Not too long ago, the loss, injury or death of a companion animal during air travel was buried in the airlines' "mishandled baggage" report filed with the Department of Transportation (DoT) - if it was acknowledged at all. In 2000, after hearing about how airlines treat their animal passengers and the dangerous conditions to which animals are subjected during air travel, the 106th Congress told airlines to start filing separate reports for any incidents involving the loss, injury, or death of an animal. While the 106th Congress failed to pass a more comprehensive pet safety bill, at the very least the availability of this new information would enable consumers to access and evaluate airlines' animal safety records. Five more years passed before the DoT actually issued regulations to enforce the reporting requirement, but the information is now included in DoT’s Air Travel Consumer Reports.
Congress also required that DoT share this information with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) so that it could investigate any possible violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which sets handling and care standards for transport of animals. Unfortunately, USDA oversight (spotty at best) is insufficient to prevent animals from suffering, getting lost, or dying at some point after their human companions have left them in the hands of the airline industry. A review of the incidents documented since airlines began filing the mandatory reports reveals that dogs and cats have been left sitting on the tarmac for hours and even days. Their carriers have been dropped and run over by forklifts. Animals have been abandoned in dangerous cargo areas, put on the wrong flight or no flight at all, or escaped - never to be seen again. Between the filing of the first report in July 2005 (for incidents occurring in May 2005) and the report from June 2011 (for incidents occurring in April 2011), 215 animals were reported to have died during air travel, 81 injured, and 41 lost.
As discouraging as these data are, they still do not give an accurate picture because there is a huge hole in them: airlines need only report on the death, injury, or loss of an animal who, "at the time of transportation, is being kept as a pet in a family household in the United States." This excludes animals used in exhibitions, the many thousands of animals shipped for research purposes, companion animals belonging to families outside the U.S., and the many dogs and cats shipped by breeders, especially domestic and foreign puppy mills.
There have been many media reports concerning deaths of, and other mishaps involving cats and dogs coming from commercial breeders. It was the death of seven puppies on an American Airlines flight from Tulsa to Chicago in August 2010 that cast a particularly harsh light on the airlines' treatment of animals and the loophole in the reporting requirement. (In both cities, temperatures were above 85 degrees Fahrenheit, exceeding both USDA standards and the airline's own guidelines for accepting dogs and cats onto flights.) As a result, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a petition with DoT and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to amend the regulations "to obligate air carriers to report on incidents involving any warm or cold blooded animal, and to identify any relevant shipper/consignor and consignee involved." ALDF’s proposal would remove the limitation that the reporting requirement applies only in cases of "family pets" within the U.S.
Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) wrote to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood requesting the same regulatory change. Secretary LaHood responded that the department plans to publish the petition for comment and also plans to review its statutory authority in this area. Action may come by the end of 2011.
Airlines' reports may someday more accurately reflect the realities of air travel for animals. However, they will not change the fundamental fact that, without other changes - such as those that would have been implemented had Congress passed the more comprehensive Safe Air Travel for Animals Act (106th Congress, H.R. 2776, S. 1193) - allowing an animal to travel in the cargo hold of a plane remains an unwise and dangerous thing to do. We strongly advise against flying with your dog or cat on a passenger airline unless he/she is small enough to be placed under your seat in a carrier. If that is not an option, consider other alternatives, such as professional pet movers, or Pet Airways, an airline that flies companion animals in planes retrofitted specifically for them. There is also Operation Roger, a service through which truckers help transport pets from shelters to new homes, or help families reconnect with companion animals they had to leave behind.