Pets on a Plane

March 15, 2018

UNITED AIRLINES is back in the news again. And when airlines are in the news, it’s almost never for a good reason.

As the headlines have it, United’s brutish handling of its human customers seems to be outdone only by the way it treats pets. First we had the demise of Simon, the giant rabbit who perished aboard one of United’s London-to-Chicago flights last year. Then, a week ago, on a United flight between Houston and LaGuardia, a flight attendant demanded that an exit-row passenger put her ten-month-old French bulldog in an overhead bin, where it subsequently died either from suffocation or stress. And stop the press: a day after formally apologizing for the overhead bin incident, United accidentally shipped a German shepherd to Tokyo instead of to Kansas City.

In the case of the bulldog puppy, I can’t imagine the flight attendant thought the dog would be harmed, but still it was a terrible decision. So what’s going on here? Is there something endemically dysfunctional at United that’s leading to screw-ups like these?

I’m not sure. United’s record does compare poorly against the other biggest airlines. United recorded 18 animal deaths in 2017, out of around 75,000 that were carried. On the other hand, the numbers overall are small, which makes comparisons like this tricky. Each of the nation’s major carriers operate thousands of flights every day of the week. Unfortunate (and avoidable) as these accidents are, they’re bound to happen, and the numbers, through little more than chance, can paint one airline as guiltier than another. The media, meanwhile, both the social kind and the kind that used to matter, is out for blood, and pity the airline — particularly the one whose name begins with U — that so much as looks crossly at a customer’s doggie or kitty.

Unless of course that doggie or kitty — or pot-bellied pig, or iguana, or llama (yes) — is playing dress-up and posing as an “emotional support animal.” Yeah, the whole faux service animal thing has been simmering for some time now, and the airlines — most of them — are finally cracking down. The timing is bad here, maybe, as the new policies, together with the death of the bulldog puppy and the wayward shepherd, could make you think that airlines are decidedly hostile to pets. Which they are not.

RIP Simon, the Giant Rabbit.

I’m not gonna get too deep into the service animal thing. As an animal lover, I’m of the mind that we should have more animals — and perhaps fewer passengers — on our planes. Also, and despite my protests, my mother once attempted to have her beloved miniature greyhound dubiously certified in this manner.

“I cannot ship him below deck!” she insisted. “There’s no heat or oxygen down there!”

That, incidentally, is false. Which brings us to the real point of this post, which is to give some comfort to those people who are anxious about shipping their pets in the freight compartment. I can understand how tempting it is to want your critter with you right there in the cabin (though no, not in the overhead locker, unless perhaps it’s a python or a bat), but fear not the lower holds.

A lot of people are under the impression that the underfloor spaces are freezing and unpressurized. Not true. At 35,000 feet the outside temperature is about 60 degrees below zero and there isn’t enough oxygen to breathe. That’s worse than economy, and transporting animals in these conditions would rightfully displease their owners and animal rights groups. So, yes, the underfloor holds are always pressurized and heated. On most planes there’s a particular zone designated for animals. This tends to be the zone with the warmest and most consistent temperature. Maintaining a steady, comfortable temperature while aloft is relatively easy, but it can be tricky on the ground in hot weather, and for this reason some airlines embargo pets during the summer months.

Of the two million or so animals carried in the United States each year, a small number perish, whether due to stress or mishandling. How well a pet endures the experience depends a good deal on the individual animal’s health and temperament. If your dog or cat (or rabbit or macaw) is elderly, ill, or easily stressed or spooked, perhaps sending him or her through multiple time zones in a noisy and confined space isn’t the smartest idea. My best advice is to consult with a veterinarian.

The flight crew is always told when animals are aboard. Passengers are known to send handwritten notes to the cockpit asking that we take special care, but this isn’t really necessary, and, in any case, there’s not a lot we can do. There’s no access between the main deck and the lower holds, so we can’t carry treats to your friend below.

Someday, maybe, I’ll share the story about the time I carried a pet hedgehog onto a flight to Cleveland.


