In-Flight Dog Deaths: Time to Put Airlines in the Dog House

September 27, 2012 in It is what it is - opinion column | Comments (1)



So, yesterday I saw a post from my pal Christine Herron about a dog dying on a United Airlines flight. The death, which happened several weeks ago, was an otherwise healthy, champion bloodline Golden Retriever owned by supermodel Maggie Rizer.

Then, this morning, another Facebook post about a second dog death in the last week – again on United.

Voices are raised in anger against United – as they should be. However, before eviscerating one airline let’s look at a few more statistics:
… Like the fact that in August 2010, 7 dogs died on an American Airlines flight (not their first incident that year, nor the last one since).
… Like the fact that in 2011 over half the dogs that died in flight on airlines were on Delta
… Both Alaska and American airlines have actually *lost* pets … yep. You know that suitcase that never got to its destination and was lost forever? Feels worse when that’s your beloved dog, doesn’t it?

Want to know more statistics? Check out this report (also linked in one of the above articles) that shares the following:
… In-flight dog deaths *increased* last year (up to 19 in 2011 from 16 in 2010)
… Delta is the #1 dog killer for flyers with American running second
… Atlanta-based Delta also takes the top spot for in-flight injuries for dogs

These all would be good enough reasons for me to avoid flying with Truman until he has service dog certification and can fly in the cabin with me. The truth, however, is that I had my own close call experience with my last dog, Archie, that taught me a valuable lesson.

It was 1998 and I was flying with Archie to Florida. We had a plane change in Salt Lake City and missed the connection. I immediately went to customer service to confirm that they had taken Archie and put him in an air-conditioned room as it was moderately hot outside.

The man on the other side of the counter stared at me blankly. I paused, thinking perhaps he hadn’t heard me. I repeated myself, “Excuse me, sir. I’m flying with my dog and just wanted to make sure that he’d been taken from the tarmac and put inside an air-conditioned room as well as taken out to get some water and go to the bathroom since we now have a pretty long layover.”

He stared at me blankly, made some motions with his computer screen and then looked back up.

“Sorry, not sure where your dog is.” He then glanced over my shoulder to the next customer and said, “Next…”

I’m pretty sure that’s the last time he did that.

The fellow behind me began to step forward. I put my arm out, blocking the man behind me, leaned over the counter and spoke a bit more firmly. “I’m sorry, perhaps you didn’t quite understand the gravity of my concern, sir. It’s a bit hot outside. Due to the airline being late, we missed our connection and now my dog is sitting in a crate somewhere. It’s important to know that he’s been located, taken out of the heat, given water and a chance to go to the bathroom. Not to mention make sure that he’s moved properly to get to our next flight. I would greatly appreciate your taking the moment to find him.”

He repeated, “Sorry, can’t help you.”

That’s when I kicked things up a notch.

I reached across the counter, grabbed the fellow (not all that gently) by the lapel and informed him in a stern tone that he’d better find my dog immediately … or he’d have a bigger problem than a long line of customers. It’s important, I think, to note that this was pre 9/11 so this action didn’t result in my being arrested, but did result in a supervisor coming over, reading the guy behind the counter the riot act for not helping me, and then taking me to find Archie – who had NOT been put in an air conditioned room. At that point he was.

I was lucky. As noted by the two horrible stories of dog deaths above, not to mention the litany of additional errors in this same category, people are putting their trust in airlines – a trust that is most definitely misplaced.

All this said, when I used to fly with Archie, most airlines had very strict policy that they will not transport pets – especially those making connecting flights – during certain times of the year for PRECISELY this heatstroke reason. When I’d booked my flight, the airline had specifically told me that they have “no fly” months for pets in the cargo hold – specifically May through October to pretty much any destination in the US and then there are some locations where they’ll never allow pets in cargo to pass through due to heat. This was November or so and so I was given the scripted “be aware of heat” thing, but they said it was well within their limits.

Sadly most sites that proffer tips on how to best travel with your pet are, put simply, crap. They make simple suggestions of course like ensuring you confirm your destination is pet friendly, that you carry ample amounts of your dog’s food, get your dog vaccinated properly, carry your pet’s health info and make sure you identify veterinary resources at your destination. These are basic, no brainer types of things that anyone who even has a pet should consider and if they don’t probably shouldn’t have a pet in the first place.

There is only one site I’ve found actually proffers a crucial tip – which is to avoid connecting flights if flying with a pet. If you must travel with your dog and you cannot bring the dog into the cabin with you (which is impossible unless the dog fits in a travel case that slips under the seat in front of you or the dog carries legally recognized, federal certification of service dog status), traveling on a non-stop flight is the only way to avoid what is the most common cause of dog death during flight.

All this said, even flying on a non-stop flight and taking the proper precautions carries risk – risk that shouldn’t exist. Even one dog’s death is too many. Imagine if for every plane that took off in the world, that one passenger died. The FAA wouldn’t let planes take off. There is no reason why another living creature should have any other consideration than that.


One response to “In-Flight Dog Deaths: Time to Put Airlines in the Dog House”

  1. Rena says:

    Heartbreaking story. I am in the aviation industry (not an airline) but my father worked as a ground crew member for Delta MANY years ago. He was one of the good guys and I actually remember him bringing a dog home with him one night when the flight had been cancelled. (Keep in mind this was the 70’s) But for every good guy there is also a bad one. You did the right thing by escalating the issue and I wish everyone had the sense to do the same. Each airline, at each airport has a station manager, there are also airport-employed terminal managers in every terminal. If I had a pet in cargo and I sensed something was wrong, I’d find one of those guys immediately.