Flying With Dogs: Rules and Regulations

From "Flying the Not-So-Friendly Skies," Dogs in Review, December 2011


Since 9/11, ensuring air safety has resulted in longer waits, intrusive searches and price hikes for all of us. If you are flying dogs, these problems are magnified. For instance, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) now requires every dog crate to be inspected by a cargo agent or TSA representative prior to shipment. These inspections don’t have to be conducted in your presence and don’t require your authorization.

Unaccompanied dogs entering the US must now be handled by International Air Transport Association (IATA) approved freight agents. It’s easy to see how measures like these translate into higher fees and more red tape. But do they add up to additional safety?
Despite stricter regulations and increased scrutiny, it’s surprisingly difficult to answer that question. Airlines are not legally obligated to maintain or share information on the number of animals they transport annually. Estimates range from 500,000 to 2 million.

In a widely cited report from the early ’90s the Animal Transportation Association (ATA) estimated that 1 percent of 500,000 animals shipped annually experience problems in transit. Even this conservative estimate adds up to 5,000 per year, which would give any dog owner cause for concern.
Breeders and exhibitors rightly perceive dog shipping as a foray into the Wild West: somewhat familiar, but nonetheless unpredictable and potentially dangerous. This cannot be blamed on a dearth of regulations.

Air shipment of animals is overseen by a lineup of national and international regulatory agencies. IATA sets mandatory standards for transporting live animals by air. Its 12-member Live Animals and Perishables Board (LAPB) committee regularly updates the hefty IATA Live Animals Regulations manual (LAR). It details every phase of handling and shipping countless species and is internationally regarded as the authoritative reference on standards and practices.

Additional guidelines for commercial airlines are published in the US Code of Federal Regulations. Since 1976, policies set by the equally extensive Animal Welfare Act (AWA) have focused on humane treatment of regulated animals.
AWA defines regulated animals to include all “warm-blooded animals used for research, testing, experimentation, exhibition or as a pet.” When shipped on domestic and foreign air carriers into, within or from the US they must be protected from weather and temperature extremes, shipped in suitable containers, provided with adequate food and water and travel with valid documentation.

AWA regulatory authority is vested in the Secretary of Agriculture and implemented by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
AWA requires training for airline employees who handle animals, and IATA offers specialized certification courses that provide instruction on everything from design principles for safe shipping crates to emergency procedures for animal handlers. USDA also conducts unannounced inspections at major airports and investigates consumer complaints. If AWA violations are discovered, they can respond with warning letters, fines or cease-and-desist orders.

Since AWA regulations were tightened in 1991, USDA has regularly levied major fines against airlines. However, USDA enforcement is hit or miss. Airport inspections may not coincide with animal shipments and the validity of consumer complaints can be difficult to verify. It has no authority to collect information on animals that are lost, injured or killed during air shipment in order to pinpoint potential violations.

In an effort to nail down these figures, the Safe Air Travel for Animals Act was signed into law in 2000. Also called the Boris Bill, it was motivated by Brooklyn resident Barbara Listenik. In 1996 she mounted a crusade to close loopholes in this area of airline regulations after Delta lost her Boxer-pit bull mix, Boris.

Listenik went to baggage claim at LaGuardia Airport to retrieve Boris after their flight from Fort Lauderdale. Instead she got the shock of her life. Boris was on the tarmac being pursued by cargo crew and transit police before disappearing from the airport grounds. She was even more horrified to learn that her only recourse was to file a claim for lost luggage. Boris was found six weeks later injured, but alive. Delta ultimately refunded her fare and paid $1,000 toward Boris’ vet bills.

The Boris Bill was supposed to clarify safety regulations, improve training of airline employees, and most importantly, create publicly accessible data on each airline’s safety record.
Since it went into effect in 2005, commercial airlines have been required to file monthly reports with the DOT detailing incidents resulting in the loss, injury or death of animals during transport. In this case, transport is defined as the entire period that an animal remains in the custody of an air carrier from check-in until it is retrieved at its final destination. Each report includes a narrative description of the incident, cause and any corrective action taken.

Unfortunately the bill has not lived up to expectations. In 2006, aviation attorney Jol A. Silversmith published an overview of airline reporting compliance entitled “The Dog That Did Nothing: The Curious Incident of DOT’s Animal Incident Reporting Requirements.”
Silversmith concluded that it “has failed to fulfill their theoretical promise, as the rules are both exceedingly narrow and yet vague in their terms.” Most of the trouble stems from the fact that few animals fall within the reporting requirements that were approved by FAA.

