CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Many servicemembers flying internationally on official orders could face steep fare increases for pets beginning next month, when a top military-contracted air carrier changes its baggage policies.
As part of its merger with Continental Airlines, United Airlines has announced that on March 3 it will drop its current flat rate for pets that are checked as excess baggage and instead require all animals to be shipped as cargo. For those changing duty stations in the Pacific, the change could mean paying about $1,440 to $3,869 to fly with an animal back to the United States, depending on its size. Currently, United charges $283 for most pets, according to estimates provided Tuesday by Continental customer service.
United and Continental are both federal contract carriers, so servicemembers traveling on official duty are often booked to fly on the airlines at a reduced cost to the military, but the cost to transport pets must be paid by the servicemember.
“This is just going to be devastating and pets are going to be left behind,” predicted Mary Seward-Yamada, owner of Camp Canine Okinawa, a company that specializes in assisting military families with transporting pets between Japan and the U.S.
Seward-Yamada said the price increases are going to put the cost of transporting a pet out of reach for lower-ranking servicemembers who do not have the income to spend thousands of dollars on airline tickets for the family pet.
The changes triggered a rash of concern on the United Facebook page Tuesday, with posts calling it a “rip-off” and “frustrating.”
"Our PetSafe program is industry-leading because of the high standards we set for flying pets," United spokeswoman Mary Ryan said. "Due to Japanese law, anyone shipping their pets from Japan pays our PetSafe rate and a 3rd party forwarder at market rates. We realize this impacts military families, and are evaluating our pricing from Okinawa."
The impact in Europe is likely to be minimal, as starting this month, soldiers and their families began using the Defense Department-chartered Patriot Express for flights between Baltimore and Ramstein Air Base, instead of flying into or out of Frankfurt Airport. Patriot Express charges $110 to ship a pet, according to U.S. Army Europe. The Air Force also uses Patriot Express to move airmen relocating to and from Germany, and commercial carriers only when seats are not available on Patriot Express flights, according to officials.
Last year, about 1,500 soldiers and families went through Frankfurt Airport each month, according to USAREUR. The command hopes to have all incoming personnel flying into Ramstein by the end of September.
The merger between United and Continental created the world’s largest carrier. According to Continental’s website, that airline alone is contracted to handle more than 1,700 city-to-city routes for the military and federal government.
Company officials reached at Narita Airport in Tokyo said they were unaware of any price increases and that the details of the new pet policy are still being ironed out at the airport, which is the main air hub for the region. Continental customer service said Tuesday it already charges cargo rates for pets and confirmed that United will be adopting its policy as part of the merger.
Glen Downes, the deputy distribution management officer for Okinawa Marine Corps bases, said the military on the island has been told it cannot book pets on any United passenger flights beginning March 1 and instead it appears the animals must be booked through cargo carriers.
United is expected to provide new details on the policy later this week, he said.