Airlines offer partial picture of animal safety on flights

Posted at 2:20 PM, Oct 02, 2014

Harley was the bulldog's name. He was pronounced dead at baggage claim at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last year despite a passenger's attempt at cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Two months later, a mixed-breed Rottweiler arrived lifeless at Sea-Tac in his chewed-out kennel, dead of what later was diagnosed as aspiration pneumonia. And at Logan International Airport in Boston, a male cat named Daunte twice escaped from his kennel before he could be loaded into the cargo hold; he was found the next day after a ramp vehicle had struck him dead.

The three were among at least 62 animals that died, were injured or lost since 2010 while being flown aboard Alaska Airlines, a tally that makes the Seattle-based company one of the nation's leading carriers in recent years for reported pet casualties.

Only Delta, the nation's busiest airline, with six times Alaska's passenger traffic, reported more incidents, 74, to the U.S. Department of Transportation during the same period. But for 2013 and for the first seven months of this year, Alaska topped the casualty rankings.

The reasons for Alaska's number of victims are unclear. The company suspects it may handle more than its share of animals. Alaska is practically the house airline in its namesake state, where residents have few alternatives for shipping their pets long distances.

Alaska, the nation's ninth-largest carrier by passenger traffic, has one of the industry's most pet-friendly policies. It offers "Fur-st Class Care" for most small domesticated pets, including potbellied pigs, birds, hamsters, turtles and nonvenomous snakes, either in the passenger cabin or in the plane's climate-controlled cargo hold. Several domestic carriers, including JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and US Airways, do not accept even dogs or cats as cargo.

Alaska also is one of few airlines to accept snub-nosed dogs, breeds that are more susceptible to heatstroke and respiratory issues.

Bobbie Egan, spokeswoman for Alaska, said the company ferries about 80,000 pets annually, virtually all of them without a hitch. She said Alaska employees are specially trained and follow strict federal guidelines to ensure safety.

"Transporting pets, whether in the cabin or as checked baggage in our cargo hold, to us is just like transporting a family member," she said.

In all, Alaska and other U.S. carriers count several dozen animal injuries, losses or deaths annually -- a minuscule fraction of the estimated several hundred thousand animals transported by air.

In the vast majority of incidents, pets suffer unexplained deaths or hurt themselves while attempting to escape their kennels. Airlines are rarely found to be at fault.

The Transportation Department figures, however, capture only a partial safety picture. That's because the federal agency currently requires tracking only for household pets. That exempts scores of other animals, including those bound for pet stores or research labs.

Starting Jan. 1, the department will require airlines to fill in some -- but not all -- of the missing data. That's when airlines for the first time will have to report the total number of animals they handle, finally making it possible to calculate complaint rates.

More significant, the agency expanded incident-reporting requirements to include not only all warm-and coldblooded household pets, but dogs and cats shipped by breeders and suppliers to retailers and researchers.

The rule changes come four years after the Animal Legal Defense Fund petitioned the agency to close loopholes it said camouflaged the true extent of risks to animals. Three U.S. senators, including Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., also urged the department to expand incident reports to animals that aren't pets.

The National Association of Biomedical Research opposed the proposed rules as an "unnecessary" burden and cost to carriers, breeders and research facilities. Airlines for America, whose members include Alaska and most other major airlines as well as UPS and FedEx, lodged similar objections.

The Transportation Department finally decided to exempt commercial shipments of animals other than dogs and cats from reporting requirements. That was a setback for animal-welfare organizations that had argued to include, for example, monkeys and other primates bound for laboratories.

Flying has been shown to be particularly hazardous to short-nosed or snub-nosed dogs. The breeds, which include French and English bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers and shih tzus, by Alaska's calculations accounted for nearly 40 percent of its 16 pet deaths during the past two years.

United Airlines accepts short-nosed breeds as checked baggage, but Delta and American Airlines do not. Egan said Alaska is reviewing its policy on such breeds.

Mary Beth Melchior, founder of Where is Jack?, a pet travel safety-advocacy group in Miami Beach, Fla., said Alaska and its competitors can do more to avert potential harm. One way would be to refuse pets as cargo if they seem unfit to fly.

Another way, she said, would be to better train baggage and cargo workers, who in some cases are employed by outside contractors.

Your dog, cat, rabbit or other household pet can fly with you-- but not on all airlines, not to all destinations and not at all times. So check your carrier's policy on whether it accepts pets in the passenger cabin only or in the baggage compartment, whether pets can fly international routes, or in hot or cold months.

Animal-welfare experts generally advise against transporting pets by plane. If you must, here's how you can ease the stress of flying:

  • Check whether you need a health certificate and a rabies-vaccination certificate from a vet. Document requirements vary by states and other destinations.
  • Animals flying in the passenger cabin must be small enough to stow their kennels under the seat.
  • Avoid connecting flights and don't travel during times of extreme temperatures.
  • Sedation is not recommended, as it can cause problems for animals in high altitudes.
  • Make sure the kennel is large enough for the animal to stand up straight and turn around.
  • Kennels should be well-built and escape-proof.

Source: Seattle Times staff