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Traveling With Pets: American Airlines soars to number one in safety

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When Christina Selter tried to book a flight for her Boston terrier, American Airlines turned her down. “My dog was too big to fit under the seat,” she said. “Due to a short snout and respiratory problems, altitude is not my dog’s best friend, and the airlines refused to let her ride in cargo.”

But rather than being miffed with the airline, she was impressed. Selter is the founder of Bark Buckle Up, an organization promoting pet safety during travel. When her organization announced their 2009 Pet Safe Choice Award Winners earlier this year, American Airlines stood out as No. 1 in airline safety after a careful analysis of industry players. Evaluation factors included how many flights arrived safely, safety rules, and the awareness and reactions of employees regarding their precious cargo.

Pet customer care

“Dogs are more than just luggage,” said Hans Hauck, manager of bag operations at American Airlines. “Employees treat our pet customers with respect and caring, not just as cargo.”

Many AA employees have pets of their own, and as situations arise, they frequently go above and beyond. “A training service animal was being transported to its new owner and had never been exposed to what it would be like to be in a tunnel,” Hauck said. “We picked her up and showed her what it would be like to be in an airplane before her flight.”

On another occasion, military personnel missed a connection and two dogs were stranded for 24 hours before an eight-hour flight to Brussels. Sympathetic employees took the dogs home, and walked and fed them before dropping them off before the flight.

Checking in

If you are a celebrity with a pet or traveling with a celebrity pet, after an initial prescreening you may be forwarded to the LA Studio travel desk for care of that exclusive pet passenger. Most customers, however, are advised to visit the AA.com Web site prior to arriving at the airport. A comprehensive guide to rules and regulations can be found in the “Traveling with Pets” section.

“Reservation to check-in is a very detailed process,” Hauck said. AA’s comprehensive Web site clearly outlines the process of pet travel.  Some important guidelines include:

No more than seven pets are allowed to travel in the cabin per flight, so make arrangements in advance through Reservations.

Checked pets do not need a reservation.

Cats and dogs are the only types of pets accepted for travel.

Animals must be able to stand up, turn around and lie down in a natural position in the kennel. The kennel must be made of wood, metal, plastic or similar material and be leak- and escape-proof. There must be ventilation on two sides, plus the door, and it must have a water container with outside access.

The maximum weight of a checked pet and kennel (combined) cannot exceed 100 lbs.

Dogs and cats must be at least eight weeks old for travel.

American does not require a health certificate within the 50 United States. All states require proof of current rabies vaccination for dogs more than 12 weeks old, and some require proof of rabies vaccination for cats.

For travel outside the U.S., consult the Web site and the country’s consulate or embassy.

Pet travel improving

Both Hauck and Selter agree that the growing awareness and popularity of pets has contributed to all airlines improving safety standards for pet passengers.

“The airlines have learned a valuable lesson about the importance of people and their pets,” Hauck said.   American recently refurbished a fleet of 767 wide-body aircraft and installed comfy new “lay-flat” seats for premium customers.  In the redesign, however, storage spaces where customers had previously put their pets had been omitted due to the design of the new seat.  After hearing feedback from flight crews and customers, American put together a crack design team comprised of mechanics, engineers and pet owners with the task of developing a storage solution that met strict safety and weight standards.  “Within a very short time, each first class seat had its own storage unit that can accommodate pet carriers along with other carry on items,” Hauck said.

 According to Hauck, “pet travel has greatly improved in the last five years.”  Temperatures are not to exceed 85 degrees nor dip below 45. Cats and dogs never travel together due to their natural enmity, but are definitely “treated equally,” he says. One of the new safety rules requires the customer to secure plastic kennels with releasable cable ties attached at all four corners. AA provides the ties for no extra cost.

Not all pets, however, are good air travelers. As Selter notes, her Boston terrier is happy enough to stay at home. For other furry travelers, a visit to the vet before takeoff can provide added reassurance and prevent any unforeseen problems.  It's also important to make sure that your destination is pet-friendly.

For more information about Bark Buckle Up and the Pet Safe Choice Award Winners, go to www.barkbuckleup.com.


Photo courtesy of American Airlines

Credit: Reviewed by Amy Attas, VMD
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