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dog in carrier When I moved back to the United States from Romania, where I’d been living for two and a half years, I brought home a new husband and, just as importantly, our cat. We’d rescued her from an animal shelter two years before and there was no way we were leaving her behind. So we jumped through all the hoops presented to us — finding an FAA-compliant crate outside of the U.S., getting our cat micro-chipped, having a vet create a pet passport (basically just a record of her health and vaccines) — before my husband crated her up one November morning and brought her with him to the airport for his Lufthansa flights from Bucharest to Frankfurt and then Frankfurt to New York City.

Fourteen hours later my husband and cat arrived safely at JFK. It never really occurred to me that he would land safely and she wouldn’t. But after reading about a recent investigation by NBC Bay Area, I’m counting my lucky stars it turned out so well.

Turns out lots of animals don’t make it. Most stories don’t get into the news, but some do — like the case of former model Maggie Rizer. Back in September 2012, her 2-year-old golden retriever died during a flight from the East Coast to San Francisco.

Perhaps the most famous of all mistreated pets was Jack, the Norwegian forest cat that disappeared in JFK airport after an American Airlines baggage handler dropped his crate. Though he eventually turned up after falling through the ceiling in a customs area, he was so sick and dehydrated that he had to be put down.

Sadly, these stories are not as uncommon as we’d like to think. According to the NBC Bay Area investigation, 302 animals have died, been injured or disappeared while in the care of commercial airlines over a six-year span. The most common cause of death as determined by the airlines was “unknown.” Other common causes — again, as determined by the airlines themselves — were pre-existing medical conditions, escapes from the kennels, self-infliction and natural deaths.

The investigation even revealed which airlines have the worst record. Delta Airlines saw the most tragic outcomes, followed by Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Continental and United (those last two are now one single entity).

Traveling with Pets

So, does knowing all this make me think twice about flying my cat in the future? You bet it does! What’s worse than knowing that my animal may not be safe in an airline’s care is reading about how the airlines do everything in their power to deny any responsibility for the deaths. Going forward, if I can’t drive to a destination with my cat, then she’s just going to have to fly coach with me.

Have you ever flown your pet somewhere? What was your experience like? And do you think airlines have a responsibility to get your pet to their ultimate destination safe and sound? Weigh in below.

– written by Dori Saltzman

18 Responses to “Is Your Pet Safe Flying the “Friendly” Skies?”

  1. Aubrey says:

    I haven’t flown with my dog, but it definitely wouldn’t be my first choice. If I can avoid flying with him, I will go out of my way to do so. Thanks for sharing this info!

  2. Oh this story is heart-breaking and there are many more such instances. Pets also travel in crates in the cargo hold, where it is cold and dark. I also think it is high time animals be given passports instead of being kept in quarantine. And frankly, I don’t see why cats and small dogs can’t be bought their own seat on the plane so they can sit next to their owners

  3. Michaela Buhler says:

    Just as attitudes on where to allow animals (not on trains, subways, buses etc.) are very different from Europe, flying with an animal on an American airline poses definitely a greater risk than let’s say Lufthansa, Air France etc. And yes, you should be able to buy a seat for your pet – most pets who travel are much better behaved than some children.
    When I wrote a letter to Amtrak why one cannot take even a small animal in a carrying cage on the train, I was told that this was the rule! Smart thinking indeed!

  4. IPATA says:

    Shipping a pet by air is extremely safe. The International Pet and Animal Transportation Association (IPATA), is a nonprofit group that is dedicated to the well-being of animals during transport.

    First, airlines place animals in a separate area, apart from the luggage, that is well lit and climate controlled. The law requires commercial aircraft cargo areas to be pressurized and climate controlled. Air circulates so pets are breathing the same air as the human passengers. There have been some deaths due to extreme temperatures – but that is due to outside temperatures and not the regulated cargo areas.

    There are very few animal incidents when compared to the number of pets transported by air each year. Millions of animals travel by airplane. Unfortunately, the U.S. does not require airlines to report the total number of animals transported during the month; only the number of incidents.

    Professional pet shippers work with airlines to ensure safe travel conditions. There are many instances where families must fly with their pets and because of false facts that are circulated throughout the media; they are scared to do so.

