Traveling with Pets: Airlines With the Most Dog Deaths

These airlines had more dog deaths and injuries than any other carrier.

July 19, 2010, 2:12 PM

July 21, 2010— -- When Kendra and Travis Parks moved last month from Hawaii to Seattle, they sent their 6-year-old Great Dane Tucker in a custom-made kennel in the cargo hold of a Continental Airlines plane. Unfortunately for Tucker, it wasn't a smooth trip.

When he arrived in Seattle -- after a layover at Continental's Houston hub -- Tucker was covered in vomit, feces, saliva and blood, according to the Parks. He could barely lift his head and didn't respond to any stimuli, the couple said. He was "in such grave condition" that he had to be euthanized a few hours after arriving.

"Our dog was in perfect heath before we left," Kendra Parks told ABC News, adding that their veterinarian checked him out and signed off on the travel a few days before the trip.

When she picked up Tucker in Seattle, "He looked like they dragged him behind the plane," Parks said.

Continental offered to refund the $900 the couple paid to fly Tucker and the cost of euthanizing and cremating the Great Dane. Continental also offered to fly the couple a new puppy from anywhere in the country.

Parks said she just wants the airline to take responsibility, change its policies and stop treating animals "like luggage."

"This dog saw me through everything," she said. "Every day I cry. It breaks my heart every day not to have my dog with me. I wish we had never flown back. I wish we had never left Honolulu. They will never know what they took from me."

Though rare, hundreds of air travelers have experienced the trauma of losing a dog during a flight.

During a four-plus year span from 2005 to 2009, U.S. airlines killed, injured or lost 224 dogs, according to the Department of Transportation.

And just like with arrival times, baggage handling and customer service, some airlines were much better than others at ensuring your 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 is by no means perfect. Since May 2005, the airlines have been required 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.

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Presumably, the larger the airline, the more likely is to have incidents of problems transporting pets. But that's not the case.

Delta, the world's largest airline, transports 65.2 million domestic passengers a year and had 43 lost, injured or killed dogs during the DOT survey. Continental, which flies half as many people -- 31.5 million -- had 58 incidents. Then there is US Airways. That airline flies 44 million people a year domestically but only lost, injured or killed three dogs past four-and-a-half years.

Continental said that autopsy results of the 40 dogs that died in flight show that "none of these deaths were transit related." (Another 14 pets were injured and four others lost.)

"Continental has transported approximately 550,000 pets over the past five years," company spokeswoman Christen David said in an e-mail. "Our PetSafe program is regarded as one of the best in the business and we've made a substantial investment to ensure the safety and comfort of animals that we transport."

Continental says it takes pride in its pet program, offering a separate check-in area, air conditioned vans to keep them cool on the way to and from the aircraft and additional training for staff to handle dogs. Several airlines refuse to fly pets in cargo during the hot summer months when they are most susceptible to extreme heat. Continental however doesn't have such a prohibition.

The airline had the most dog incidents of any carrier in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, but after climbing for three years, the number of incidents started to decline in 2008 and continued in 2009, with Continental coming back into line with other carriers.

Ed Perkins, a contributing editor at Smarter Travel and owner of two poodles, said flying is a really traumatic experience for an animal and advises against it.

"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."

Continental's 'Bulldog Embargo'

Continental's improved record could be at least partially attributed to the company's "bulldog embargo." Short-snouted breeds like bulldogs accounted for roughly half the purebred dog deaths on airplanes during this period, according to the DOT.

Of the 122 deaths on U.S. airlines, 25 were English bulldogs, 11 pugs, 7 golden retrievers, 7 Labradors and six French bulldogs.

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.

Beginning in July 2009, Continental completely embargoed all types of bulldogs, including French, English and American bulldogs, and adult pitbulls and adult American Staffordshire Terriers were later added to the embargo list.

By late October 2009, after consulting with a veterinarian and other industry experts, the company relaxed it a bit to enable puppies under 20 kilograms and less than 6 months old to travel when the temperature is below 85 degrees.

An American Airlines spokesman said that its 33 deaths, injuries and lost dogs need to be put in perspective. The airline flies more than 100,000 pets a year -- about 600,000 since the DOT started keeping track of deaths, meaning those 33 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."

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."

Delta spokeswoman Susan Chana Elliott said the airline "takes great care in handling the more than 100,000 animals it transports each year and incidences of animal deaths are extremely rare."

Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said the airline "transports pets with the utmost care and respect and follows the letter of the law."

"Any pet injury or death during one of our flights is taken seriously and while the number of pet injuries and deaths on Alaska Airlines flights has decreased in the past several years, we continue to be vigilant in safeguarding the pets in our care," Egan said. "These efforts have been recognized by Smarter Traveler when they named Alaska Airlines the 'Most Pet Friendly Airline' in 2009."

United did not respond to several phone calls and e-mails.

Flying With Dogs

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 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.

Trips for Flying With Pets

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.

Regulations about carrier size and, of course, fees, vary between the airlines, but American for example, charges $150. Unlike carry-on pets, those that are checked don't require reservations on American, but the airline warns that sometimes capacity is reached and pets are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. That warning is mostly for dog show participants, but you never know when such a show is in town.

Delta limits its flights to only four pets in the main cabin and charges $125. Checking a pet on Delta will cost you $200 each way.

Sounds miserable and confusing? Well, there's one other option: a pet-only airline.

Pet Airways flies to Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Los Angles, New York, Omaha, Neb., and Phoenix. Each plane holds about 50 average-sized pets. There are two pilots and a special pet attendant.

One-way trips start at $99, and the airline provides a pre-boarding walk and bathroom break. That's right, walks and breaks. If only we could all travel in such style. (Larger pets and larger distances can rack up much higher airfares. Hey, it wouldn't be an airline if the rules weren't confusing.)