A Day in the Life of a Pet in Airline Cargo

Posted Jan 19th 2011 03:15 PMUpdated Feb 11th 2011 11:28 AM


Dog in Airline Crate

Every day, thousands of pets fly on U.S. airlines. Most of the time, it's a seamless event and everyone arrives safely. Occasionally it's not -- with some unfortunate results.

More than 140 pets died and 88 were lost or injured while traveling on airplanes between May 2005 and July 2010, according to a Department of Transportation report. So what does happen when your precious pooch goes in cargo? We asked Continental Airlines to show us the trip of one checked pet as it travels from Houston to Newark.

First, there's a little preparation the pet owner needs to do.

A month before the flight
Buy an approved kennel for your pet. All airlines and the DOT require that kennels be big enough for the animal to stand, sit, turn around, and lie down without restriction. Some airlines disallow the kind that fold flat, so check before buying a crate. The kennel must also have two bowls that attach to the inside of the kennel. These will be used to supply water to your animal if needed during flight.

"It's better to err on the larger side when buying a kennel," says Lisa Schoppa, Manager of Continental's PetSafe program. "All you do is increase air circulation and space. Go large if there's a question."

Leave the kennel, with the door open, in a busy area of your home and get the animal used to being in it, suggests Schoppa.

One week to 10 days before the flight:
Visit your vet. This is the time to get the updated rabies certification and a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection, as well as updates or refills on any medications the animal might need. The American Veterinarian Medical Association recommends microchipping your pet to further help identify it.

The night before the flight:
Give your pet a nice, carb-heavy meal and plenty of water. Consider sleeping in an old t-shirt, which you can then place in the pet's crate for the flight. Your scent helps calm the animal. The AVMA recommends only newspaper or thin material be placed on the kennel floor.

Finally, flight day arrives:
Keeping Your Pet Safe
1. Check the rules
Of the major U.S. airlines, only American, Continental and Delta are accepting pets as checked baggage or cargo, and their rules vary. Check the airlines' websites for pet policies. Most airlines allow small pets underneath the seat in front of you in an approved carrier and will charge $100 to 125 each way for the privilege.

2. Try to find a nonstop flight
You will be assured that once the animal goes on the plane, it's not going to have multiple moves and exposure to the outdoors.

3. Don't do drugs or feed them
Just say no to sedatives -- vets don't recommend it. Animals should get a good carb load the day before the flight but no food within four hours of the flight to reduce nausea.

4. Go one on one
Put only one pet in per crate and make sure the crate is well ventilated. Even if airlines allow it, putting two animals in a crate together raises the chances for heat-related problems or other injuries. Remember, most dogs keep cool by panting, so overly close warm quarters make it harder for them to stay cool.

5. Time your flight
In warm weather, choose early morning flights, and in colder weather, choose mid-day flights. The temps will be more moderate at those times.

5:30 a.m. Buddy wakes up, goes for a walk and eagerly climbs in the car for a trip to the airport.

6:00 a.m. You give Buddy one last walk around outside before heading into the cargo facility at Houston. Each city and airline has a different spot, so check with your carrier about where you are supposed to take your pet.

6:15 a.m. Continental Airlines' PetSafe program representative greets Buddy at the counter. Buddy is regretting that big carb load he had yesterday, because now he has to step on a scale to get weighed. The rep also pets and talks to Buddy, checks out his crate and makes sure he looks ready to travel.

The pet treats you've brought for Buddy in a plastic bag, along with his leash and collar, are taped to the top of the crate. Next up is completion of the USDA paperwork and checking the Certificate of Veterinary Inspection.

The crate is sent through the X-ray machine, but not Buddy. According to Sarah Horowitz, spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration, TSA officers "will conduct both a visual inspection and screen for explosives while the pet owner is present." At this point, you will give Buddy a hug and head off to go through security while Buddy gets ready for his flight.

6:45 a.m. The PetSafe agent finishes up the paperwork, affixes live animal labels and arrows on the crate so it is always in the proper position. Plastic zip ties get secured on the crate to ensure the door doesn't fly open accidentally.

7:15 a.m. Buddy stands in his crate in a lighted, heated and air-conditioned cargo holding area, waiting for passengers to board the plane. He's a little nervous since this is his first flight, and he's whimpering. Several other crates sit nearby, some with pets and some with commercial shippers' animals. Continental's pet area is climate controlled, but other airlines require a written statement from your vet that includes what temperature your dog is acclimated to. Airlines restrict shipping animals if the temperature is higher than 85 degrees or if it is below 45 degrees.