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41 Responses to “Pets on a Plane”
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  1. Jeff Latten says:

    We have a miniature Yorkie, a whole 5 lbs, and she fits neatly in a carrier that will go under the seat. She is an emotional support animal and we have the letter from my wife’s therapist to this effect. We’ve traveled with her on American several times and not had any problems, at the counter, the gate nor on the flight. She’s a very well-behaved dog, doesn’t bark much, and doesn’t try to jump off my wife’s lap and run around the plane. I think a lot of the problems experienced by some here have to do with the size and behavior of the animal. American requires that you show up a little early at the counter with your pet so they can have a look at what you are bringing onboard. We don’t find that onerous…we have no one to pet-sit her or anyplace to leave her that we trust. I hope this continues, but bringing llamas on board is just a bit over the top.

  2. Ava Meena says:

    I took my budgie to Germany from the US in flight. Carefully, with a good seat and a plan and all the forms filled out and fees paid. Just do it properly is my advice.

  3. Rfa Renthlei says:

    Its cool that we can bring our loved ones (pets) with us anywhere we go. Great share

  4. IS passenger aircraft able to carry horses.

  5. Speed says:

    Press release from United Airlines about resuming pet travel.

    United Airlines Announces Collaboration with American Humane for Safe Animal Travel
    United PetSafe® program review continues, expected to resume operations this summer

  6. Dan Prall says:

    Here’s another take on ‘comfort animals’ from my favorite author John Varley that you might enjoy. Contains a few f-words.

    He wrote one of the three books I like reading on long flights; “Millennium”. The other two, of course, are “Ask The Pilot” and “Cockpit Confidential”.

  7. Emma says:

    May I ask you for a specific focus on horse airplane travel ?
    As a former pro horserider, but not in the top international level, I always wondered how international competitive horses flew ? Do their groom stay with them in the lower deck ? I can’t imagine this million dollars horses flying alone !


    • Jim Mobley says:

      Hi Emma,

      There’s not enough room in the baggage compartment of any passenger airplane for a tall person to stand up, never mind a horse. Here’s a picture of a 747 section with a small car–looks like an original Mini Cooper but I’m not positive–for scale.

      Here’s an article about a customized 727 that can be chartered for horse transport.


      • Emma says:

        I thought that only cargo planes would accommodate a horse.

        And thank you for the insight and link to the article that makes everything clear.

        • Jim says:

          There are 2 kinds of airframes you are thinking about. The article this question related to was a passenger airplane normally carrying freight and/or pets in the lower 2 holds. (Forward & aft.)
          There are also “freighter” airplanes with no seats in the upper area that would normally carry people. They have various cargo handling/moving/restraining fittings built into the airplane.
          There are specific airplanes modified for horses and the major horse owners collectively charter one of these to move a handful of expensive horses to a major race track area.
          Hope this helps.
          Freighter airplanes usually have no windows (except for a very small one so the crew can see the wing leading edge) on the main deck and this is the easiest way to identify a freighter. Some older airplanes have been extensively modified to carry freight and may still have windows.

  8. Speed says:

    Car owners in survey worry about pet safety but could do more about it
    Volvo says it’s a consideration that’s mostly gone to the dogs

    The survey, which comes on #NationalPuppyDay (who knew?), finds that nearly a quarter of all pet owners worry enough about their dog’s safety to leave them home during long trips or vacations. Of the 1,342 respondents who identified as pet owners, 97 percent said they drive with their dogs during shorter trips like errands, but nearly half don’t own any safety driving gear for their pets, and 41 percent said they let their dogs ride in the front seat. Nearly one-quarter said they buckled their dog into a standard seat belt, while just 5 percent said they had a built-in safety system installed in their vehicle.

    How does one buckle a dog into a standard seat belt? Maybe the airlines should find out, sell travelling dogs a seat and require that they buckle up.

    • walk says:

      We use a Ruffwear Load-Up dog car harness for our 65 pound dog in the rear seat of our car. One of the only dog harnesses apparently to be crash-tested (but only up to a certain weight – we are at the limit).

      They do work, at least in non-life threatening events so far – like sudden stops or panic breaking. Keeps him from falling between the seats or into my right arm between the front seats.

