At just two pounds, Natalie Maldonado’s teacup Chihuahua weighs less than her purse. But on a recent AirTran flight from Tampa to Atlanta, as she tucked the dog under her seat, a crewmember stopped Maldonado because the pet had been improperly tagged, she says.
“I was surrounded by four agents, a gate agent, the flight attendants and another crewmember,” she remembers. “They demanded that I pay a $70 pet carry-on fee.”
That’s when her flight went to the dogs. Although she reluctantly agreed to pay the surcharge, she was walked off the flight after an attendant told her she was committing a “federal offense” by interfering with the flight schedule. She and her Chihuahua were allowed to take the next AirTran flight to Atlanta.
“The manner in which I was treated was completely unacceptable and the pet policy fee is ridiculous and excessive,” she told me.
In their struggle to turn a profit, airlines have piled on a lot of fees in the last year, from surcharges for checked luggage to extras for confirmed reservations. And just when it seemed they had found every last fee, it looks as if they’ve turned up one more: They’re looking to Fido and Fluffy for a little extra cash. Specifically, to their owners.
Maldonado’s pet problem may sound like a tempest in a teacup. But it isn’t to her. She alleges AirTran employees intimidated and humiliated her and her dog. When she tried to take names, one flight attendant told her he “wasn’t allowed to give last names.” I was sure the airline would respond to her complaint, so I suggested she send a polite letter describing the incident.
AirTran’s response? A form letter saying it regretted “to learn of your disappointment with our pet travel policy” but pointing out that pet fees are “standard” in the airline business. It promised to pass her comments about the crew’s behavior along to a supervisor.
Here’s the kicker: When it comes to pet transportation fees, AirTran is widely considered to be one of the most reasonable airlines. Its competitors, who at some point must have caught wind of the fact that close to two-thirds of Americans have traveled with their pets and exclaimed, “Ah-ha — there’s money to be made there!” routinely charge twice what this discount airline does.
Call it pet fees gone wild. To get an idea of how crazy these charges have become, consider what happened to Richard Grove, who was asked to pony up $300 to transport his 7-pound cat roundtrip on a recent Delta Air Lines flight. “That’s more than I paid for my own ticket,” he complained. Grove wrote Delta to protest the absurdity of paying more to fly his kitty than himself. The airline replied with a form letter thanking him for letting them “know how you feel.”
It would be tempting to see this as yet another airline industry money grab. But aviation analyst Michael Miller says pet transportation charges differ from other so-called “ancillary” fees charged by airlines today in a few important respects. Pets represent more of a liability than a revenue opportunity, for starters. If a dog or cat dies in the luggage hold — more on that in a minute — the company may face an expensive lawsuit. Although that’s far less likely to happen to animals in the passenger cabin, pets of any kind are essentially unwanted guests on a plane, from an airline’s perspective. Miller says airlines aren’t just “charging whatever they want” to make more money, but to discourage people from bringing animals on board.