8:35 a.m. All luggage has been loaded on the aircraft; passengers are settling into their seats and getting buckled in. Buddy's PetSafe van driver loads his crate and the others for the flight into the van and heads off to the plane. Continental has PetSafe vans in 14 markets. The vans are all climate controlled and allow agents to wait plane-side with the animals for the last five to 10 minutes, with the heater or air-conditioning running.

8:40 a.m. The kennel is strapped to a special section (front or back) of the plane, apart from the other luggage. Animals are loaded last on the aircraft, and a curtain separates them from other cargo. There are no lights on in this portion of the plane, but the temperature is maintained at the same level as the cabin where you are seated, and it is pressurized, as required by the federal Animal Welfare Act. "They are very well protected," says Schoppa.

8:50 a.m. Your flight takes off. After Buddy gets used to the constant jet noise, he settles down and goes to sleep. "Just as babies often go to sleep when they're riding in a car, we find the same effect holds true with the pets we fly," says Schoppa. "We know because we can hear them barking, and once we close the door, they stop barking."

1:15 p.m. You flight arrives in Newark, and before the door opens for the passengers, Buddy is being unbuckled and is the first thing taken off the plane.

1:25 p.m. Buddy's crate is loaded into a PetSafe van and driven off to the animal holding area. PetSafe agents check in on pets to be sure they are comfortable, even offering ice chips, before putting his crate in the secure waiting area for you.

1:45 p.m. You exit security and head over to the cargo area to pick up your pooch. He is ready and waiting, and he starts barking and wagging his tail as soon as he hears your voice. It was a good flight.

A Few Facts About Flying With Your Pet
Airline charges for pet travel varies, but in-cabin rates are about $100 each way, and you must reserve space for your pet when you book your flight. Continental's PetSafe is a cargo program, so charges are calculated by weight for the animal in the crate, starting at $149 one way. American Airlines allows pets as checked baggage and charges $150 each way. Delta charges $200 for pets as checked baggage, but they also offer a cargo option.

The biggest risk in transporting pets on aircraft is heat. The U.S. Department of Transportation warned that short-nosed dogs are at the greatest risk (think English bulldogs or pugs) and accounted for half the animal fatalities. Consider all your options (including boarding your pet or driving to your vacation) if this is a concern to you.

There is a pets-only airline: PetAirways. Flights are limited to nine cities once a week, but pets do fly in the main cabin and are attended throughout by a pet attendant. Sample fare: $264 round-trip from New York's Republic Airport on Long Island to Chicago's Midway.

Photo, TheGiantVermin, Flickr.

Filed Under: Air Travel, Tips & Tricks

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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!

October 28 2013 at 3:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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April 10 2011 at 8:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am so worry about traveling with my pet. Right now, I am moving next week to Africa and I have requested the Checked baggage option with my dog because he doesn't fit underneath the seat in front. He's over 15 pounds but his legs are long and is not comfortable in a soft shelled carrier. After reading about pets dying in airplanes while waiting in hold, or if they forget to turn on the heat on the cargo, it's just killing me!!!
I need to know successful stories of people traveling with pets on DELTA. I am moving to Tunisia, I couldn't find a direct flight. SO mine goes: Charlotte- Atlanta then Atlanta-Paris
then Paris-Tunis. The longest is Atlanta -Paris. I am so scared, I can't leave my dog I don't have anybody and I love him so much!!!!

February 01 2011 at 11:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tom Bruce

Dogs should travel in an air conditioned area and must be fed like everyone else. http://www.digitalundivide.com/get-free-online-airlines-travel-quotes-airfares-guides-and-deals-and-book-plane-tickets-and-hotel-rooms

January 31 2011 at 4:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

P.S. Yes, depending on the length of the flight, ice in the water buckets works well as it melts along the way, and even if it doesn't, they still get a bit of moisture to hold them over until they get there. :)

January 20 2011 at 10:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What they don't tell you is that the cost goes up drastically the larger your pet. We have 2 90# collies that we were hoping to bring to Korea with us. The Army decided that we were flying Delta out of DFW in August. Delta said absolutely not (bc of the heat) even though we were traveling on orders. When I called to price shipping them at a later date (October) they started the quotes at something in the range of $400. Then they asked me their weight. It was over $800 to fly them, and the extra large crate they would require was close to $200. By the time we were finished with the USDA vet appointment, buying the crate and paying the shipping, it would have been close to $1100/dog. Only to turn around and do it again 2 years later. Also, if you're moving overseas check before you go on the exit costs. I have heard that there is a significant charge to shipping pets OUT of Korea in addition to the airline costs. My dogs are living with one of our friends who was kind enough to keep them for our 2 years here.

January 20 2011 at 6:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ~mara's comment
Sometimes it is necesssary that they come along.