Silversmith notes that airlines are not obligated to report incidents involving animals:

> That are not kept as a pet in a family household in the US.
> That are carried on all-cargo or unscheduled flights (however, reports are required to be filed for incidents involving animals that are carried as cargo, as opposed to as checked baggage, on a scheduled passenger flight); or
> That are carried on a flight operated by a foreign airline, even if the flight carries the code of a US carrier (however, reports are required to be filed for incidents involving animals on a flight operated by a US carrier between two foreign points, as well as on a flight operated by a US carrier that carries the code of a foreign carrier).
> Further, in a letter to the author, DOT elaborated that it also interprets the reporting requirements not to apply to “escapes [which] last only a few minutes or a few hours.”

Contacted for this article, he concedes that the situation remains basically the same five years later, but also emphasizes that the accumulated data on each airline’s performance doesn’t necessarily reflect its quality of service.

“There are a number of problems with the data that is collected,” says Silversmith. “Since it doesn’t include how many pets actually were transported, it is impossible to tell how common incidents are in general, or on any particular airline. For example, Continental Airlines, which transports numerous pets, has emphasized that incident reports are filed for less than 0.05 percent of the pets that it transports. On the other hand, Southwest Airlines did not transport pets until recently, and to date, no reports have been filed by Southwest.”

Silversmith isn’t the only one frustrated by this murky situation. In October 2008 Senator Robert Menendez (D - N.J.) wrote to DOT voicing his concerns. “The intent of Congress was 1) to protect animals while being transported on airplanes, and 2) to increase transparency of airline safety records so consumers could evaluate airline carriers and make informed decisions … I believe current policies do not reflect Congressional intent … Restricting the definition of an animal to those considered household pets at the time of the flight has resulted in possible under-reporting of animal safety incidents. This includes animals being delivered from breeders to their new owners.”

On February 23, 2009, Kevin Shea, USDA Acting Administrator, responded to points raised by Menendez. “We regret that we do not have any accurate data on the number of commercial shipments, deaths, injuries or losses. DOT shares copies of airline reports with us, but these reports only include information about pets.”

Shea goes on to say that he too “would like an estimate of the number of animal deaths, injuries and losses that are unreported because they are not considered pets.” This standoff will likely continue for some time. However, incident reports published since 2005 provide some insight into what goes on behind the cargo door.

“Despite the limitations of the data, something appears to have gone horribly wrong at Delta,” says Silversmith. “Between 2006 and 2009, there were between seven and 12 incidents reported each year by Delta and Northwest combined (as you may know, Delta acquired Northwest at the end of 2008).

“For 2010, Delta reported 23 incidents, and in the first half of 2011, Delta reported 14 incidents (plus two more in the newly released data for July). Unless the airline post-merger has been transporting far more pets than Delta and Northwest did before post-merger, the odds of a pet dying, being injured or being lost while in transport by Delta seem to have increased substantially.”

Overall, the incident reports confirm longstanding anecdotal information of experienced dog shippers. The actual flight seems to be the safest aspect of the whole business. Far more problems occur when animals are in the terminal, on the tarmac or being loaded, unloaded or transferred between flights. Foremost among these are the risks posed by inadequate ventilation and temperature extremes.

Airlines are prohibited from exposing animals to temperatures below 45 or above 85 degrees for more than four hours, but they have many policies to deal with this rule. Some impose seasonal embargoes. Most commonly, they don’t accept them if the actual or forecasted temperature is above 85 or below 20 at the origin, destination or any connecting cities on the routing.

They also require a Certificate of Acclimation stating that the animal can withstand exposure to lower temperatures for a reasonable period, which is a source of major trouble. An experienced breeder/exhibitor who is also an American Airlines manager offers this advice: “All of the airlines have minimum/maximum temperature restrictions for shipping animals. At American Airlines pets are accepted as checked when the temperature is between 45 to 85 degrees. Would I ship my animal at either extreme? NO!”

Airlines can refuse to accept animals they deem unfit for travel, but don’t expect them to evaluate your dog’s potential resistance to weather-related stress. According to our AA manager, “People show up with old animals, very young animals, neurotic animals, so many animals that should not be shipped.” Some airlines no longer accept brachycephalic breeds. Many others have special acceptance rules for breeds they categorize as “snub-nosed.”

These policies date from DOT stats released in July 2010. Five years of incident reports revealed that approximately half of the 122 shipping-related fatalities involved Bulldogs and Pugs. Although these policies are well intentioned, airlines are all over the place in their definition of a snub-nosed breed. Our source at AA notes that “American Airlines no longer accepts any snub-nosed breed of dogs and cats. I think they would be fine at a comfortable temperature, but that is not the case.”

He also emphasizes that this hasn’t affected commercial shippers. “Puppy mills know all the rules and continue to ship. They can call any snub-nosed breed anything they like and provide health documentation. Who would know? To them it is dispensable merchandise, reimbursable through insurance. Very sad.”

