Doggone airlines! 4 reasons pets shouldn’t fly

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.

That’s not to say there isn’t a market for airborne pets. This summer, Pet Airways, which is billed as an alternative for pets traveling in cargo holds, is scheduled to begin flying between New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles.

Still, this may be one of those rare times when I agree with the airlines. If dogs and cats belonged at 36,000 feet, they would have wings. But the current system, whether it’s a moneymaker or a deterrent, is hopelessly broken. Here’s why:

Air travel can kill animals
Literally. Pets die on planes, particularly when they’re in the cargo hold. According to the Web site, a total of 109 animals have perished since 2005, most of them dogs. Airlines must report deaths, injuries and losses to the Transportation Department, but the numbers are thought to be artificially low, since animals that aren’t kept as pets or carried on an all-cargo or unscheduled flight aren’t counted. Continental Airlines had the most deaths (34) followed by American Airlines (21) while Delta Airlines and United Airlines tied for third, with 12 casualties. Delta lost the most pets (11) while Continental had the most injuries (14) according to the government.

The price isn’t right
Why does it cost AirTran $70 to carry a pet one way, but Delta charges $150? Does the cumulative weight of these creatures make planes consume more fuel on one airline, necessitating a higher fee? You don’t have to be an airline employee to know the answer: of course not. Then again, when have airline prices ever made sense? A seat bought two weeks before a flight costs just a few hundred bucks, but buying it the day before your trip can set you back a few thousand. Madness!

Some animals are more equal than others
Jacking up the prices for man’s best friend exposes one of the last remaining airline subsidies: lap children. On domestic flights, airlines don’t charge parents with kids under two who sit on their lap. Fido flying under the seat pays $150. Junior sitting on the lap pays nothing. Does that make any sense? No. When you account for all the extra stuff that you have to bring along, like diapers, formula, snacks and toys, lap kids account for far more weight than most pets stowed under the seats.

No self-respecting dog would subject itself to air travel, anyway
Southwest Airlines used to have the right idea. It didn’t accept live animals in the cabin or cargo compartment other than those trained to assist people with disabilities, until it reversed itself this spring, citing the soft economy. (Here’s a handy list of airline pet policies.) Think about it. What self-respecting cat or dog would intentionally lock itself in a pressurize aluminum tube for several hours? I don’t know of any.

Full disclosure, here: I am owned by two cats that I love dearly. And I interviewed Miller as he was taking his Australian Shepherd, Nikki, for a walk. So it’s safe to say neither of us have a problem with pets in general.

But flying with them is a terrible idea, at least for now. “I would never put Nikki on a plane,” Miller told me.

My cats Max and Pollux are grounded, too. At least until airlines can come up with a better and fairer way to transport their animal passengers.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • JoDa

    If a pet is flying cargo or even for a long time, I suppose the fee makes some kind of sense. But, as the owner of a small dog who would LOVE to take him with when I take short trips, I find the fees insane.

    I live in a big city and do not own a car. So, I fly to visit my family. The flight is only 35-45 minutes (scheduled, it generally lasts 25-35 actual, which is versus 5-7 hours of driving, depending on weather and traffic, even if I *had* a car). I have status in the frequent flyer program (for work travel, where I gladly pay a friend or professional to take care of my dog while I’m gone), so I get to check 2 bags for free and, even without my dog, carry only a small purse as a carry on.

    I can see fees for larger dogs that must fly cargo or, even, longer flights, but, really, it seems only reasonable that, after I get my dog to the airport (on public transportation, where he is welcome, FOR FREE, in a carrier), muddle through security with him, and then give up my leg room to stow him under my seat, that his “ticket” shouldn’t cost more than mine to simply be stuffed under a seat in an “approved” carrier (which, BTW, are not cheap…mine was over $100). Would I fly him across the country or internationally unless I HAD to? No. But on a very short hop where he could hang out with my family and friends and their pets and kids? Yeah, I’d love to have him along and, while the pressure changes might hurt *a little,* it’s not super-stressful. I’ve done it from time to time over holidays where friends are busy and pet-sitters are overwhelmed and charging premiums, and he’s been nothing but a saint for those flights.

