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Pilots N Paws

Commercial Transport

Commercial Aviation Assistance
Commercial Aviation Transport for Rescues

Hello PilotsNPaws Members and Visitors:

While one of the main focuses of PilotsNPaws is on the general aviation community, the commercial airlines offer a great service to the transporting of rescue animals.

First, there is quite a difference between the general aviation and the commercial aviation community. The general aviation community consists of pilots who fly their own private airplanes or they rent an airplane from a local flying club. These pilots fly single or twin engine aircraft and are sometimes limited by experience and/or ratings to flying in good weather. The types of aircraft found in the general aviation community usually can carry between 1 and 6 passengers and have a range of flying to between 100 and 300 miles, depending on fuel loads. On the other hand, the commercial aviation community consists of pilots who fly aircraft for a living and these aircraft typically have between two and four engines. The most common form of a commercial pilot and aircraft would be any airline pilot flying for an airline, such as Northwest, Delta, or American. These aircraft typically have ranges of 400 to over 1000 miles.

When trying to coordinate the transport of a rescue, the individuals/groups trying to make these arrangements via PilotsNPaws must keep in mind the capabilities of the pilots and aircraft that have volunteered their services to the organization. While the general aviation community can complete a multiple leg transport, these are often very difficult to coordinate. For example, transporting a rescue from San Diego to Dallas involves about 1200 miles of air travel. It would take several legs to coordinate this trip, not to mention the cost of fuel, the coordination of busy schedules, weather suitable to pilot skills, etc. The commercial aviation community (a.k.a. American Airlines) can have this transport completed in a matter of hours with any regard to busy schedules of pilots, planes, or weather. The transport is completed with a high level of safety to both human and animal at a fraction of the time a general aviation transport.

For the shorter transports, such as those between Nashville and Atlanta, the general aviation community can offer these transports safely and in a reasonable amount of time.

Over the years as a commercial pilot for Northwest Airlines, Reno Air and a couple of small commuter airlines, I have carried several dogs, a few cats, live fish, horses, some pigs, baby chickens and one monkey via the airlines. Several trips have been on my own personal time and have involved my own dogs while other adventures were for the purpose of moving a rescue. Many of the transports have been in the line of duty and have gone smoothly. For the transports done on my own personal time, there have been a variety of methods used and depending on size and age, some have traveled in the cabin with me (usually in a sherpa bag) or in the cargo hold of the aircraft. All have made the trip with no worse for the wear.

When I first joined PNP, my goal was to carry rescues whenever I could between my home base of Colorado Springs and my work base of Minneapolis as well as carry rescues on flights that I am working if possible. While those are still my primary goals, there is clearly a need for rescue organizations and individuals to be able to use the commercial aviation sector as a means of transporting rescues. My goal is to provide the education of pet/rescue shipment/travel via the airlines and to assist anyone in need of this service. Additionally, I would like to promote PNP to other airline employees who are willing and able to provide travel for rescues.

The following is basic information that will hopefully educate those in need of moving rescues via the commercial airlines. The following are some basic facts about animal airline travel. This is a bullet point list that does not cover all facets of airline transport but it will give some general information.

*Several airlines have a dedicated pet shipping program. A pet shipping program involves making a reservation for just the animal to travel (without human companion), delivering the pet to the cargo area for the particular airline, and then another person picking the pet up on the destination end.

Within these dedicated pet shipping programs are very regulated procedures used by the airlines. These procedures usually consist of reservation being made 24 hours prior to travel, a health certificate (letter of acclamation may also be needed), a hard sided airline approved crate, close monitoring by airline personnel to ensure the pet is safe and handling the situation (no visible health issues, outside air temps are satisfactory, etc)

These pet shipment programs do not come free. A person sending a pet via the airline cargo system should expect to pay between $50 and $300, depending on size and weight of crate and pet. It is a matter of how important it is to get the pet/rescue shipped/moved to a new location.

The cargo bins of all commercial aircraft are heated, well ventilated, and pressurized. The areas that the pets are held in until boarding are typically a heated/air conditioned building.

The cockpit crew usually receives a carbon copy document that indicates what type of animal is in the cargo bin.

The easiest method of learning the specifics of pet shipment is to contact the airline directly (or contact me since I can get the info very quickly). Either the airlines’ direct website (such as Delta.com) or the airlines’ cargo website link (such as Delta.com/business) will at least get a person started.

*For those rescues traveling with a human companion, the procedures are a bit different. The choice between the rescue being carry- on baggage or checked bagged depends mostly on size. Basically a carry on pet/rescue must fit into an approved animal travel bag (such as a sherpa bag; available at Petsmart, etc) and the travel bag must fit under the seat.

Again, this procedure does not come free. Delta charges $150 each way, Northwest charges $80 each way. And again, it depends on the importance of transporting the pet/rescue.

