Your Pet On My Jet


While most veterinarians don’t recommend shipping your pet by air for a lot of good reasons, it can be done safely if you plan carefully and, like you must for your own travel, plan well ahead of time.

When it comes to airlines and pet owners, there are basically two options: fly with your pet in the cabin, or have your pet put aboard in the cargo hold. On this latter option, there’s another choice: pet shippers, professionals who are in the business of shipping pets and will actually come to your door, help prep and consult on (or provide) an adequate shipping container.

But no matter which way you choose to transport your pet, you should know that there are actually regulations covering such transportation by both the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and statistics regarding animal mishaps can be found on the Air Travel Consumer Report published monthly by the Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT also publishes some guidelines for shipping pets that you should review.

Still wanting to fly your pet somewhere? Fine–according to the DOT, over two million pets and other animals are shipped by air annually, so, it can and is done often and successfully.

The best summary of “must-do” items I’ve seen comes from the guidelines for shipping pets linked above. Once you’ve ensured that your animal’s condition, shipping container and travel arrangements meet those basic standards, let’s look at the operational aspect: the airport and the flight.

While some airlines stop shipping animals in the coldest and hottest months of the year, many ship year round. But that should be a warning to you: some airlines believe that the extremes of temperature on the ramp that normally is acceptable for cargo might be too harsh for pets. Can you ship during a more temperate season? Can you change plans if the temperature is extremely hot or cold on your travel day?

Because your pet in a kennel will be subject to hot or cold temps on the airport ramp during both the cargo loading and unloading process, which can easily be up to a half hour each way. The flight line and the ramp are hostile environments: extreme noise (hearing protection required for humans–and many pets have even more sensitive hearing) and harsh temperatures. Now, our cargo guys at American Airlines (and I assume most airlines) really are sensitive to pet shipments, trying to minimize the trauma for the animals. Nonetheless, there’s little that can be done about the extremes of temperature and noise that are the facts of life on the flight line.

So, to minimize ramp exposure, try to book a nonstop flight. That will eliminate a mid-trip necessity for the pet and carrier to be offloaded from one jet and trucked across the flight line to another. In the case of both an origination flight and a connecting flight, a delayed inbound flight can mean a long sit on a cargo vehicle on the ramp–a nonstop flight  eliminates one long round of exposure to heat, cold and noise on the ramp.

And here’s a myth that we can put to rest: no, the cargo compartment is not unpressurized. If it were, everything in your luggage that is even in a mildly liquid state would ooze all over the place at altitude. The cargo compartment is within the pressurized hull of the jet and further, it is also temperature controlled.

But here is a hazard that is below-decks on a modern jet that isn’t in the passenger cabin: fire suppression chemicals. That is, is smoke is detected in any cargo compartment, there is a cargo fire suppression system that discharges “snuff” chemicals–that is, fire retardants that eliminate the oxidants required to support combustion–as well as breathing. Just so you know.

Again, for shipping your pet as cargo, review the DOT guidelines for shipping pets linked above and be aware of the important considerations required on behalf of your pet.

Good dog--in the carrier, not out.

Now, for option two, carrying your pet on board.  Of course, there are government regulations covering that too, and they’re for the benefit of the pets, the pet owners, but as importantly, for those seated around passengers carrying pets. And let’s make an important distinction: pets versus service animals. The latter are covered by a separate set of regulations–which don’t necessarily apply to ordinary pets.

If you’re planning to travel with a pet aboard a jet, know which regulations apply to you–including the limitations–because I can tell you this: the flight crew not only knows what they are, they are charged by the FAA with assuring compliance. Let me highlight some of the more important stipulations here:

  • Your pet container must be small enough to fit underneath the seat without blocking any person’s path to the main aisle of the airplane.
  • Your pet container must be stowed properly before the last passenger entry door to the airplane is closed in order for the airplane to leave the gate.
  • Your pet container must remain properly stowed the entire time the airplane is moving on the airport surface, and for take off and landing.
  • You must follow flight attendant instructions regarding the proper stowage of your pet container.

I can’t stress that last point strongly enough, because failure to comply with that last point puts a passenger into the category of non-compliance with the lawful instructions of a crewmember, which is a Federal offense we as flight crew members do not take lightly.

Why do I even bring that up?

Because other passengers on your flight may be sensitive to allergens associated with your pet–and they have rights too, specified by even more government regulations. As a result, each airline will have their own specific rules for passengers carrying pets which might be even more restrictive than the government regulations. For example, Delta Airlines regulations are more restrictive than the government regulations, requiring that your pet remain in the pet carrier for the entire time it is aboard the aircraft. And most airline policies are similar to that.

Why do I even bring that up?

Because many people have allergic reactions provoked by exposure to your pet. For instance, the above pictured happy guy went head to head with Alex van Halen on a recent flight over the aging rocker’s carried-aboard pet. And basically, Al Roker was right: there is no requirement for any other passenger to endure ill effects from another passenger’s pet on board an aircraft.

Why do I even bring that up?

Because inevitably, there are passengers carrying pets that insist on removing the pets from their carriers in flight despite the airline policies and Federal regulations governing the carriage of pets aboard passenger airlines. Don’t do it–for the sake of others, and for your own sake–because there are serious physical liabilities for others on board, and major legal consequences for pet owners who claim an exemption from the rules they agreed to upon boarding the flight. Sure, your pet is the cutest pet on the planet–in your eyes. But when on board an aircraft, yours are not the only eyes involved and regardless of your pet’s loveableness, they and you must comply with all government and airline directives.

So that’s it: you know have the big picture and as importantly, the associated federal regulations governing the carriage of pets on commercial aircraft. Read carefully, plan accordingly and if you do travel with your pet, enjoy your flight.

Coming Wednesday:

He’s amassed over 20,000 pilot hours in the Boeing 707, 727, 737, 757, 767 and 777: we go live

with Boeing Instructor Captain Mark Rubin.

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17 Responses to “Your Pet On My Jet”

  1. Great info Chris and I will pass this on to all my friends with pets. Too bad we can’t cage some of those pesky little kids and put them in the cargo hold.

  2. Yeah, I hear you say the crew knows the rules, but too many flight attendants fit the “Cat Rancher” profile: 50-60 years old, divorced, herding cats in their cracker-box tract home and calling them their “babies.”

    Saw one on a flight last week helping some fellow cat nutcase passenger hand feed her damn cat she was holding in her lap. No, I don’t have allergies–I just hate cats.

    • Wow, you pretty much nailed the Cat Rancher thing.

      And I wish I was making this up, but on the crew van last week, one of those types on my crew was blabbering about a “pet emergency” at home; her aging cat “had constipation” and needed vet treatment right away; said she’d already spent over $2,000 on treatment for the cat. I asked her how much a new cat cost and she didn’t speak to me for the whole flight. Which isn’t all bad, I suppose.

      • C’mon boys, give us a break. Not all of us cat lovers fit your description. Just because you don’t like cats doesn’t mean there is something wrong with US liking them.

  3. LOL! Captain Sensitive. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Hah! Diverted to Austin for fuel last week. A passenger who’d been giving the F/As a lot of grief about the divert tried it on me. I gave him one chance to back off, then he discovered just how “sensitive” I am.

  4. Thank you for posting common sense advice and tips. I know how noisy it is on the ramp for humans and for pets, its even worse. One time some twit had left a 5 month old puppy in a crate in the cargo hold of an RJ WITH the APU screaming just above this puppy’s head. The puppy was frantic. I had to call for someone to come and put the puppy and crate further into the hold. Not a great place for pets.

  5. All excellent advice. I have had to ship pets as cargo and have also taken them aboard a flight. I have never had any problems, but still think the shipping as cargo option is only to be used in a dire emergency. One thing you didn’t mention for pets carried aboard, TSA often requires they be removed from their carrier to pass through security. INSIST this be done in a private, closed room. All animals, but especially cats, may turn into super-strong feral atttackers in this situation, and the last thing you see of your cat may be his tail disappearing into the terminal.

  6. Joel Genung Says:

    Great post with a lot of good info! You hit the nail on the head: plan ahead! The number of pets that can be carried in the hold or the cabin may also be limited. If they’re to travel in the hold, there may be restrictions based upon previously “booked” perishable cargo e.g. a shipment containing dry ice (solid CO2 for those readers not chemically-inclined). For the most part, the Res and cargo folks will have a handle on when and on what aircraft a pet can be carried but on occasion, there may be last minute surprises, just as there are weather and flight delays.

    • Yes, planning is key. In scanning various airlines’ pet transport policies I found (not surprisingly) they’re all derived from the FDA and DOT guidelines I linked into this post. So if a traveler familiarizes himself with all of those source documents, travel planning with an airline will present no surprises–except for the major point I noted: the DOT doesn’t require that pets stay in a carrier in flight; just on the ground when moving for take-off or taxiing in. But I didn’t find any airline policies that *didn’t* require pets to remain in their carriers for the entire flight. There might be some carriers that don’t have that requirement, and if anyone finds one, send me the link and we’ll share it here.

  7. Good One.
    Thanks.

  8. This is a VERY off topic comment, so beware…
    How did pilots at American like flying the Airbus a300, and in general, how are pilots on planes such as the S80 reacting to American’s order of scarebus (just a joke, airbus’s are great) a320 neo’s?

    • I don’t know about the A-300 flying, it was based in MIA and JFK–and I never was.

      I think everyone’s looking forward to the new Airbuses. The MD80 pilots will have a choice between the bus and the Boeing as the Maddogs are phased out. Can’t really see a downside in that. I came off of 14,000 hours on the Maddog, now have a thousand on the 737-800–love it. Wouldn’t mind going to the bus myself but I don’t feel like starting over. Plus, the next jet for me is the 777 so the -800 is a natural lead-in.

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