    Overall, I’ve flown him about 4 times. One of those times the guy sitting next to me, about halfway through the flight, tapped me and asked if my bag had moved or he was imagining things. I told him that, yes, it moved, since there was a dog in it. One other time, he whined a bit as we were landing and the 6-ish year old in the seat next to me asked if I had a dog with me and I said yes, and then was required, due to his amazement, to meet them outside of the baggage carousel so he could meet my dog (my dog loves kids – and that kid apparently loved dogs, so this worked out well for both of them). The other times, people just gave me strange looks as I was SUPER careful getting his carrier in and out of the plane and was speaking softly and gently to my dog and keeping my foot at the meshing so he knew I was there so he would remain calm.

    The airlines have enough restrictions on what dogs qualify to fly as a carry on (weight limit of 20 lbs, practically much less than that since most dogs over 15 lbs are not going to fit in approved carriers, limits on how many in the cabin, requiring them to count as your carry on), that charging what they do is highway robbery.

  • Grant Ritchie

    I think the reason the airlines charge four times what they should for pets is because even if they only get one quarter as many flying, they still bring in the same amount of revenue. AND they minimize the risk of problems such as one I saw at Sacramento International last Thanksgiving… a frazzled-looking man deplaned with an unhappy and LOUD cat yowling inside its carrier. He left behind a wash of giggles and smiles as he walked through the terminal, but I imagine the atmosphere was QUITE different on the plane he had just left. :-)

  • JoDa

    Here in DC, pets can be brought on public transportation, again, FOR FREE in a carrier (any carrier) and, in Boston, dogs are allowed on the T outside of rush hour without a carrier (on leash). Yet, in both places, it was/is relatively rare to see people carting their pets around, and when you do see them, they’re largely well-behaved. Yes, people take planes to go away for longer than a few hours to a day, so expenses add up and bringing a pet on vacation becomes more attractive, but I think that these experiences testify that most people will not bring their pets with them, even when not charged for it. Between the hassle and the restrictions, even a $25 fee would be enough to, IMHO, convince most people not to fly with an in-cabin pet unless necessary. $25 was enough to get people to stop checking bags, after all. Plus, unless you REALLY know what you’re doing (and will pay for a nicer hotel in the first place), it’s hard and/or expensive to find a hotel that accepts pets.

    I suppose you’re right that people who will pay it will pay it no matter what. I’m *sort* of in that camp. I bring him when it will cost me more to get a pet sitter and my friends who will watch him are otherwise engaged. So long as I had a friend who would watch him for the price of a small gift or me watching their dog at another time (>75% of the time if I’m just going to visit family for a few days) or could place him with an in-home pet sitter for under $25/day, I wouldn’t bring him. The hassles are just too great, not even including the fee. Even if it were free, it’s just easier to hand him over for 3-4 days than juggle him and my luggage on a train, then another train, then through check-in, then through security, etc. BUT, like I mentioned, I can usually get a friend to watch him for less than $25 (a small gift, pet-sitting exchange, or picking up the tab for dinner some night) or hire an in (their)-home sitter for $15-25/night (except over holidays, when the few who are available can charge $50-75/night or more), so even $25-50 each way is enough to make it financially better to leave him, while not making it a matter where I sometimes tell my family that I’ll just visit them some other time…

  • Andrea Ratkovic

    Yes, well I think you’re missing the point, Tom, as many animals are more well-behaved and less sick than children. In addition, these children could also turn out to be criminals and crackheads. And I certainly wouldn’t mind being treated like I treat my dogs.

  • Andrea Ratkovic

    Well, we all have to listen to yappy people, crying babies, people watching videos, so why not a yappy dog? Besides, I’m paying extra for my yappy dog. Anyone else paying extra for their annoyances? In addtion, if someone claims allergies to dogs/cats, then that allergy would also be triggered with all of the passengers boarding the plane who have pet dander on thier clothes.

  • Andrea Ratkovic

    Interesting that you don’t have allergic reactions to all of the people you come into contact with everyday who have pet dander all over their clothes…

  • Andrea Ratkovic

    I’m sure it would be equitable to unruly toddlers and/or crying babies.

  • Bill___A

    If I ran the airline, I’d be charging $500 for cats, $400 for dogs, and $3000 for yappy little dogs. $8500 for Chihuahuas. Call it a deterrent fee. Other people are allergic to them, and although children “may be worse” that is a separate discussion. The problem is that if your dog is perfectly quiet, that’s great, but the airline staff isn’t allowed to say yours can go on but the yappy one can’t. Use the kennel or a dog sitter.

  • kitteyandkat

    I mean, what else am I supposed to do? Swim with my dog to hawaii?

  • bodega3

    Unless you are moving, leave the dog a home.