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September 14, 2010 > Ohlone Humane Society: First class, coach or...?

Ohlone Humane Society: First class, coach or...?

By Nancy Lyon

Our animal companions mean a lot to us, and because we are a mobile society, they often travel with us. But if transport involves air travel we may be unintentionally putting their safety and even their lives at risk.

The Humane Society of the United States reports that the airline industry treats live animals as baggage. In the past, airlines have neither responded appropriately to reports of animal injuries, nor provided accurate information to the public.

Commercial flights have standards for animal safety for larger animals and litters yet since 2005 there have been 115 deaths and injuries recorded. According the Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Reports, in 2010 alone, from January through June there has been 10 deaths, three injuries and at least one lost dog reported on commercial flights.

Smaller companion animals are fortunate; most airlines will allow their family the option of taking them on board in the cabin for an additional fee. However, larger animals and litters of young must travel in the cargo hold and that's where the danger lies.

Animals shipped in cargo holds face risks including excessively hot or cold temperatures, poor ventilation, scarcity of oxygen, and rough handling when flown as cargo. During flight, the cargo area in which animals travel is pressurized, and the temperature is controlled. But on the ground, no fresh air gets in, and the temperature can fluctuate dramatically in a short time. If you've ever sat in a hot, stuffy plane during the summer, waiting to take off or pull up to a gate, you can imagine how an animal feels in the even hotter baggage compartment.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has issued an emergency alert warning to families of companion animals to avoid transporting their animals by air, particularly during the hot summer months. ALDF cited airlines continued disregard for the safety of the animals they carry as the reason for the warning.

"Shipping animals during summer months is the most dangerous time of the year to be loaded aboard an airplane. If planes are delayed on the ground, the extreme temperature in an airplane's cargo hold can cause animals to suffer brain damage or die due to hyperthermia. Some are left to swelter on tarmacs. Others are mistakenly freed on the way to or from the plane, where they are lost or killed."

The most recent and highly publicized tragedy involved seven out of fourteen puppies, believed to be from a commercial breeder, that were shipped as cargo from Tulsa to Chicago. Cause of death has yet to be confirmed but it is suspected they died of heat exposure even though attempts were made to resuscitate them. ALDF cited an instance when five hours after 81 healthy puppies were put aboard a TWA passenger jet en route from Kansas City to St. Louis, baggage handlers discovered 50 of the puppies were dead due to heat exposure or suffocation.

Most litters that are shipped as cargo are the product of commercial breeders, animal brokers and puppy mill sellers, transporting their inventory to pet stores. In the case of the Tulsa puppies, they were booked on connecting flights, making it likely that they were purchased online by buyers in different cities. While suppliers are able to write off their deaths as a "business loss" the pups lost their lives.

ALDF Senior Staff Attorney Valerie stated, "Too many animals needlessly suffer injury or die each year -- and an airline's only liability for the often gruesome death of a beloved pet is limited to the value of a piece of luggage. The airlines consider payments or USDA fines for an injured or dead animal as merely a "cost of doing business.''

All American-based airlines are now required to report any companion animal incidents that occur in the cargo holds of their planes, including any deaths, injuries, or losses of these pets. Because of these regulations many airlines are no longer offering animal transport.

There are other safer options for travelers considering taking their animal companion along, especially if the move is not a permanent one. Driving instead of flying and stopping at animal-friendly lodging along the way should be considered. Or, temporarily leaving them behind under the care of a responsible pet sitter, family member or boarding kennel. The most important factor to consider before traveling is what is really best for your friend.

If you must take them and flying is the only choice, there are alternatives for animals usually destined for the cargo hold. There are two airlines that are "pet-friendly" - Companion Air, where the pets ride in the cabin with their family, and Pet Airways an airline dedicated to pet only travel where animals fly in the main cabin --- not in cargo!

Check the following for safe traveling for your animal companion:

Comprehensive information on air travel for animals:
Major airlines that allow certain animals to fly on board:
Commercial animal-friendly lodging:

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