I use a full-size kennel and never had the problems you were told. No exit fee. It does depend on the airline though. Korean airlines are seamless in their procedure with excellent service. They always had an agent assigned to stand by my dog until I appear. And their govt vet is right in the airport so there is no running around like on the US side for the paperwork.

January 20 2011 at 9:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if that many animals have died in the cargo area that it is not safe for any animal - dog or cat. I've flown with my dog under my seat and it is most safe. Anyone that has a heart would not put their animal in a dark noisy and often more so than not no heat/air for them. Would you put yourself or a child down there?? NO! you wouldn't so don't do it to your family pets!!

You would be taking a chance with their life!

January 20 2011 at 4:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I flew my 45 pound dog back and forth across the United States probably 15 times in cargo on Northwest, Delta, Frontier, and Alaska Airlines, always with a connection, and she did quite well. If I still had a dog I would not hesitate to do it again (though the greatly increased cost would make me think twice). One thing I found worked quite well was to freeze water in a small pet water bottle and then have it drip into the water tray. This would provide water throughout the flight as it melted without it spilling all over.

January 20 2011 at 3:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Jim I think your being a little harsh. I have a 85lb black lab and she has been every where with us. I am in the military and she has done a total of 4 flights overseas to Europe and we have not had an incident. I'm sure it's not the most plesent conditions for an animal but you make it seem like hell. As for "Armywife", first of all I hope your enjoy Germany, we did. As for your pet flying; all will be fine. In closing, Jim I just want to make clear, I am not disagreeing with you about some of the conditions, but overall it's not as bad as you make it seem and the majority of the animals do fine.

January 20 2011 at 2:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Renato's comment
USAF wife

We have a 98 pound black lab, he is our child !!
And I was a basket case this past November, when we flew him over to England !
I followed all the steps, and dotted all my i's, and crossed my T's according to the "Pet Scheme rules in the UK".
My husband, myself and our black lab "RC" flew on the same plane, with British Airways,
I have to say, they were awesome, even down to the crew on broad !!
RC did great, acted totally normal upon arrival, his huge crate, was just as it was when I put him in it and kissed him bye.
It all was very hard for me, but now I trust British Airways, and I wiil not use anyone else,
so if you are coming to the UK, and need to transport your pet, I think British Airways is the way to go !!
They will always have my business, my RC can never be replaced, he is a special boy !
"As one of the crew members said "They are treated better than we are" !!

January 21 2011 at 5:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

After reading the monthly DOT report I would NEVER let my animal fly in the cargo hold of any airline. The animals are so traumatized they try to chew or claw through their crates and are bloody upon arrival. Don't even think about shipping an animal that is a short faced breed as the DOT report advises. They have a tendency to not do well in flight. If you love your animal keep them at home or take them in your car, but NEVER put them in the cargo hold. Please read the monthly DOT report to see how these animals die are injured or are lost. It also shows the airlines normal response to the animals death. "There wasn't anything we could do to stop it. The animal chewed it's way out of the cage. It's a short nosed breed. We are not at fault".

January 20 2011 at 1:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Jim's comment

If you are traveling to Europe I would suggest flying LTU (now airberlin) They dont have so many flights so you will be sure that your pet will arrive. Your Animal needs to be chipped and have all of the shots and also a health certificate. I hope this will help. Also they also offer great deals.

January 20 2011 at 7:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In my search on how to file a complaint with Continental's animal shipping procedure I stumbled across this blog. I've never shipped an animal before.. and this is the first and very last time I will ever use Continental for myself or animals in the future.

My animal never arrived, the employees are all rude, I was never notified of any delay, the animal is an exotic that can't be left in a shitty cargo area in uncontrolled temps, they first told me they opened his container to put him in another box then told me they didn't touch him. These people showed no care what so ever.. my animal is still currently stuck at newark.. they claim his flight was late and so he never made it onto the plane.. but not one person notified me of this EARLIER when it took place.. and yet.. the connecting flight that should have brought him here... arrived EARLY by 30 minutes.. which means they didn't even look. Further more as I was anxiously waiting my live cargo I heard them say "they indiscriminately unloaded the plane.. they just unloaded and didn't look where it went" to some services members who were all missing all of their luggage.. after everyone was gone and my animal was still a no show I was "helped" by an employee who was text messaging the entire time and didn't listen to a word I said. She kept calling my animal a bird when I advised her what he was. Then when I was attempting to file a complaint with the animal portion I was told by the phone rep that "it is out of my pay grade- you'll have to call back tomorrow to speak with a supervisor".

I spill all this rant.. when what I really am looking for is an answer to send a formal, written complaint.

January 14 2012 at 3:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply