When flying with your pet, the proper route can come with a steep cost
By MARTINE POWERS | The Washington Post | Published: March 10, 2018
When Andrew Bakalar embarked on a recent 10-day business trip to Paris, he left his beloved pooches, Jujee and Elsa Rose, in the hands of a trusted dog-sitter.
But when his trip was unavoidably extended for an additional two months, he decided to send for them to join him.
His plan: Have the dog-sitter ship the pair as cargo from Dulles International Airport to France. The dogs, a schnauzer and a terrier, are small. It couldn't be that hard, he thought.
The saga that ensued involved absurdist twists and turns that can be described only as Kafkaesque. But as the bureaucratic hoops, logistical complexities and costs piled up, Bakalar had an uncharacteristically unprincipled thought: He should have just lied and passed them off as emotional-support animals, which would have allowed them to travel in the cabin with the dog-sitter.
"It might have been cheaper, frankly, to tell the dog-sitter, 'You're coming to Paris for two days, on me,' " said Bakalar, 54, of Silver Spring, Md. The entire process cost him about $2,000.
The world of pet transportation has changed dramatically in recent years. With the advent of emotional-support animals — in some cases with questionable or no certification — pet owners have attempted to board planes with everything from the typical dog and cat to rodents and more-exotic pets, including peacocks, spiders and snakes.
Backlash from other passengers has prompted crackdowns. Delta Air Lines this month began requiring advance documentation that certifies the owner's need and the animal's training before allowing an emotional-support animal to ride in the cabin. United Airlines also recently changed its policy and will require documents confirming that an emotional-support animal is healthy and has been trained for public settings.
The new rules are meant to discourage people who try to pass off their regular pets as support animals, which are intended to provide comfort to their owners but do not require special training like guide dogs or other service animals.
But for those who choose to follow the rules, shipping an animal can be logistically complex and emotionally harrowing, not to mention the exorbitant cost.
According to the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association, a global network of more than 420 companies that help coordinate animal shipments, at least 2 million pets are transported by air annually within the United States, with another 2 million transported in other parts of the world.
And the web of regulations, requirements and fees, enforced by the government or the airlines themselves, is nearly inscrutable. With American Airlines, United and Delta Cargo, passengers' ability to ship their pets can depend on factors as wide-ranging as species and breed, weight, age, snout shape, weather and temperature at the departure and destination airports, the arrival nation's customs policies, length of the flight, and the make and model of the aircraft.
Once the air carrier accepts a pet as cargo, the next steps are complicated.
Typically, owners must obtain a health certificate for their pet within 10 days of the travel date. They also need certification of a rabies vaccination and, in some cases, a "certificate of acclimation" to travel in cold weather.
Some destinations require a letter requesting "direct airport release" if someone other than the owner will pick up the animal.
The animal's crate must meet standards set by the Agriculture Department and the International Air Transport Association, or IATA. (Many of the crates sold in pet stores do not.) Some carriers require pet travel to be booked through a third-party company - you can see the fees racking up here - which helps ensure all requirements are met before the animal arrives at the airport.
Things get even more complicated for international travel or flights to Hawaii. There could be a pet import form, which must be notarized. The animal may need to be quarantined before the flight — for example, up to 120 days for Hawaii — at the owner's expense. The animal may require a microchip, with documents proving that the microchip was implanted before the date of the most recent rabies vaccination.
In most cases of international travel, the animal's health certification must be conducted by a veterinarian approved by the USDA, and the certificate must then be delivered by mail or in person to one of several USDA offices to be endorsed, stamped and returned to the pet owner (at a cost of somewhere between $100 and $200). That's in addition to the health certificate issued upon arrival, which may require hiring an approved veterinarian to come to an overseas airport to conduct an inspection once the animal is removed from the plane.
The price for each of these steps can be anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.
"It's very cumbersome and bureaucratic," said Andrea Gruber, head of special cargo for the IATA, which works with government agencies, air carriers and veterinarians to annually update international standards for pet travel. "It requires good communication, proper documentation and a lot of preparation."
Then there are the unexpected steps. For example, as Bakalar orchestrated his dogs' journey from Dulles to Paris, there were calls to five airlines, fits and starts with several third-party pet transportation consultants, and an emergency trip to the USDA's satellite office in Richmond, Virginia, because the agency's Washington headquarters doesn't deal with pet travel certification.
At one point, Bakalar had to ship a microchip scanner to travel with the dogs to Paris, only to realize that the batteries to operate the machine wouldn't be allowed on the plane.
"There's got to be a way to reduce the red tape here," said Bakalar, adding that Congress or the Federal Aviation Administration should take steps to reduce the bureaucracy.
It's no wonder that people are tempted to skirt the rules and simply ask a therapist to declare their pet an emotional-support animal.
"The restrictions that we have for animals as cargo - they don't apply to service animals, so people have found it to be easier to go with the 'emotional support' or 'service' route," said Derek Huntington, president of the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association. "It's an unfortunate situation, and we'd like to see it change."
And then there are the horror stories. Animals that die of the stress inside the cargo hold of the plane, or succumb to hyperthermia in warehouses or trucks waiting to be loaded on board. Pets that arrive alive at their destination but emerge traumatized.
"It's a definite fear that people do have, but it really is a lack of awareness and understanding," Huntington said. "Animals unfortunately do die in cargo sometimes, but the number is extremely low compared to the number of animals being shipped successfully. And we take every possible precaution to ensure that animals arrive safely."
Some airlines have sought to capitalize on the market for safe pet transportation options, extolling the professionally trained animal handlers stationed at the airport, staff veterinarians and special air-conditioned vehicles that carry the animals from the warehouse to the airplane.
United has a pet-specific building at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Lufthansa, the German airline, brags that its Cargo Animal Lounge at Frankfurt Airport is "the world's most modern airport animal facility."
Charles Hobart, a spokesman for United, said that while airlines take steps to ensure the health and safety of the animals, the onus is on pet owners to take steps before their animal's journey to help it stay calm and comfortable en route.
"The overwhelming majority of dogs and cats have no incidents, and a lot of that has to do with proper acclimation," Hobart said.
He suggests that, to prepare, owners put their pet in a crate, put the crate in the back of a car, and take the car through an automated carwash.
"The experience approximates what it's like traveling in the cargo hold of an aircraft," Hobart said.
But the most stressed-out creatures might be the owners themselves.
Tekin Yilmaz, 27, of Toronto described the mix of excitement and dread when his friends texted a picture of his beloved golden-retriever cocker-spaniel mix, Theo, as his crate was strapped onto a wooden palette, about to be raised onto a forklift and stored for several hours before it was transported to a plane. The dog would safely travel from Beirut to Qatar, and then to Montreal - a 35-hour trip that cost, all told, about $1,500.
"I didn't want to think about what could happen during the trip," said Yilmaz, 27, who traveled to Canada from Lebanon as a refugee. "But I had to risk it. He's my family, and I have to reunite with my family."