Animals and the Not-So-Friendly Skies

Companion Animals and Air TransportationNot too long ago, the loss, injury or death of a companion animal during air travel was buried in the airlines’ “mishandled baggage” report filed with the Department of Transportation (DoT)—if it was acknowledged at all. In 2000, after hearing about how airlines treat their animal passengers and the dangerous conditions to which animals are subjected during air travel, the 106th Congress told airlines to start filing separate reports for any incidents involving the loss, injury, or death of an animal. While the 106th Congress failed to pass a more comprehensive pet safety bill, at the very least the availability of this new information would enable consumers to access and evaluate airlines' animal safety records. Five more years passed before the DoT actually issued regulations to enforce the reporting requirement, but the information is now included in the department’s Air Travel Consumer Reports.

Congress also required that DoT share this information with the US Department of Agriculture so that it could investigate any possible violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which sets handling and care standards for transport of animals. Unfortunately, USDA oversight (spotty at best) is insufficient to prevent animals from suffering, getting lost, or dying at some point after their human companions have left them in the hands of the airline industry. A review of the incidents documented since airlines began filing the mandatory reports reveals that dogs and cats have been left sitting on the tarmac for hours and even days. Their carriers have been dropped and run over by forklifts. Animals have been abandoned in dangerous cargo areas, put on the wrong flight or no flight at all, or escaped - never to be seen again. Between the filing of the first report in July 2005 (for incidents occurring in May 2005) and the report from May 2017 (for incidents occurring in March 2017), 379 animals were reported to have died during air travel, 208 were injured, and 56 were lost.

Flying with your dog or cat

These data are discouraging not only because of the losses they represent, but also because we know that they show only part of the picture. Before 2015, airlines needed only to report the death, injury, or loss of an animal who “at the time of transportation, [was] being kept as a pet in a family household in the United States.” This excluded animals used in exhibitions, the many thousands of animals shipped to laboratories, companion animals belonging to families outside the United States, and the many dogs and cats shipped by breeders, especially domestic and foreign puppy mills. After the death of seven puppies being shipped by a breeder on American Airlines, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a petition with the DoT and the Federal Aviation Administration to amend the regulations “to obligate air carriers to report on incidents involving any warm or cold blooded animal, and to identify any relevant shipper/consignor and consignee involved.” This would have removed the limitation that the reporting requirement applied only in cases of “family pets” within the United States. Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) wrote to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood requesting the same regulatory change.

Effective January 2015, the DoT did indeed change its regulation to expand the reporting requirement, but in the process created another loophole. While airlines now have to report deaths, injuries, and losses involving not just companion animals owned by families within the United States, but also dogs and cats in commercial shipments, this requirement does not cover any other animals, such as those being transported to pet stores or to research facilities, or for exhibition. This still leaves potentially thousands of animals for which no reports are mandated in the event of their death, injury, or loss.

In addition, airlines must file end-of-year reports, even if they had no reported animal incidents, and must include the total number of animals transported. While this is useful information, it has had an unintended effect: The airlines are able to downplay the number of animal deaths, injuries, and losses by comparing them to the TOTAL number of animals flown. The problem is, most of the animals flown still aren’t covered by the reporting requirements so it is comparing apples to oranges. Instead, the reported numbers should be compared only to the numbers of animals in the reportable categories who are flown by the airlines. Better yet would be requiring airlines to report all incidents involving all the animals they transport, including the many rats, mice, and other animals besides dogs and cats sent to laboratories. Sadly, that would likely result in a spike in the reported numbers of animals who die or are lost or injured as a result of air travel.

Airlines' reports may someday more accurately reflect the realities of air travel for animals. However, they will not change the fundamental fact that, without other changes—such as those that would have been implemented had Congress passed the more comprehensive Safe Air Travel for Animals Act (106th Congress, HR 2776, S 1193)—allowing an animal to travel in the cargo hold of a plane remains an unwise and dangerous thing to do. We strongly advise against flying with your dog or cat on a passenger airline unless he/she is small enough to be placed under your seat in a carrier. If that is not an option, consider other alternatives, such as professional pet movers, or Pet Airways, an airline that flies companion animals in planes retrofitted specifically for them. There is also Operation Roger, a service through which truckers help transport pets from shelters to new homes, or help families reconnect with companion animals they had to leave behind.