Nearly half of the 15 puppies loaded onto an American Airlines plane during a broiling heat wave have died, airline officials said today.
The puppies were loaded into the cargo section of the plane early Tuesday as temperatures were above 85 degrees at Tulsa's airport with a forecast of soaring beyond 100 degrees. Temperatures are even hotter on airport tarmacs and in cargo holds.
Loading the puppies appears to have violated the airline's policy for the safe travel of pets which states that "pets cannot be accepted when the current or forecasted temperature is above 85 degrees Fahrenheit … at any location on the itinerary."
"Temperature restrictions have been established to ensure animals are not exposed to extreme heat or cold in the animal holding areas, terminal facilities, when moving the animals between terminal and aircraft or on an aircraft awaiting departure," the airline says on its Website.
Snub-nosed dogs won't be accepted when the temperature is forecast to be 75 degrees or more. It wasn't known yet what was the puppies' breed.
"Sadly, some animals died and we are trying to find out what exactly happened and when and under what conditions these animals expired," American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said in an e-mail to ABC News.
Fagan would not comment on whether the airline violated its own policy, saying "the investigation is continuing."
American flight 851 departed Tulsa 55 minutes after its scheduled 6:35 a.m. time, and arrived in Chicago about 30 minutes late at 8:54 a.m.
Fagan initially told a Chicago TV station that five puppies died on the flight and two others died later at a veterinarian's office. She told ABCNews.com today, "It appears now as if they were alive when the plane landed and died at a later point. We won't know exactly what happened until the investigation is completed."
Tulsa is in the middle of a heat wave, with temperatures peaking at 103 degrees Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. Even at 5 a.m. -- more than an hour before the flight was supposed to depart -- the temperature was 85 degrees and humidity was 51 percent. And that was the coolest part of the day.
American would not say if the puppies were being shipped by one owner or multiple owners. They did pay an additional fee to transport the dogs. No word if the airline will refund that fee. American charges $150 per container to place dogs in the airplane's cargo hold.
And just like with arrival times, baggage handling and customer service, some airlines were much better than others at ensuring pets arrive alive.
Continental led the pack with 58 deaths, injuries or lost pets between May 2005 through December 2009, according to the DOT. It was followed by Delta (including now merged Northwest) with 43 incidents, Alaska Airlines at 36, American Airlines at 33 and United at 17.
The reporting of animal accidents may be incomplete. Since May 2005, the airlines have been required to report when there is a problem, but they don't release data on number of animals transported each month and the government doesn't keep track.