Perrito is a 4-year-old terrier from Yelapa, Mexico, who’s proud of having made it to “El Norte” with his human companions, Raoul and Baerbel Schuhmacher. At least that’s what his Facebook page says.
The fuzzy white lap dog is also an accomplished globe-trotter, regularly traveling the United States from the San Francisco Bay area, where Raoul Schuhmacher works for a biotechnology firm. Perrito prefers flying in business class and is known as a “quiet” passenger, according to Schuhmacher.
But Perrito may not be flying back to Mexico with his owners later this year for their annual visit home, at least not in the main cabin. A United Airlines representative recently phoned Schuhmacher to let him know that a “new” Mexican law bans pets in the passenger cabin.
“Perrito is devastated that he might not be able to go on his annual trip to the homeland,” Schumacher says.
Schuhmacher and other pet owners are upset, too. And they’ve started a petition on Change.org to persuade United to reverse its decision. They say that the laws are being applied inconsistently by U.S. airlines with an eye toward maximizing onboard revenue (flying pets in the hold costs more than bringing them on board). And even though at least two other airlines — US Airways and Delta — have similar pet restrictions on flights to Mexico, they’ve put United in their cross hairs.
This latest spat between pet owners and United exposes a deep distrust between the airline industry and its customers — one that grew by orders of magnitude when United’s chief financial officer, John Rainey, recently referred to certain elite-level passengers as “over-entitled.”
“This is nothing but a cash grab,” says Suzanne Montigny, who regularly flies to Cancun, Mexico, with her two calico cats, Angel and Isabella. Sending her kitties to the cargo hold would more than double the cost of traveling with them, she says. Besides, she adds, “there are so many of us who would never subject our small beloved furry companions to the hold of an aircraft.”
United says that it’s only obeying Mexican regulations. It cites three applicable laws: one from 1950, requiring that animals fly cargo class; a 2004 law according to which only seeing-eye dogs are allowed in the main cabin; and a 2007 law that appears to reiterate that rule. What prompted United to begin enforcing these requirements? A March 28 letter from the Mexican government reminding United of the restrictions. “It’s the law,” says Mary Ryan, a United spokeswoman, “and we’re complying with it.”
She said that unlike an online campaign that succeeded last month in pressuring United to reverse a ban on transporting certain supposedly dangerous breeds of dog, the current petition doesn’t stand a chance; United will change course only if the Mexican government revises its rules.
Arthur Wolk, an aviation lawyer based in Philadelphia, says that everything hinges on how United’s lawyers interpret international aviation law. A strong case could be made for United accepting in-cabin pets, at least on flights originating in the United States, where the airline would be governed by Federal Aviation Administration rules. The FAA allows pets on commercial flights. “United is using this law as an excuse,” Wolk says. “It’s a new revenue stream.”