa Binder puts it another way: “I wouldn't put a human family member down there,” she said. “Why would I do that to my pet?”

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