What Really Happens When You Put a Pet in Cargo on an Airplane?

Here's how airlines handle your most precious cargo of all: animals.

A slew of worrisome events involving pets on airplanes has many flyers weighing up their options when it comes to traveling with their furry family members.

To recap: On March 12, a French bulldog puppy named Kikito died after a United flight attendant insisted on having the owners place him and his carrier in an overhead bin. In a separate incident, just one day later, the same airline sent a Kansas-bound German shepherd to Japan, then, a few days after that, had to divert a flight when they realized another pet had been loaded onto the plane in error. A bad week for pet travel culminated with Delta sending an eight-week-old puppy bound for Boise to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City instead.

It's safe to say that forcing a dog into an overhead compartment was unusual and a gross misjudgment on the part of the flight attendant. According to United’s official in-cabin pet policy, animals must be in a carrier and “fit completely under the seat in front of the customer and remain there at all times.” There is no mention of using an overhead bin and, in a statement, United spokesman Charlie Hobart confirmed: "This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin."

While you can take your pet on board confident that it's highly unlikely to be forced into an overhead locker, it's less easy to surrender your pet to the cargo hold where you can't see what is happening to them, or really know what is going on. The Humane Society discourages having your pet travel by air in the cargo hold of a plane, saying that it "can be dangerous and stressful." 

Another page at the Humane Society website goes on to say: “While most animals flown in the cargo area of airplanes are fine, you should be aware that some animals are killed, injured or lost on commercial flights each year. Excessively hot or cold temperatures, poor ventilation, and rough handling are often to blame.”

There are several reported instances of mistreatment by airline staff, such as this distressing story covered by Condé Nast Traveler, in which a pet owner claims her dog's crate was dropped, left on the boiling tarmac, and kicked, and that her dog was not let out to stretch or relieve himself for the entire 15-hour journey. However, more often, reports the Boston Globe, injuries are not a result of staff negligence: "animals, perhaps stressed by the unfamiliar noises and sensations of flying, were reported to have injured themselves in cages in the cargo area of planes, or they died from preexisting medical conditions, perhaps triggered by anxiety, according to the data. In other cases, officials couldn’t determine a cause." 

Carrying your pet on board is clearly preferable if you really must travel with the animal (ie. you're relocating rather than just vacationing), but if your pup is anything bigger than a small breed, that simply is not an option. So what actually happens down there?

To find out we contacted several airlines and the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association. They didn't respond with comment after several days, but Pet Travel Blog has this to say: "Contrary to popular belief, pets aren’t crammed with luggage in a deep dark hole in the bottom of the plane". That assurance is backed up the Department of Transport, which states "each airline establishes its own company policy for the proper handling of the animals they transport" and that "as a shipper or owner you also have a responsibility to take the necessary precautions to ensure the well being of the animal you ship." 

According to the federal Animal Welfare Act, dogs and cats must be at least eight weeks old, and those younger than 16 weeks traveling for more than 12 hours must be provided food and water. Older animals must be fed at least every 24 hours and watered at least every 12 hours, and they must be accompanied by written instructions on how to do so. Department of Agriculture regulations also protect animals from being shipped in harmful temperatures but animals always fly in pressurized and climate-controlled sections of the cargo hold and are usually kept in designated animal care facilities at major airports. A report at ABC adds that airlines typically employ or contract specialists to handle the animals on each end of the flight, including loading the animals last and removing them first from the airplane.

Nevertheless, the experience is not a pleasant one — and the worst part might be the time spent on the tarmac, waiting to be loaded. Airline pilot Dr. Chris Manno, who blogs at JetHead has this to say: "Our cargo crews on the ramp are superstars and care about animals. But when your dog is “shipped,” he’s treated like cargo, which means spending time on the ramp for both loading aboard and unloading from the aircraft. That’s harsh for an unknowing pet with sensitive hearing subjected to the extreme noise of jet engines in close proximity and harsh temperature extremes. It’s scary and confusing for a dog to sit in a kennel in unfamiliar circumstances surrounded by strangers."

While the events of recent weeks have revealed the dreadful consequences of staff incompetence, it's worth highlighting the good people who do care for traveling pets — like Lufthansa staff who sent photos of in-transit pups to their owners, and Manno who says he personally visits all dogs aboard his flights. Noting that "the mechanics of shipment almost guarantee the dog will go without water, because the belt loader that puts your kennel into the cargo compartment is of necessity slanted," he takes the time to refill water dishes in their kennels. "I like to reassure them that they’re not abandoned," he writes, "that they’re among people who care."

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