  5. Just to be fair, while these stories are true, these are mostly people who tried to ship their pets by themselves. Most people who try to ship their pet by themself will use kennels that are way too small for their pet. If you look at the dog, and picture above, this kennel is completely wrong. This kennel is a snap together kennel, which can break easily. This kennel is absolutely too small for that dog, which can cause the dog to suffocate while in transit. You need to use a professional because an airline may not catch something like this, and how would you know if this is not what you do? Here at Animals Away, we make sure that our water bowls are frozen, that way the pet has water during the flight. We make sure that an animal will have a stop over at a pet hotel if this is a long trip. Pet hotels are located in FRA, LHR, and AMS when you are flying internationally. We are all members of IPATA, and work daily to ensure the safety of everyone’s animals. I have many repeat clients who use us every time they relocate, and would never trust their pet to anyone else. When traveling domestically stops are also important, and as I said before, we take all measures to ensure safe pet travel.

  6. Most of the problems happen when a well meaning pet owner ships a pet themselves, but seldom does anything happen with a professional pet shipper. Of the 2-3 million pets estimated shipped by air in any given year around the world, a tiny fraction of one percent ever have a problem – and in my experience in working with the airlines, it is usually related to an underlying, undiagnosed medical problem, like heart or lung condition (except for escapes, usually due to in inappropriate crate). Not always, but very frequently. Mt airlines will require a necropsy in the event of a death to find out the reason why. The DOT reports do not give a complete picture, since only the numbers of problems were reported – they don’t list the total number of pets the airline shipped in that month of reporting.
    As the immediate Past President of IPATA – comments above from our office – we would not be moving pets as individual businesses if we thought harm would come to the pets in our care. Airlines have much imporoved over the years with their staff training; and the IATA Live Animal Regulations, which in part governs airliens, will require staff at airlines accepting pets all be specifically trained in a Live Animal handling course beginning in 2014. I would ship my own pets – and have.

  7. Bill Krzywiecki says:

    I’ve traveled by air with my dog countless times and without problems.

    A secure crate will prevent accidental release. Years ago, I had a cat “Houdini” escape from his soft crate in the passenger cabin once. Prophetic name I suppose. He would have been safer in the cargo pet section.

    As required by the airline, I go to the vet to make sure my dog is “fit to fly” and to obtain an airline required health certificate. He travels in the pet section of the cargo hold. A healthy dog, and a properly secured airline crate are all that are necessary for safe trip.

    When you think of it, a lot of people die upstairs in the passenger cabin from heart failure, not the fault of the airline. Dogs can miss connecting flights just like people. The airline (Delta) has always taken care of my dog properly when this happened.

  8. Peta says:

    Flying with your dog could be a stressful situation for the animal. If possible, driving with the dog may be preferred.

  9. Janet Sinclair says:

    United PetSafe almost killed my Greyhound on July 3, 2013 on our flights from San Diego to Boston. My dog and my cat were never allowed out of their crates, even though I had paid extra for a “Safety Stop” in Houston. They were never given water nor food, nor allowed to relieve themselves for 12.5 hours! They were NOT transported in an air conditioned PetSafe van, as promised in United’s marketing materials and as promised on the phone and at the airport. The baggage handler kicked my Greyhound’s crate, as she tumbled around in the crate, across the tarmac six times, to push her under the wing of the plane and they left my dog and cat under the wing of the plane in Houston’s stifling heat. I have video and pictures proving this. The temperature on my phone was 91 degrees in Houston, it had to be at least 100 degrees on that tarmac. My pets were finally put in the cargo where they sat for more than one hour as work crews tried to fix a seat belt problem and then an air-conditioning problem. The cargo door was open allowing the brutal heat to cook my animals. We had to change planes because of the faulty air-conditioning and I never saw the PetSafe van take my animals out of the cargo. I was informed that I had to get off the plane immediately. My animals were still in cargo. Upon arrival in Boston the cargo employee stated, “This is animal cruelty” while looking at my Greyhound and her crate. Her crate was covered in blood, feces and urine. My cat’s crate was covered in feces and vomit. My Greyhound suffered severe dehydration and heat stroke. She needed to be hospitalized in intensive care for 3 days; her kidneys were failing due to heatstroke, and her liver was struggling. She was urinating and defecating blood. My vet bill was more than $2700. I detailed everything to United Airlines and asked to be reimbursed for the vet bills. Their offer to me was $1000, and that was to be given to me only if I signed a 4 page non-disclosure agreement. United claims she had a pre-existing condition and they refuse to tell me what this “pre-existing condition” is. I have a letter from our vet in California indicating she was in perfect health and had NO pre-existing condition. The vet who treated her in Massachusetts has written a letter indicating that her medical problems were brought upon by her mistreatment by United, resulting in heat stroke. DO NOT FLY YOUR PETS IN CARGO WITH UNITED. They have taken absolutely no responsibility for the brutal and neglectful manner in which my animals were treated. They killed Maggie Rizer’s dog and Michael Jarboe’s dog last year. Google their stories. In all of our cases they refuse to take responsibility and blame it on a “pre-existing condition.” I only wish I had read about what they did to Maggie and Michael’s dogs before I ever entrusted my animals to them. Please share this with your associates, friends and family. DO NOT TRUST PETSAFE. Your animals are NOT SAFE and United will take NO responsibility, whether they injure them or kill them!

