Aug. 4, 2010 -- 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.
Puppies Die on American Airlines Flight
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.
An American Airlines spokesman recently told ABC News that its 33 deaths, injuries and lost dogs need to be put in perspective. The airline flies more than 100,000 pets a year, and has flown about 600,000 since the DOT started keeping track of deaths. The 33 reported incidents represent 0.0055 percent of all dogs that fly American.
"While we never want to have an incident with any animal, that fraction means the likelihood of it happening is quite literally nil on a statistical basis," spokesman Tim Smith said in an e-mail. "That does not mean we do not take seriously any problem that does occur. We do."
The deaths of these puppies are in addition to those 33 deaths.
American also asks owners of deceased animals for permission to perform autopsies.
"In the overwhelming majority of cases where that happened, the autopsy report clearly showed a pre-existing medical condition on the animal that the owner either did not know about, or chose not to tell us," Smith said. "We are confident that pet owners can, and do, count on us to provide good care and safe transportation for their pet."
Trips for Flying With Pets
"It's not a question of how to do it. Just don't do it," Perkins said. "Drive instead or leave the pet at a kennel or with a friend or a sitter."
Of the 122 deaths on U.S. airlines in the past four years, 25 were English bulldogs, 11 pugs, seven golden retrievers, seven Labradors and six French bulldogs, according to the DOT.
Dr. Marty Becker, a veterinarian who has co-authored more than 20 pet books, said those smaller-snouted dogs have "a lot difficulty breathing, and that's when they aren't under stress." If the pet is obese, that makes breathing even more troublesome.
Becker, the veterinarian, said that many pets have undetected medical problems that only surface after it's too late.
"Elderly pets might have a pre-existing condition that could only be discovered when put under the stress of flight," Becker said.
Some people still like sedate flying pets, but Becker said the sedatives often have complications and recommends against them.
"There's no one to check on them or offer help if something happens in the cargo hold," he said.
Flying With Your Dog
Flying with pets isn't as easy as just driving up to the airport with your dog and walking on the plane.
Airlines have lengthy lists of rules and regulations meant to ensure pet safety, but they can be somewhat daunting. The size of the pet, the number of other animals on the plane and the kind of aircraft are all limitations that can be imposed. And there are different rules for pets who fly in the cargo hold and those that are transported in the passenger cabin.
American Airlines, for instance, says animals brought inside the airplane must fit in carriers that are 19 inches long, by 13 inches wide and 9 inches high. Animals must be able to stand up, turn around and lie down in a natural position in the kennel.
Passengers can only bring one kennel with them, although two dogs or two cats of the same species can be in the same kennel as long they weigh no more than a combined 20 pounds.
Pets who fly in the main cabin -- such as cats -- must have their own reservations. (It's also a chance for the airline to collect its $100, one-way fee for bringing a pet into the cabin.) American only allows up to seven pets per flight (a maximum of five in coach) on most flights, but limits that number to two pets on regional jet flights run by American Eagle.
Carry-on pets are not allowed to or from Hawaii or on trips across the oceans.
Checked pets travel in kennels in a hold under the plane, just like checked luggage, though they are placed in a special pressurized and temperature-controlled area. But that doesn't necessarily mean it is comfortable. In winter, airlines may require documentation certifying that your pet is acclimated to temperatures lower than 45 degrees.