When Dogs Fly.


I confess: I’m a dog person. I believe they’re the most wonderful, faithful, generous companions a person could have, which presents an enormous obligation: dogs ask for little, but depend on us to provide what little they need.

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I need to reassure our four-legged friends that they’re not alone or forgotten and that we’ll take care of them in flight.

Flight is not something a dog needs. So let’s get that straight first: if a dog is on board an airliner, shipped as cargo, that’s nothing the dog needs or wants–that’s for the owner.

“Cargo” is the key word here, too. Because dogs are NOT cargo, they’re living, breathing, feeling creatures who don’t deserve to be “shipped” for the same reasons YOU don’t: the ramp is noisy, scary, dangerous, too hot, too cold, exposed to wind, rain, lightning and jet blast. They’re going to spend a significant amount of time exposed to all of those stresses before we even get off the ground.

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Water spills so easily–I try to refill when possible as dogs are put aboard.

Our cargo crews on the ramp are superstars and care about animals. But when your dog is “shipped,” he’s treated like cargo, which means spending time on the ramp for both loading aboard and unloading from the aircraft.

That’s harsh for an unknowing pet with sensitive hearing subjected to the extreme noise of jet engines in close proximity and harsh temperature extremes. It’s scary and confusing for a dog to sit in a kennel in unfamiliar circumstances surrounded by strangers.

Worse, the mechanics of shipment almost guarantee the dog will go without water, because the belt loader that puts your kennel into the cargo compartment is of necessity slanted.

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That slope alone will spill half the water in a dish in a kennel. The rest will be sloshed out by turbulence and even inflight manuevering, including climb and descent pitch attitudes of plus or minus fifteen degrees, and bank angles up to thirty degrees.

I make it my business to visit all canines put aboard my flights. I need to know they have water for the flight, and I bring my own downstairs to the ramp to refill their dishes in their kennels. I like to reassure them that they’re not abandoned, that they’re among people who care.

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Glad to share my crew-provisioned water with our Very Important Pets.

I check on them once they’re aboard and if I can, I make sure they get a water refill before we close the cargo door because I know some has spilled during even the most careful cargo handling, which our crews do.

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And I think of dogs aboard in flight, realizing they have highly-tuned vestibular senses that probably are upset by excessive manuevering or bumpiness. They’re downstairs, alone, among the cargo boxes and bags. Trust me, the temperature is just fine in the cargo compartment, but it’s still, for a dog, much as you would feel if you were suddenly, inexplicably thrown into the trunk of a car and driven around for hours.

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“Hang in there, my friend–we’ll get you home safely.”

So, sure, sometimes you may have reason to ship your dog by air, although my own best friend will never be subjected to the trials and tribulations of “cargo flight.” In fact, I’d only recommend shipping your dog by air as a last resort. And I’d add that there are caring airline people who will do all they can for your precious pooch along the way.

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One of our ramp superstars in the cargo hold with my water, topping off a pooch’s water dish right before closing the cargo door.

Just be sure it’s a last resort, a short flight, and that caring people look after your dog along the way. If that happens to be on one of my flights, consider it done.

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13 Responses to “When Dogs Fly.”

  1. Every word is true. Thanks, Chris, for bringing awareness to what these precious animals (cats, too) have to endure in an unfamiliar and frightening environment.

  2. A friend, former USAir, was transferred from SAN to PIT. The family flew, he and the dog drove. You are absolutely correct, it must be a last resort to send them as cargo. You didn’t mention the possibility, admittedly remote, of a loss of pressurization, or an error in which compartment the dog is placed in. Caught that once, on the DC-10, and only because we were watching the reflection of the loading in the terminal windows. People on the ramp are dogs lovers too, but mistakes can happen.

  3. Paul Beiser Says:

    Wow, this (and you) are awesome to go this extra mile. I wish all airline employees acted like this.. thanks so so much!

  4. Dan Fuller Says:

    Thank you for what you do for these dogs. You are very compassionate.

  5. Great article. One thing that I heard from another Airline Pilot (not AA) was that he’d also never ship a dog in a plane because of the amount of insecticide that are used in the cargo hold. Is ther a possibility of that being true?

    If so, even more reason not to do it. I had a schnauzer who suffered from some epileptic seizures and one of the triggers for that (not necessarily his) are insecticides. Nasty stuff. And if you ever see a dog go into a full on seizure, it scares you at the same time it’s breaking your heart because you’re entirely helpless.

  6. Captain Jethead,
    you are a good man!! God bless.

  7. Davies, Hugh Says:

    This is a great blog for propeller heads like me; usually very technical but you’ll like this episode – would want him as my doggy’s pilot of ever needed!

  8. Thomas Davis Says:

    Thanks so much, Chris, for writing this eloquent and thoughtful essay on “man’s best friend.” I grew up with a boxer dog–Ike was regarded as a member of our family. Your essay brings to mind so many warm memories.

  9. Excellent post. Can’t be said often enough.

  10. susanmarymalone Says:

    Just another reason I love you, Manno! As you know, I raise and show English Labradors, and I simply won’t ship cargo. I had an “issue” nearly 20 years ago. It turned out okay, but that cured me. So I drive cross country to shows 🙂 I also won’t ship a puppy. I do have folks who get my pups from states away, but they fly in, and fly back out with the pup in coach or first class. Otherwise, they get no puppy! But this is really good info. I had no idea, honestly, that shipping cargo was THIS bad! Thank you.

  11. Great Post! thank you!

  12. Mr. Cook Says:

    Thanks Dr. Chris, for the great post. Your care and concern for humans – and ‘cargo pets,’ is obvious and I believe that you do exactly what you profess. This is not PR fluff from the head office, (although they do issue similar releases at times.) I’ve never shipped one of my treasured friends as cargo and I hope that I never have to do so. Ha! It is a shame that the reservations websites and booking agents do not have access to crew lists, but if they did, I’d try to send Fido on one of your flights. I must agree that air transport really is a last resort for pets, in some situations. More than once I’ve driven a trip that I would otherwise fly, and at far greater expense, simply to accommodate Fido when he had to go along. I KNOW that most of the ramp staffers usually do their best to care for the animals, but now and again, stuff happens and they are forced to skip a few things. Like you, they are under great pressure to get the AC buttoned up and released on time. Your apparently routine checking on the live cargo is commendable and you have my salute, sir. Actions and practices such as yours may be one component of why you’ve been a successful Captain for so many years. Thanks, Dr. Chris!!

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