Opening Space: Flying High or Staying Grounded

How risky is it to fly your show dog?

By Bo Bengtson | December 1, 2006

Most dog people are dependent on the airlines to some degree. We ship puppies across the country and abroad, send our best bitches to be bred to a stud dog far away, hop on a plane to go to a show and take the dog along. If it’s too big to fit under the seat in the cabin, the dog has to be checked as excess baggage. Flying has become a part of life; something we don’t necessarily enjoy but have gotten used to. Dog shows and breeding would perhaps not cease to exist without air transportation, but they would certainly be a lot different.

How risky is it to fly your dog? Is it just my imagination, or are things getting worse than they used to be? Everyone I know has a horror story to tell, but I wanted to find some hard figures.

To begin with, I consulted the Air Travel Consumer Report, which includes an enormous amount of data regarding flight delays, denied boardings, complaints, etc. Flipping quickly to "Consumer Complaints” I was surprised to find that no airline had a single complaint listed in the "Animals” category for the month of February, 2006. Since a dog that is near and dear to me was lost by Delta Air Lines at JFK Airport in New York on Feb. 15, 2006, that seemed odd until I realized that only complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation were included. If you only report the loss to the airline it doesn’t show up in the Consumer Report.

Apparently dogs lost as excess baggage are included, but not specified, among the 265,610 pieces of luggage that were  "mishandled” during February this year.  Is it too much to expect that a dog should be treated a little differently than a suitcase? For one thing, it’s a living being;  for another, we pay a lot of money to ship our dogs. Asking the major airlines’ customer  representatives directly did not prove  informative either. You would think press credentials and an offer to present the  airlines’ views to thousands of active  dog fanciers would meet with more than an automated reply, but that was not  the case. (Delta’s only response was the following: "This is an automatically generated message. Please do not reply.” According to the Los Angeles Times and other media outlets, Delta filed for bankruptcy protection last September, but admits that the potential pilots’ strike that has been brewing recently could put the airline out of business. Obviously they have bigger problems than a lost dog.) 


Transport Security Regulations

Useful information was provided by Rudolph H. Auslander of the Japan Airlines Management Corporation, a 37-year veteran of the airline industry, a dog lover and a volunteer with an English Springer Spaniel Rescue group. He writes that since 9/11 and the implementation of the Transportation Security Regulations, unaccompanied baggage is carefully screened behind the scenes after you give it to the airline for check in. That could involve a security official taking a dog out of its crate to screen it once you have left, and this, of course, increases the risk for disasters of the type we experienced. It also means that it doesn’t matter how well you secure the crate: the door may still be opened when you’re not there.

According to the Department of Transportation, "Over two million pets and other live animals are transported by air every year in the United States. Federal and state governments impose restrictions on transporting live animals. In addition, each airline establishes its own company policy for the proper handling of the animals they transport.” In other words, you need to compare the regulations before deciding which airline to use.

The problems we are experiencing in flying with dogs may be part of a bigger concern: lower standards in the airline industry across the board. Data released by the USDT indicate that service deteriorated in all major categories in 2005. Bill McGee writes in USA Today (April 19) that "there’s little question that contracting out more and more tasks to lower-paid and less-skilled workers is affecting all aspects of airline customer service,” none more so than baggage handling, where complaints rose more sharply than in any other area. 

So should you fly with your dogs? Should you ship dogs at all, knowing what we do about the treatment dogs may be subjected to by the airlines? It’s up to you, of course. I was lucky for years, but that doesn’t help when calamity strikes.

What I want to tell you is that once an accident happens, you will probably be on your own. Perhaps other airlines act differently, but Delta’s behavior was such that our lawyer issued a statement saying, in part, that "Delta’s actions are contemptible. Delta negligently lost [the] dog Vivi, then was further negligent in failing to properly help find her.” The lawyer did not receive a written response from Delta; their Customer Claims Manager advised her that "legal will not respond until a lawsuit is commenced.” 


Still At Large

So what’s the solution? Get a small dog which fits in the cabin? Stay at home? Return to the days when dog people leased a cargo plane to fly together from the West Coast to Westminster, as apparently happened in the ’50s? I wish I had an answer, but I don’t.

Meanwhile, Vivi is still at large, more than two months after someone let her out of her crate while in Delta’s care at JFK. She has braved New York winter and traffic, hunted live game, fended for herself and stayed alive. She has been sighted regularly but remains as elusive as a ghost and obviously far from her old, trusting self.

It’s even more frustrating than I thought was possible, but we still hope there will be a happy ending and are deeply grateful for all the support and kindness shown from throughout the dog fraternity.


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