Compartments for animals must be pressurized, lighted, temperature-controlled and ventilated to ensure safety and comfort. However, AWA also specifies that this is required only when the plane is actually flying over 8,000 feet. On the ground, airlines are instructed to utilize auxiliary ventilation in animal cargo spaces containing live dogs or cats when the ambient temperature reaches 85 degrees F.

Pilots have the option of running the plane’s ventilation system to cool the cabin, which also cools the cargo compartment. However, airlines discourage this practice because it is so costly. More often they power temperature-control/ventilation systems from less efficient ground sources. As a result, conditions in the cargo hold can vary drastically pre- and post-flight. This is especially true during loading when the cargo doors are open for long periods.

Cases also abound where pets seem to dematerialize during shipment or escape and become injured when crates are dropped or damaged. My worst experience occurred when shipping a dog on a Delta flight from JFK Airport in New York to Portland, Ore., with a stopover in Seattle.

For some unexplainable reason, the dog’s crate was opened in Seattle and it escaped from the airport and spent three weeks running around an adjacent golf course. Possibly the most notorious incident of this type was the disappearance of Vivi, the Bohem Whippet, whose crate was mysteriously damaged while she was loaded onto a Delta flight at JFK.

Despite AWA regulations to the contrary, animals are left unattended on ramps, cargo carts and conveyor belts. Baggage handlers remove them from crates for a variety of reasons and fail to place them in enclosures that meet safety requirements. Crates are stacked haphazardly and fall, or get hit by falling luggage or cargo.

Our AA manager emphasizes the importance of sturdy crates. “I think most often when an animal escapes or dies it is really the owner who should be held responsible. You should see some of the kennels that people show up with. Flimsy things that could flatten in a second if a bag fell on them. But I can’t refuse them if our guidelines say it is OK.”

Crates must be inspected prior to acceptance, but you can make sure that this happens in your presence and subsequently lock, tape or zip-tie it. Although there is no guarantee, this makes it less likely that it will be opened again. Most often, employees open crates to offer animals food or water. Always provide a means to do this without opening the door.

To our AA manager the biggest change in the wake of the Boris Bill has been more red tape. “I think it has gotten more difficult for the average consumer who shows up at the airport not knowing about health certificates, temperature restrictions, breed restrictions, cost, etc.” Despite the risks and red tape, flying is often a necessity for breeders and exhibitors. You do have a few options in terms of safety and costs. For a dog carried in cabin or checked as excess baggage, flat-rate one-way fees range from $150 to $350.

Small dogs can travel in cabin, which is the safest option. Most airlines limit the number of animals in the cabin from one to four. Medical service dogs are also permitted to travel in cabin. In most cases, this is a legitimate need. However, quite a few people take advantage of this rule. If your dog has a service dog vest and a card, it is unlikely that its credentials will be questioned.

The second best option is flying with the dog as excess baggage. Airlines limit the number and size of animals they accept this way. They fly in the cargo hold, but you have a little more control of the situation. You can confirm that your dog is on the plane and request updates on its condition in the event of a delay. This definitely makes a difference if you have connecting flights. Baggage handlers have been known to remove animals during stopovers and forget to load them, or the other way around.

My most outstanding memory of this ordeal involved picking up an exhibitor at LaGuardia Airport. He had flown from Nashville to New York, with a stopover in D.C. with his dog as excess baggage. His dog didn’t appear on his flight and we were told that it would definitely be coming on the shuttle from D.C. and N.Y. After waiting for three of these D.C. flights, we were told that the dog was lost. Several hours later, it was discovered on the original flight, and had flown back and forth between N.Y. and D.C. all day.

Air freight is the only option for unaccompanied or very large dogs. Special cargo rates apply to animals shipped as air freight; prices are generally determined by a combination of shipping zone and actual or dimensional weight. Despite a multitude of rules to ensure your dog’s safety, this is the riskiest and most expensive choice.

Pilots are notified of all animals in the cargo hold, and employees are required to check them regularly whenever it is accessible to ensure that they are comfortable, safe and securely in their crates. For this reason, some carriers opt not to transport warm-blooded animals on flights over 12 hours or during peak holiday travel seasons.

Although they are supposed to notify you of an animal’s arrival in a timely manner, don’t wait for the phone to ring. Use the airbill number to track your dog online. Better yet, get a contact name and local number for the cargo office and be a pest. Animals are inadvertently removed and forgotten during transfers, intentionally placed on earlier connecting flights, forgotten outdoors exposed to elements or left to languish in freight offices. Employees may not even realize an animal is there.

Some airlines also offer priority services for unaccompanied pets, at substantially higher costs. The described advantages include employees trained in animal handling, personalized service to ensure that pets are handled quickly and efficiently and aircraft equipped with heated and pressurized compartments.

