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Pets on a Plane

March 15, 2018

UNITED AIRLINES is back in the news again. And when airlines are in the news, it’s almost never for a good reason.

As the headlines have it, United’s brutish handling of its human customers seems to be outdone only by the way it treats pets. First we had the demise of Simon, the giant rabbit who perished aboard one of United’s London-to-Chicago flights last year. Then, a week ago, a passenger’s dog died on a United flight between Houston and LaGuardia after a flight attendant — unknowingly, according to the carrier — placed the ten-month-old French bulldog in an overhead bin, where it apparently suffocated. And stop the press: a day after formally apologizing for the overhead bin incident, United accidentally shipped a German shepherd to Tokyo instead of to Kansas City.

Do I think there’s something endemically dysfunctional at United that’s leading to screw-ups like these? No, I don’t. I mean, the entire industry is in many ways dysfunctional, but it’s unfair, I think, to single out United. The nation’s major carriers each operate thousands of flights every day of the week. Unfortunate (and avoidable) as things like this are, they’re bound to happen, and the numbers, through little more than chance, can paint one airline as guiltier than another. The media, meanwhile, both the social kind and the kind that used to matter, is out for blood, and pity the airline — particularly the one whose name begins with U — that so much as looks crossly at a customer’s doggie or kitty.

Unless of course that doggie or kitty — or pot-bellied pig, or iguana, or llama (yes) — is playing dress-up and posing as an “emotional support animal.” Yeah, the whole faux service animal thing has been simmering for some time now, and the airlines — most of them — are finally cracking down. The timing is bad here, maybe, as the new policies, together with the death of the bulldog puppy and the wayward shepherd, could make you think that airlines are decidedly hostile to pets. Which they are not.

RIP Simon, the Giant Rabbit.

I’m not gonna get too deep into the service animal thing. As an animal lover, I’m of the mind that we should have more animals — and perhaps fewer passengers — on our planes. Also, and despite my protests, my mother once attempted to have her beloved miniature greyhound dubiously certified in this manner.

“I cannot ship him below deck!” she insisted. “There’s no heat or oxygen down there!”

That, incidentally, is false. Which brings us to the real point of this post, which is to give some comfort to those people who are anxious about shipping their pets in jeb. I can understand how tempting it is to want your critter with you right there in the cabin (though no, not in the overhead locker, unless perhaps it’s a python or a bat), but fear not the lower holds.

A lot of people are under the impression that the underfloor spaces are freezing and unpressurized. Not true. At 35,000 feet the outside temperature is about 60 degrees below zero and there isn’t enough oxygen to breathe. That’s worse than economy, and transporting animals in these conditions would rightfully displease their owners and animal rights groups. So, yes, the underfloor holds are always pressurized and heated. On most planes there’s a particular zone designated for animals. This tends to be the zone with the warmest and most consistent temperature. Maintaining a steady, comfortable temperature while aloft is relatively easy, but it can be tricky on the ground in hot weather, and for this reason some airlines embargo pets during the summer months.

Of the two million or so animals carried in the United States each year, a small number perish, whether due to stress or mishandling. How well a pet endures the experience depends a good deal on the individual animal’s health and temperament. If your dog or cat (or rabbit or macaw) is elderly, ill, or easily stressed or spooked, perhaps sending him or her through multiple time zones in a noisy and confined space isn’t the smartest idea. My best advice is to consult with a veterinarian.

The flight crew is always told when animals are aboard. Passengers are known to send handwritten notes to the cockpit asking that we take special care, but this isn’t really necessary, and, in any case, there’s not a lot we can do. There’s no access between the main deck and the lower holds, so we can’t carry treats to your friend below.

Someday, maybe, I’ll share the story about the time I carried a pet hedgehog onto a flight to Cleveland.


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