    • Micaela yoon says:

      What should I do? My mom bought a ticket for my 7-years-old Yorkshire terrier to go with me in the cabin, but the company says that te kennel’s height must be 7inches but as you can tell no animal can stand up in that measure. I dont want to send her in the PetSafe since I heard your story. What should I do? My flight is next week and I really want to take her with me. Please help me.

  10. Tara says:

    I have to move to Denmark for work in a month and I’m so scared because I keep hearing horror stories. I have to take my cat with me. I can never abandon her. If anything happens to her, it would kill me.

  11. John Burton says:

    United Airlines Petsafe program needs abolished. On December 16th 2013, I flew with my two pups from Anchorage Alaska to New Orleans, La. Upon arrival one of my pups had his teeth thru his lip and two of his toe nails were ripped out. This can only be accomplished with a great deal of force (like dropping the kennel). When I retrieved my pups from the place in New Orleans, I was offered the following report…”your dogs teeth were caught on the gate…..you might want to get him checked out”. I understand that sometimes, bad things happen. Shouldn’t I have had a conversation with the one of the dedicated handling team members? He was in their care and was injured pretty badly. These are the things they tell you they offer:

    The PetSafe program provides these benefits:

    A dedicated 24-hour Live Animal Desk
    United employees worldwide who have completed a USDA-approved, customized live animal-handling course
    Enhanced tracking and tracing capabilities.
    Dedicated PetSafe handling teams in all airport hubs
    Weather and proactive shipment monitoring
    More PetSafe climate-controlled vans than any other carrier
    Pet hotels at Newark, Houston and Chicago airports

    I cannot confirm the rest of the items, but this is not the first time he has flown. It was the first (and will be the last) time he flew on United Airlines.

  12. Peter K. says:

    I would sue United if I had the energy after my move from DC to SF. From the moment i had to drop off my dog at DCA with two clerks arguing with each other over the paperwork, to one of them complaining of back problems so she could not transport my pet (I had to load him myself onto a platform cart), to having to pick up my dog at a hanger way out of SFO, unloaded along with machinery and other dogs amidst construction going on in the hangar. I will never forget the sight of my dog Benji being dumped in the midst of hell, with him barking his lungs out in bewilderment and distress from the transportation, the construction, the dust – and on and on. You are a scam, and I fully intend to expose you in all corners of the internet. I will never fly united again.

  13. Anthony says:

    Hi everyone, I fly frequently between the United States and Italy (bout 5-6 times a year) and many times I have brought my 2 cats (4 year old brother and sister orange haired tabbies) with me. I almost always fly Alitalia and I have to say I have NEVER (AND THANK GOD!!!) had an issue with my cats being transported internationally. Together they weigh too much to be in the cabin so I put them in a large series 400 kennel that is approved for air travel, I pay a fee and Alitalia loads them into the cargo hold of the plane. From what I understand, our animals once pass through security are taken down into a temperature controlled waiting area. After which they are the last thing to be loaded unto the plane (which will be temperature controlled) remember the airlines know you are bringing the animals so they preheat or cool the hold before they are put on and as far as ALITALIA this happens even before takeoff.
    It is true however that excess heat really is the most dangerous fact in flying pets that is why during the summer take a late or evening flight to avoid the excessive heat and make sure you have the documentation you need to avoid hold ups.
    Honestly, the HUMANE SOCIETY claims it is extremely dangerous flying pets and this just is NOT TRUE…. They claim on their website hundreds of pets have been killed in transport but if you take into account millions of animals are flown around the globe each year that is only a fraction of one percent. I think that the statement they make is even dangerous cause in all honesty, if you need to transport your pet from NY to LA it certainly is a better choice to fly the pet on a six hour flight then put him in your car and drive 17 hours a day for 3 days.
    Again, the chances that something will happen to your pet in Air Travel is but a fraction of a percent each time any of us get’s into a car our chance of having an accident is 1 out of 8 (not good odds).
    Lastly, I would recommend evaluating your situation. If you are going on a short trip (anything less then a month or min 3 weeks) it probably would be better to leave your pet home. However if you are moving especially anymore than a 6 hour car trip away then Air Travel is your best bet. In addition to air line recommendations do your homework: check the temperature at departure and arrival, choose a flight time to avoid excessive heat and cold (depending on time of year), buy a Kennel Club Approved Air Safe Carrier and secure it with ZIP ties. Best of all something I ALWAYS do when I fly with pets. As your flight is being boarded hang around until nearly the last passengers have been boarded go to the flight help desk and ask them to contact the baggage handlers and give you a confirmation your pets have been boarded on the flight. They will ALWAYS be able to give you an answer. Most time they walkie talkie down the baggage handlers or check the flight list.

