A family is mourning the death of their young dog, which died on United Flight 1284 en route to New York’s LaGuardia airport from Houston Intercontinental Airport on Tuesday evening. A flight attendant had insisted that the 10-month-old French Bulldog puppy be sealed in the overhead bin for the duration of the three-hour flight, against the passengers’ protests. The dog barked for a long time on the flight, before going silent. Upon landing, the family discovered their dog was lifeless.
The tragic story was shared on Twitter by fellow passenger Maggie Gremminger, and has since gone viral, with an outraged public expressing their dismay over the incident, with many on social media insisting on boycotting the airline — especially in the wake of other negative PR debacles, including the death of a giant rabbit in a cargo hold last July.
In regards to the United attendant’s behavior, Gremminger tweeted that “Myself and a fellow passenger felt like that was NOT a thing. I am not a flight attendant tho. Maybe they have air ventilation in there that I didn’t know about. I tried googling rules about pets on board but didn’t have ample time before [takeoff].”
Indeed, this was not protocol, and United said in a statement, “This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.”
However, the incident has left many pet owners understandably concerned about bringing their animals on flights, and like Gemminger, wanting to know more about their rights for flying with pets. In an effort to make sure that every pet owner is informed, here we outline all of the rights a pet owner has when traveling the skies with their animals, along with the risks associated with doing such, the safety measures that are in place, and additional precautions you can take.
The official policy for traveling with animals on planes
Typically, dogs and cats must be at least eight weeks old to travel on a plane, and small pets are able to travel within the cabin if they are in proper carriers. Pets that are traveling in the cabin need to go through security, but they should not go through the x-ray tunnel (you have the right to insist upon this if a TSA agent is making you do so). Place the empty crate on the conveyor belt, then carry your pet or walk it through the security system with a leash. Allow for additional screening time.
United’s pet policy states the following: “A pet traveling in cabin must be carried in an approved hard-sided or soft-sided kennel. The kennel must fit completely under the seat in front of the customer and remain there at all times.” United goes on to explain that more leeway is given to soft-sided kennels, as they are more malleable in under-seat space. If the animal cannot fit under the seat, it needs to be checked (as if it were baggage, but with different fees) for stowing in the cargo hold. Most airlines have similar policies. Under no circumstances should a pet be stowed in the overhead bin, as there is no air circulation. You have the right as a passenger to demand that the animal be properly checked, if it cannot fit under the seat upon boarding.
If you are stowing an animal in the cargo hold, know that your pet will not be stored in the same location as the suitcases; the planes have dedicated, regulated areas for live cargo. The carriers (whether it be for in-cabin or cargo transportation) should have disabled wheels, ventilation, a waterproof bottom, and a spring locked door that the pet won’t be able to get open mid-flight. Pets should be able to stand up and turn around within the crate. The pet should also be equipped with hydration.
Live Animal and Directional Sticker are usually mandatory, and you should also include the name of pet, your name and cell phone number, any medical considerations, temperament issues, and a picture of your pet. It’s a good idea to include the pet’s veterinary information as well. Written instructions for food and water must accompany all animals.
Additionally, pets should not be tranquilized for travel as it can affect their breathing, which is integral to keep regulated during air travel. You should also carry a certificate from your vet stating that the animal has all mandated shots and procedures. Be sure to check if your pet needs its own passport or additional vaccinations, which depends on the country you are traveling to.
Cost of traveling with a pet
Small pets traveling in the cabin typically cost $125. Fees to check your pet as luggage typically range from $50 to $500, depending on size, weight, and carrier. Support animals, such as seeing-eye dogs, do not cost extra in most circumstances. But due to what can be chalked up to a number of cases of customers taking advantage of loose enforcement, the definition of what exactly qualifies as a support animal is tightening. United drew headlines back in January by refusing to allow an alleged “emotional support peacock” to board a flight, perhaps the most public-facing incident of a continued effort by many airlines to tighten restrictions on emotional support animals. In most cases, emotional support animals are not subjected to a cabin fee, but it is important that their status as a service animal is well documented and that you carry the paperwork.
The risks associated with flying with pets by the numbers
While this recent tragedy has many fliers worried, the overwhelming majority of pets arrive safely to their destination. According to the US Department of Transportation, over two million animals fly annually in the United States; in 2016, 26 animals died and 22 were injured. Not to downplay the deaths of those pets, but the stats are strikingly in favor of your animals’ well-being: the accident rate is less than 1 in 10,000. Assuming proper protocol is followed, the animal should be safe.
In accordance with the federal Animal Welfare Act, animals may not be exposed to temperatures less than 45 degrees Fahrenheit, unless they are accompanied by a certificate signed by a veterinarian stating that they are acclimated to lower temperatures. If you are especially concerned about the temperature of the flight, opt to travel during spring or fall, when planes are unlikely to enter any extreme lows or highs in temperature (though that is more of a concern during the outdoor loading and unloading process, versus the in-flight temperatures, which along with the pressure should be regulated).
Know your pet’s anxiety levels
One comforting factor in the equation is that no one knows your pet like you do — as the owner, or “human” in pet-centric circles, you need to be aware of the pet’s anxieties and their tolerance level for them. Give your pet a “voice” in the conversation by considering their likely response to certain triggers that may arise — whether that be people, noises, confined spaces, or any number of other factors that you have personally witnessed your pet react to. If flying sounds like something your dog will suffer to get through even in the best of circumstances, perhaps a road trip or train journey is in order instead.
Additional precautions you can take
- At the time you book your trip, you need to call the reservations number of the airline and tell them that you will be traveling with an animal (unless you are able to do so online). Then, reconfirm one to two days before departure that you will be bringing your pet.
- Ahead of your flight, acclimate your pet to the travel carrier, especially if the animal is not typically in a crate or cage at home. Doing so will alleviate the animal’s stress, and allow it to smell familiar to them in-flight.
- Fly direct whenever possible. This reduces travel time and the amount of handling your pet will need to get to the end destination. If a layover is unavoidable, ask if you can collect your pet after the initial flight. The animal must then be boarded again onto the second plane no matter what, and this allows you to have more control over the situation and thus can better ensure the animal gets where it needs to go. Additionally, a bit of face to face time with you may put them (at least partially) at ease.
- Show up extra early to the airport in case of any issues. If everything goes smoothly, the opportunity is always there to spend the extra time cooling the nerves over a cocktail in the terminal.
- If you are the one with high anxiety levels, you have the right to inquire about your pet’s well-being. Tell the ticket agent at the gate that you would like to get confirmation that your pet has been loaded in the plane. Ask a crew member to inform the captain that a live animal is in the hold (they will probably already know that, but it will make you feel better to ask).
- You can opt to purchase pet travel insurance from an IPATA-approved insurer, such as the aptly named Pet Travel Insurance. Doing so will cover medical expenses for the animal if any accidents occur while traveling. The duration of coverage lasts from when your pet is dropped off at one airport to when it is picked up at its destination.
There’s no denying that flying with a pet can be stressful. No matter the amount of research done, fees paid, and time allowed, anxiety is an unfortunate part of bringing four-legged family members with you on a trip. That said, the practice is extremely common and these regulations are in place to keep your pet safe. The United Airlines incident was a result of a staff member not following protocol (the carrier declined to say if the flight attendant had been fired at the time of publication). However, it may also speak to a potential lack of thorough training on these issues for staff. While absolutely heartbreaking for the family, the fellow passengers, and animal lovers everywhere, we hope that this incident can shine a light on the rights pet owners have on flights, and not discourage them from traveling for fear of their pet’s safety.