However, AWA stipulates this care for all warm-blooded animals accepted for shipment. Does our AA manager feel that priority services offer any advantage? “No. I don’t think there is any difference. They are all loaded and transported in the same cargo area of the aircraft. Even if they escort the animal to and from the aircraft there is no control over what happens from ground to take off.”

International travel presents another set of nightmares due to red tape and bureaucratic bumbling. Theoretically, the pet passport made it easier for American exhibitors to compete at international shows. But this is a debatable point considering the perpetually changing requirements for permits, import licenses and health certificates. If you are uncertain about the requirements, do not rely on your vet’s interpretation of the rules. Contact USDA directly for clarification.

Airline personnel will accept dogs for shipment without the slightest idea if the accompanying paperwork will be accepted on arrival. Of course, that won’t matter if there are no customs agents when the flight gets in. Confirm in advance that someone will be on duty. Otherwise, your dog will be impounded until the next regular workday.

Most problems occur when entering countries with strict quarantine regulations. For example, almost 5,000 animals with EU passports are denied entry into the UK each year. For a multitude of reasons they face the prospect of repeating all or part of the microchip/vaccination/testing/treatment process. Owners may be required to sign waivers absolving officials from liability for administering treatments in excess of recommended veterinary guidelines, or face the prospect of quarantining the animal if you can afford it.

Although clerical or procedural errors by vets account for most pet passport glitches, never assume that countries have a system in place to resolve these problems. In 2008, British Bichon breeder Pauline Johns experienced a perfect storm of everything that can go wrong. Johns completed the pet passport process in order to show her Bichon, Ch. Manoir’s Shot In The Dark, at the 2008 World Show in Sweden.

‘Bullet’ was microchipped, vaccinated and returned to the vet for his rabies titer test five weeks later. During that visit, the vet could not locate the microchip so he inserted a new one, which effectively cancelled out the whole process. Not realizing this, Johns took Bullet to Sweden and enjoyed a successful weekend. On her return, she was stopped at Animal Control and informed that Bullet’s pet passport was not in order.

At that point, she was confident that the situation could be resolved since Bullet also had a legible British National Dog Tattoo Registry tattoo, and this number was also recorded on his pet passport. No dice. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), roughly the UK version of USDA, had no precedent for accepting this as proof of identity. Ironically, they do accept tattoos from France, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark and Poland, and National Dog Tattoo Registry tattoos are considered acceptable identification by British courts.

Johns agreed to place Bullet in quarantine on arrival in the UK, assuming that this would be a short stay until the red tape was untangled. Regardless of the evidence she offered to confirm his identity and immunity to rabies, DEFRA refused to budge. Rather than leaving him there for six months, she ultimately sent him for an unplanned vacation to America where he was shown while repeating the entire pet passport process.

More problems ensued when his subsequent titer test was not sent to the only American lab approved by DEFRA for Britain’s Pet Passport Scheme. “After the second screw up I went to my Member of Parliament who took up my case,” Johns says. DEFRA was asked to make an exception since Bullet had now completed the entire procedure twice.

The appeal failed, and another titer test was done by the DEFRA-approved KS lab, which showed that Bullet’s rabies titer was nine times higher than is necessary. Bullet ultimately spent 10 months in America, and another two months in Sweden before he was allowed back into Britain. Johns admits that she never anticipated a nightmare lasting 13 months. “However, my experience has certainly highlighted how easy it is for things to go wrong.” She happily reports that Bullet settled back at home in a heartbeat. “Thankfully the ordeal did not affect him nearly as much as me!”

The absurdity of her ordeal prompted a reevaluation of Britain’s pet passport scheme. “My MP asked for a debate in the Houses of Parliament which was granted,” Johns says. “Many of the points that he raised (I wrote most of his speech for him!) seem to be mentioned in the ‘Risk Assessment Report.’”

Johns admits that she fought “tooth and nail. So maybe, just maybe, I contributed to the rules being changed. I’ll never know for sure, but I would like to think so!” After Jan. 1, 2012 dogs from EU and listed non-EU countries, which includes the US, are required to have a microchip, rabies vaccination, followed by a three-week wait to enter the UK. The tick and tapeworm treatments are also being reevaluated.

Regardless of whether you have shipped one or 1,000 dogs, never treat it as a routine experience. According to our insider at AA, “Overall I think it has always been safe, but there are some risks no matter what service you use. Do the personnel handling the pet really care about animals? Is everything functioning properly on the aircraft, i.e. temperature control? Will the animals be held in a temperature-controlled area before loading or taken out to the field to await aircraft arrival and loading? Owners should share some responsibility and should know what’s best for their animal.”

Although regulations are in place to protect animals, human error is unavoidable. Never assume that workers will follow regulations carefully or utilize common sense when needed. The pitfalls of bureaucracy and red tape can take you down just as easily. However, airline policies are constantly reevaluated. If you encounter an obvious problem speak up and lobby for change.


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