  9. Russ says:

    The author’s bias against United is blatantly obvious at the beginning. It’s clear to any reader that he flies for a competing airline. Why not help perpetuate the bad PR! First of all, United carries more animals than any other US airline. Well over 110,000 last year alone, not just the 70-some thousand that he stated. The Pet Safe program that United has developed for transporting animals has been recognized by the AKC as the best in the industry. The problem is when people prepare their pets for travel. Often the are over-medicated with tranquilizers to help keep them clam during the journey. In the case of the bulldog that died, you gotta remember that short-nosed dogs have breathing difficulties as it is. Combine that with tranquilizers and a 7000 to 8000 foot cabin altitude, problems will arise. I think tha United needs to have that dog autopsied to see what real was the cause of its death.

    • Stephen Stapleton says:

      Russ, if there is any bias being unveiled, it is yours. Patrick makes clear United has a good record overall, but it also clearly screwed up. The French bulldog died as the result of a direct order from a flight attendant who just as clearly lacked any training or bases for her order. Airline rules actually forbid pets in the overhead bin. It was a blatant misuse of her authority over passengers. I would have told her to relocate me to another seat, that I was not, under any circumstances, putting my dog in the overhead bin. I happen to be rather pushy and question authority, but most people can be cowed into submission and that is what happened here.

      Also, btw, one cannot get a dog autopsied. Autopsies are, by definition, the post mortem examination of human being. The post mortem examination of an animal is a necropsy.

      I think many of the problems airlines have had these last few years can be traced to staff exercising their authority incorrectly and against the actual rules. Staff needs to know the real limit of their power and be brought to heal.

    • Patrick says:

      Russ, I appreciate you reading the post and taking the time to comment. I don’t doubt that some people over-medicate their pets or otherwise poorly prepare them for travel. However, you’re the one who sounds biased, not me. In the article, I went out of my way to remind people that it’s often unfair to single out one carrier over another in these matters, and I gave the reasons why. That said, the death of the bulldog was a screw-up and a black eye. If what you say about bulldogs’ breathing difficulties is true, that’s all the more reason why he shouldn’t have been put in the bin.

      • Joseph Muller says:

        Thanks Patrick, I’ll forward this to my wife, a vet.

        Bulldogs in general are notorious for breathing problems, due to the short-sighted breeding regimen, and as a critical care specialist my wife has seen more than her fair share of these.

        It would be prudent to consult a vet (preferably with some subject matter expertise) on the suitability of traveling with Fido (etc.) via air, and with what preparation, pharmaceutical aids or otherwise.

        I don’t think, OTOH, it is reasonable to expect flight crew to include this knowledge in their ambit, perhaps warranting a specialist or two on retainer at any given large airline to guide clients and staff on best practice, or specific advice. Perhaps a niche opportunity, if not already filled.

    • Art Knight says:

      United said they are paying for the autopsy. That’s like being injured at work and being sent to “Occupational Health.” The ones who are paid by Corporate America. Good luck with that. They’ll SAY the puppy was murdered. They’ll WRITE that he passed of old age.

      • Stephen Stapleton says:

        Again, one cannot autopsy a dog. An autopsy, by definition, is conducted on a human being. A necropsy is performed on animals.

        • Art Knight says:

          Autopsy or necropsy, it really doesn’t matter. What I am telling you is the entity that did the deed offering to investigate is the fox watching the hen house. Have you ever heard of Fred Smith?

  10. Simon says:

    The story is fishy. Overhead bins are not airtight. The dog most likely did not suffocate. My guess would be their carrier did not fit under the seat. Just like lots of carried on bags are too large to be “carry-on”.

    That said, animals don’t belong on aircraft. Taking a service animal or moving with a pet should be exceptions. You take your pooch on a plane for fun and it dies, IMHO that’s on you.

    • Art Knight says:

      Simon, Of course the bins aren’t airtight, but the dog could still have suffocated,as it may have had more CO2 and C0 to breathe than O2. It also was pretty small with a tiny respiratory system. Alveoli and stuff. And banging against the walls of the bin in the darkness could have killed it as well. Concussions don’t just happen to NFL players.

      I’m assuming this is a typo, because it makes no sense to me “In the case of the building, I can’t imagine the flight attendant thought the dog would be harmed.” What building?

