When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last year, many residents were faced with a choice they should never have to make: fly to safety while leaving their pets behind to face the storm alone, or stay home and risk their own — and their pets’ — lives. Current airline rules make traveling with pets during disasters stressful, at best, and impossible, at worst. Dogs too large to travel in the cabin simply cannot fly and when there are limited seats available, accommodating pets of any size or kind becomes even harder. After the hurricane in Puerto Rico, some frantic pet owners resorted to trying to pass off their dogs as emotional support animals to get them on flights.
Even in normal times, when people travel with pets, they can end up facing heartbreak. That’s what happened with the family of Kokito, the French bulldog puppy who died during a flight in March when he was stowed in a plane’s overhead bin at the insistence of a flight attendant.
The issue of making airline travel safer and more accessible for pets is one that concerns us here at the Humane Society of the United States, and it’s one we have been working on steadily over the years. In March 2000, the U.S. Congress passed portions of the Safe Air Travel for Animals Act, a measure that the HSUS strongly supported. The new law required airlines to report incidents of animal loss, injury or death, so consumers could compare safety records, and to improve animal care training for baggage handlers. Many airlines responded to this law by implementing restrictions on accepting pets as cargo. After Hurricane Katrina, we worked with Congress on the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, enacted in 2006, requiring state and local agencies to consider the needs of pets and service animals as part of their disaster response planning. But the act doesn’t require corporations responsible for travel – such as airlines – to do the same.
Now, at least one airline is taking further steps to make traveling in the skies a little friendlier for pets. On Tuesday, Delta airlines announced they have added a staff veterinarian to the Delta Cargo team. The veterinarian is charged with reviewing policies and procedures to ensure safe and comfortable pet travel. The airline is also working with a partner to improve its pet transportation services.
Earlier this year, I reached out to Delta to express concerns after they announced a ban on pit-bull-type dogs in the cabin, regardless of whether the dog was a service animal. We had an encouraging conversation, and while the pit-bull-type dog ban has not yet been rescinded, we are hopeful that these initial positive steps will ultimately bring about that policy change as well. Today’s step is a good sign of the company’s willingness to listen and to learn.
Congress has taken further action, too, to improve airline travel for pets. The Welfare of Our Furry Friends (WOOFF) Act, led by Sens. John Kennedy, R-La., and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and Reps. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., bans the placement of pets in overhead compartments. It was included in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that passed the House last week and the Senate yesterday, showing that even in these partisan times, both Republicans and Democrats — like a majority of Americans — think pets deserve basic (and common sense) humane treatment. The bill also includes a provision that calls on the Department of Transportation to set rules for service and emotional support animals.
These are encouraging developments. We need clear and realistic requirements for how pets and emotional support animals can travel on airplanes to keep pets and passengers safe during flights. That will also keep airlines from responding with knee-jerk reactions such as banning breeds and types of dogs when animal-related incidents occur.
In the absence of action by the Department of Transportation, airlines have taken it upon themselves to try to resolve the issue. Yesterday Spirit airlines became the latest airline — joining Delta, United, Jet Blue and American — in announcing the requirement that passengers with emotional support animals must submit necessary forms, including certifying the animal has received training, 48 hours prior to the flight.
There is a lot more to do in this area. According to the Air Transport Association, more than 5,000 animals are killed, injured or lost on commercial flights each year, including dozens of pets. Pets can face risks, including exceptionally hot or cold temperatures, poor ventilation, insufficient oxygen, and rough handling in the cargo bay. The HSUS will continue to take a good look at our public education, corporate reform and public policy work with the aim of improving the situation for animals in commercial travel. Meanwhile, we applaud Delta Airlines and members of Congress for working to make travel safer for our best friends.
P.S. Planning on traveling with your pets? Be sure to read our tips on preparing to fly with your pet.