Flying Pets?

More often than not we lose track of time when we step away.

Mary, a 65-year old grandmother of four and her faithful companion Betty, a chocolate Labrador retriever, boarded the noon flight from Minneapolis to Tampa. Though both of them were in the same flight, Mary and Betty went through entirely different experiences.

Mary sat in the cabin with the rest of the passengers. The temperature was a comfortable 68 degrees, and a smiling flight attendant poured her drinks and offered her a snack.

Betty, whose weight exceeds the 15-pound limit that would allow her to fly under Mary’s seat in the cabin, was placed in the cargo hold with the bags. There, temperatures are not controlled and often fluctuate between blustering triple digits to freezing single digits in the course of a short flight. Pets in this area of the plane are left to fend for themselves, and Betty spent the next five hours without even a sip of water.

Different commercial aircraft have different cargo hold compartments, but “Class D” is most commonly used for transporting baggage and live animals. Class D compartments are intentionally designed with little or no positive ventilation so that if a fire breaks out, it will extinguish itself in a matter of seconds due to lack of oxygen.

Though the design is good for controlling fire-hazards, it is dangerous for carrying live animals. Animals can suffocate as a result of the combination of the heat that their bodies give off with oxygen depletion in a small, practically airtight compartment.

Unfortunately, airline personnel are often poorly trained and fail to understand that the smaller the animal the more heat it gives off. For example, a hundred pounds of pet birds will produce more heat than a single thousand-pound horse. In other words, Betty’s survival in the cargo hold may well depend on how many other animals – and what size animals— are on board with her.

So how did Betty end up enduring such dire circumstances during her flight to Tampa? Surely not because of her owner’s indifference. In fact, airline representatives assured Mary that it was perfectly safe to put Betty in the cargo hold.

The Air Transport Association estimates that out of the more than half a million animals that are transported by air each year, as many as 5,000, one in every hundred, are lost, injured or killed. Tens of thousands more have traumatic experiences.

Our view is that if a dog, cat or other animal in your life count to you, you shouldn’t let them go on a plane —or at least not in the cargo hold— until much needed changes have been made. The simple truth is that, in today’s circumstances, there is no such thing as a safe way for animals to travel by air unless they weigh less than 15 pounds and can join you in the passenger cabin.

What can be done to make it safer for animals to travel by air? Congress took some good steps recently by attaching the “pets on planes” amendment to the Federal Administration reauthorization bill. It requires airlines to start reporting incidents of loss, injury, or death. It also requires training in handling procedures for airline personnel.

The most controversial provision of the amendment, and one that remains to be approved, requires retrofitting airplane cargo holds to provide temperature and ventilation control. Yet, opponents argue that cost of retrofitting will force airlines to stop transporting pets.

And so, we still need to fight for the most critical step of all: the implementation of substantial measures that will make cargo holds safe for the transport of live animals. You can help by contacting your representative in Congress and by calling the airlines you use. Let them know that you are one of the millions of animal lovers all across America who want to make it safe for animals to travel by air. We are not there yet. But by working together, we can bring about a day when taking your companion animals on a trip will not mean taking their lives in your hands.

By Steve Ann Chambers