      The reports I read said she claimed she didn’t know it was a live creature inside the bag. The daughter/owner of the dog says she kept telling the stewardess that “It’s a dog!” In english. The mother spoke only spanish. Where are the libs on this? Isn’t this discrimination? What will NPR say…

      Again. Any man who would sit there and let a little girl’s dog die in front of her for no reason is no man.

  11. Speed says:

    Wall Street Journal Middle Seat column on flying animals …

    On Your Next Trip, Leave the Pets at Home
    Airlines don’t accommodate animals well, either in the cabin or the cargo hold, but if you need to fly with them, get an early start on preparations

    “Ask yourself: Is it really the best idea to take your pet with you on a trip?’’ says Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “Travel for pets, like humans, is stressful.”

    If you do travel with Charley, whether onboard or as cargo, you need to acclimate your pet to its travel crate or carrier weeks in advance. One airline suggests crating it, putting the crate in your car, then driving through a carwash, to prepare for what the trip might be like. Despite your preparations, your pet may not have the temperament for flying.

    There are some humans that don’t have a temperament for flying either.

    • Stephen Stapleton says:

      Yes, the passenger clearly should have prepared her dog to be in an overhead bin where the airline regulations directly state pets should not be placed.

      • Patrick says:

        Stephen Stapleton lives! I hadn’t seen your name in a while; good to know you’re still out there. (I tried saying hello via email, but your ISP blocks me as spam for some reason.)

    • walk says:

      So if I go to Europe for a six month sabbatical – I am supposed to just leave the dog in the basement in Canada to fend for himself? No – I take my pet – my family – with me.

      This was a small dog – perfectly allowed to be in it’s carrier under a seat as per UA rules. There was no need for this animal to die. And no, it was not the owners fault. Use your brain, buddy.

  12. Art Knight says:

    Hedgehog? Could that be Ron Jeremy? He nicknamed my friend “Higher Paycheck.” Finger that one out.

  13. Art Knight says:

    The bottom line is, well, the bottom line. As we say in the U.S.A. “Dinero o dolores.” (Happy St. Patrick’s Day to one and all and anyone with the surname O’Dolores.)

    I’ve worked for Home Depot and Super Target. I was shocked when a huge dog turned round into my aisle, simply walking around like he owned the place. I asked my superior about the policy and the policy is “If they are spending money, they can do as they wish. Use any restroom, set monkeys loose.

    I’m supposing there were people on that plane that would never witness a murderer’s execution that sat silent while that beautiful smart animal was killed for no reason. I hope they all tell their children, nieces and nephews and St. Peter that story.

  14. Speed says:


    United Airlines apologized on Tuesday after a dog died on a flight during which it was stored in a passenger’s overhead compartment.
    [ … ]
    Putting animals in the overhead compartment is against the airline’s policies, which say pets are required to travel in carriers that “must fit completely under the seat in front of the customer and remain there at all times.” United said it was investigating who had put the dog in the overhead compartment and why.
    [ … ]
    “The pet owner was very adamant that she did not want to put the pet carrier up above,” Ms. Gremminger said. “She was saying verbally, ‘My dog is in here, no, this is my dog.’ The flight attendant, in response, really just continued to ask her to put it above because it was a hazard where it was, it was a safety emergency, [sic] someone could trip.”

    Pure speculation: The carrier was too large to fit under the seat and the flight attendant erred in putting it in the overhead.

    The maximum dimensions for your personal item that fits under the seat in front of you, such as a shoulder bag, purse, laptop bag or other small item, are 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm).

  15. PrasadK says:

    Here’s what actually happened:
    “On United Flight 1284 on Monday, a woman who was flying with children and a small dog was pressured by a flight attendant to put her dog in overhead storage during the three-and-a-half-hour flight.
    According to fellow passenger Maggie Gremminger, the woman wanted to keep the dog, which was in a small carrying bag, under her seat, but the flight attendant insisted that she put the animal overhead.

    “At the end of the flight, the woman found her dog, deceased. She sat in the airplane aisle on the floor crying, and all of surrounding passengers were utterly stunned,” Gremminger wrote in a series of tweets alongside a picture of the woman and her children.