As an airline employee, I am entitled to basically free travel on most airlines and thus I am able to usually carry pets/rescues free of charge as well, not always. The situation is handled on a case by case basis.

For those pets/rescues that will be carried as checked baggage, the pet/rescue must be in a hard sided crate with enough room to stand and turn around. The traveling human and crated pet/rescue should check in at the airline ticket counter about 2 hours before departure. The pet/rescue is checked in and whisked away to the baggage room. Again, this area is heated/cooled and well protected from outside elements. There is usually a great amount of concern by the human as to whether the crate will make it onto the flight. The comforting factor in this situation is that most/all airlines take great effort with animals since the consequences can be very frustrating, even devastating, and often involves enormous cost to the airline.

When I send a rescue via the checked baggage procedure, I am very vocal (but friendly) about having the animal as checked baggage. I speak with the gate agent, the lead flight attendant and the cockpit crew if I can (which I usually can). This ensures all of the important folks on the flight know there is a checked dog/cat, etc in the cargo bin. By acting in this friendly, but “in their face” manner, I am usually informed by at least the cockpit crew and the lead flight attendant that the dog made it on board. (If traveling on my own airline and in uniform, I can go onto the ramp to make sure the animal is loaded. As with cargo shipments, the cockpit crew receives a carbon copy of the documents that are on the crate so the crew is fully aware of the animal in the cargo bin.

*A word on cost: Even though many rescue organizations do not have the funds to use the commercial airlines, the decision to use the airlines should be based on the need of the transport. For example, what is the value of transporting a dog to his/her forever home or the cat to much needed medical care? Are these situations worth the transport cost…..sometimes? I have done two rescue missions via the airlines in which the dogs were going to forever homes…the new owners were more than willing to pay the costs when I could not arrange the travel for free.

Additionally, a rescue may consider the continued cost of boarding, feeding, health care, etc that they are giving to the rescue. Would it be more cost effective to send the rescue to a foster home than to keep supporting the animal?

In researching the airlines for this article, I could not find any that would give rescue organizations, PNP or individuals a discount in the name of charity or goodwill. The excuses ranged from “we have already been asked by other rescues,” to “you will have to speak with Mr. ^@$^$G,” to “NO. ” In due time, I can attack this from a different perspective, but it will take some time to formulate a plan. (Suggestions greatly welcome)

For the time being, it is up to the rescue organization/individual to pay the fees for shipping. When I am carrying a rescue via the airlines, I will do all I can to keep it free of charge.

*A word on safety of the animal: While relatively safe, there is some risk to airline shipping of pets/rescues. Here are some techniques to minimize the risks:

1) Use plastic locking ties on the four corners of the crate and use a plastic locking tie on the door of the crate. (Ensure that the receiving party has snippers to cut the tie on the door.) There is some risk here should the rescue need to be removed from the crate quickly while enroute. One option I have done in the past is to put a small pair of snippers in a manila envelope, (along with a leash, paperwork, etc) and duct tape it to the top of the crate.

2) Use vet approved meds to reduce anxiety in the pet/rescue. (From experience, I now only give a half dose ) Some animals do very well with shipping while others are convinced they are going to gas chamber

3) Secure a leash, small amount of food, and all docs in an envelope to the top of the crate. (duct tape, shipping tape work well)

4) Ensure all parties on both ends of the shipment remain in constant contact. When I carry a pet/rescues I am on the cell phone to both parties several times during transport.

5) Monitor outside air temps at origin and destination; the airlines have strict limits, but certain breeds must be more closely watched in terms of temps.

*Getting Started on Using the Commercial Airlines for Transports: The easiest way to research commercial airline pet/rescue transport is to consider where the animal is starting and where the animal is going. With those city pairs in mind, try to determine which airlines have direct flights. These are the easiest on the animal and are safer in terms of not misconnecting and in terms of a shipper and receiver being on either end. For example, any pet/rescue coming out of Atlanta would be able to go direct on Delta Airlines to almost any city while out of Denver, United would probably be the better choice. Start this process by researching flights on the individual airline’s website, such as Delta.com or NWA.com (Northwest). Once the airline has been determined (or at least narrowed down to two or three choices), use the search function on the website to find specific information on pet travel, pet/animal shipment, carry-on pets/animals, pets/animals as checked baggage, etc. Some websites will allow you to make the reservation and make payment while other airline’s websites will direct you to contact an agent via a specific phone number. Please read all available information on the travel method being used; it will deter unforeseen problems. Lastly, contact the airline’s reservation agents via an 800 number and request information/reservations from there.

In summary, shipping/carrying a pet/rescue via the commercial airline is a safe, time saving option when the distances between origin and destination are too great for general aviation aircraft/pilots. I encourage everyone to consider this option and to please contact me for any help. Even if I cannot carry the pet/rescue myself, hopefully I can help others in their efforts.

Sarah Murphy Case
Northwest/Delta Airlines