  14. Great post! Been reading a lot about this recently. Thanks for the info!

  15. Amy D. says:

    Like Peter K., I want to expose United Airlines. Pet lovers should beware of the PetSafe Program. It is anything but safe. I adopted a cat from a sanctuary in late June and he was shipped from Las Vegas to Washington, DC. He suffered from acute brain swelling after his arrival. There’s no doubt in my mind (or my vet’s mind) that something happened on the flight (e.g., a pressurization problem in cargo, exposure to a toxin) or on the tarmac (e.g., heat stroke). I was fortunate that the cat survived after three days in intensive care, but he has permanent neurological issues — and I had thousands of dollars in vet bills. United denied all liability and sent me a really rude letter. Pet lovers, beware. Stay away from United Airlines. My cat almost died.

  16. Sarah S says:

    I used the United Petsafe program to relocate my three beloved cats from England to Vermont with us on 16 Jan 2016. I had to use United Airlines because I was on government orders, but I would have preferred British Airways. Anyway, I made the pet reservations two months in advance of the departure date and was told different information each time I called. Every time I rang, I spoke to a different receptionist and their range of knowledge and experience was vast. I also found them generally rude and indifferent; at one point, I even asked to speak with the supervisor to complain about one particular receptionist’s unbelievably rude demeanor. She actually tried to defend him and we argued for a bit about the concept of customer service until she finally admitted responsibility. I also called back several times in the weeks and days leading up to the departure just to confirm the reservation. Another big issue was about the health certificate. The Petsafe instructions indicated that only a health certificate was required for cats and that only dogs required rabies vaccination documentation. I called Petsafe to verify that no vaccinations were required for cats (I try to avoid vaccinations if at all possible) and even e-mailed them so as to have the verdict in writing. Each time I enquired, Petsafe assured me that no vaccinations were required. On the day of the flight, the front desk person at United, who was very rude, insisted that vaccination records were mandatory and threatened to stymie our travel plans. I asked her to ring Petsafe and the person she spoke with agreed that vaccinations were necessary. When the phone was transferred to me, I asked the Petsafe person to check the regs, and, after a long wait, he returned with the verdict that none were required. So we were finally good to go, but not before a huge amount of additional stress. The airport staff didn’t seem to know much about animals and apparently regarded cats as exotic creatures. They did not handle the crates as gently as I would have wished, but we were helpless to intervene after they left our sight. We flew from Heathrow to Newark and we were told to pick up our cats in Newark to transfer them to the connecting flight to Burlington, VT. This did not go smoothly and the Petsafe desk was inadequately manned. We had to take one of the cats in the cabin with us, as the connecting flight used a smaller jet. I watched on the Burlington-bound flight as my two cargo cats sat at the side of the luggage loading dock for at least 20 minutes in the frigid January temperatures (@ 20 degrees Fahrenheit and windy). I took a photo of their hapless carriers on my phone, which the flight attendent apparently took offense to. I angrily replied that I did not appreciate the way in which my cats were being treated and she just blew me off. In Burlington, the United agent on duty was totally useless and unhelpful, but an off-duty United agent visiting from NJ came to the rescue. While my story ends without tragedy, there was certainly an unsatisfactory degree of stress and inconvience. In summary, I would never recommend flying with pets unless you absolutely necessary!

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