    So Patrick, this time, i found your piece slightly insensitive, where you seem to implicate the pet-owners.

    I don’t think in this particular case, there was any issue of the pet not being able to take the “stress”, whereas its owner had properly insisted he travel with them in the cabin, right below their seats, where presumably they would have cared for the small dog, and comforted him. I simply don’t think he would have died in the cabin, and the stress/suffocation of being in a dark, somewhat claustrophobic environment certainly must have contributed to its demise.

  16. Chuck says:

    Dear Patrick,

    Regarding the dog that died traveling in the overhead bin, could it really have suffocated? I have no evidence to point to, but in the variety of planes I’ve flown, air tight overhead bins seems farfetched. It seems more likely that the dog was overly stressed by the experience of being shut in? A totally dark, noisy and likely bumpy ride couldn’t have been comfortable for a young animal?


  17. Jim Mobley says:

    Captain Chris Manno, who drives 737s for American, has also blogged about this subject last year.

    I hope I’m not stepping on any toes, Patrick, with a link to a “competitor.”

  18. Charles Meekings says:

    I flew my two cats with me when I migrated from Australia to Malaysia. That was almost 10 years ago and, from memory, there were three flights (Sydney-Brisbane, Brisbane-KLIA, KLIA-Penang). We used a special animal transit company who prepared the kitties, dealt with all the paperwork in both Australia and Malaysia, and oversaw the boarding (kitties traveled on the same flight as us). Perhaps one danger pet owners should be aware of is the risk of starvation and dehydration. This isn’t the airline’s fault. According to the pet transit company we used, animals should fast for 24 hours before a flight and remain fasting throughout the flight.
    Despite having paid all fees and sorted all paperwork before departure, we still had to pay “undisclosed fees” (read: “bribes”) on arrive to get kitties out of customs, but that’s the price of doing business in S.E.Asia.

  19. Speed says:

    From The Humane Society of the United States …

    Traveling: Should your pet stay or go?

    It’s tempting to want to bring your pet with you, but some animals aren’t suited for travel due to temperament, illness or physical impairment.

    Put their interests first: Think about where your pet would be happiest. You may think that your dog won’t be able to tolerate separation from you, but if you are vacationing, will you have to leave them in a hotel room or strange kennel? That will make them more anxious than ever, so finding a pet-sitter and leaving them in their own home would probably be a better choice.

    We joke that the modern pet lodge where we board our dog is nicer than the hotel we’ll be staying in. And almost as expensive. “How much play-time would you like bowser to have each day (in increments of 15 minutes)? How about some pool time? Would you like a suite with an internet-connected video feed?”

    • Tom in Las Vegas says:

      Great advice from the humane society. Board your pet, or drive. I own lots of animals, but I can’t imagine taking them on planes. I have driven so I can water, feed and walk the animal every two hours or so.

  20. Gene says:

    Sadly, United has by far the worst record of US airlines for “incidents” while transporting animals. Data in this article is from the DOT Air Travel Consumer Report.

    Yes, they carry more animals any US airline; but their rate of incidents is 10X that of the next largest animal carrier, Alaska. Does United secretly hate animals?

  21. Speed says:

    Before the United – Continental merger we shipped a dog cross country in winter. I learned that United had a “committee” that met every morning to determine whether UAL would transport animals that day. Weather (temperature) and possibility of delays were key to their decision — better to make few people unhappy by not accepting their poodles than making headlines with pictures of expired pets on the tarmac.

    • Ken says:

      We flew several times on Continental and Northwest with our 2 cats in cabin. Continental was very clear about the requirements and we had to make reservations for them to make sure they were the only in-cabin animals as they had a 2-in-cabin-pet policy at the time.

      I dare say that part of this is due to the culture of the United flight attendants (as opposed to the flight attendants that came over from Continental). They seem to view the passengers as impediments to getting their job done – i.e., complete boarding. Continental’s personnel were much more customer focused. Although, to be fair, United jettisoned their retirement obligations during bankruptcy (only 50% of the pension and none of the retirement health benefits are covered by the government) effectively gutting retirement benefits by aprpox 75%. That would make me surly, too.