Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dying in the Cargo Hold: Is There an Acceptable Level of Loss in Animal Air Transport?

Second Additional Note. The Federal Register of July 3, 2014, includes final rules revising 14 CFR Part 235 concerning reports by air carriers on incidents involving animals during air transport. 79 Fed. Reg. 37938. The new rules will be the subject of a separate blog.     

Additional Note. On October 28, 2013, the Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) released a letter to Delta Air Lines imposing a fine of $68,286 for 22 violations of the Animal Welfare Act in the transportation of pets.  A bulldog on a flight from Tokyo to San Francisco died, most probably from heat stroke and/or a lack of oxygen. Another situation was described as follows:

"Delta failed to handle a two-year old Bullmastiff as carefully and expeditiously as possible when it accepted the snub-nosed dog for transport even though the local temperature was 84 degrees Fahrenheit and Delta’s own animal handling policy stated the airline would not accept snub-nosed dogs, including mastiffs, for transport when the temperature was above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It was discovered deceased upon arrival in Los Angeles, California, from Honolulu, Hawaii."

The letter to Delta was redacted and it is impossible to know what was not posted.  

Dying in the Cargo Hold

The Department of Transportation currently requires that airlines report the loss, injury, or death of pets during flights, more specifically of “any warm or cold blooded animal which, at the time of transportation, is being kept as a pet in a family household in the United States.”  The rule requires reporting an incident involving a pet during the entire period an animal is in the custody of an air carrier, from check-in or delivery until its return to the owner or guardian.  Industry sources estimate that about 800,000 pets are transported annually, while the average number of reported incidents per year since 2006 has been 46.  The reporting requirement does not apply to pets and service animals that accompany passengers in the cabin since airlines do not take custody of such animals. 

Now the Department is proposing to expand the reporting requirement to include “any dog or cat which, at the time of transportation, is shipped as part of a commercial shipment on a scheduled passenger flight, including shipments by trainers and breeders.”  In its December report, each reporting carrier would be required to report the total number of animal losses, injuries, and deaths during the calendar year. The December report is to be certified by an "authorized representative" who must affirm that "to the best of my knowledge and belief, this is a true, correct and complete report." 

The Department also announces that it is considering requiring that air carriers annually report the total number of animals shipped during a year.  This would allow calculation of the rates of animal death, injury, and escape per carrier.  It is also considering applying the requirement to airlines that transport only pets. 

The reactions of commenters to the proposed rule say a great deal about the politics of animal transport in the United States.  Organizations that should be concerned with getting and disseminating information about the risks involved—such as some breeders and research facilities—are overly concerned with potential cost increases and pay too little attention to the lives of their animals.  The public is rightfully anxious that committing pets to the hold of a plane should be safe, but many pet owners fail to realize that with aged, sick, or nervous animals, or with certain breeds, the risks involved may be due more to the animal’s ability to tolerate the stress of the flight than from any negligence on the part of an airline. 

Why Do Animals Die in Air Transport?

Animals can die from a wide variety of causes in air transport.  Because an airline reports an incident, this does not necessarily mean that it is responsible for what happened.  It may, indeed, be partially or entirely the owner’s fault, or the fault of a veterinarian who issued an inappropriate health certificate.

Dogs that are old or diseased sometimes die because the stress of being separated from their masters for a long period in a confining and sometimes unfamiliar kennel, during which they are handled by strange people, left in unfamiliar rooms, hear loud and disturbing sounds in the hold, wait on tarmacs and luggage transport vehicles, and so forth.  A review of reported incidents from 2005 to 2012 indicated that a number of animals with serious heart disease expired during flights.  Obese dogs are more vulnerable to heart attacks.  Dogs, such as pugs, English and French bulldogs—brachycephalic breeds—are often vulnerable to pulmonary disease and can die in flight.  Dogs with cancers are less resilient and autopsies often indicated that a cancer contributed to a death. 

Obese Dog (USDA photo)
Stress can bring on other conditions or reactions that can kill an animal. One summary stated that “stress of flying caused the dog to hyperventilate and triggered a cardiac episode.” Hemorrhagic diarrhea, perhaps brought on by stress, was mentioned more than once. One dog’s death was ascribed to “aerophagia, associated with barking (agitation) and hyperventilation.”  Diabetes and hypoglycemia are sometimes listed as contributing factors, as are infections, respiratory conditions, and thyroid and renal diseases. 

Putting a sick or weak animal through a flight, or series of flights, means that part or all of the blame may lie with the owner, or perhaps a veterinarian that issued a health certificate for an animal to fly.  One owner had the bizarre idea of putting antifreeze in the kennel, another applied a homeopathic spray that the animal may have been allergic to, and yet another gave the dog an over-the-counter human allergy medication.  One owner put cheese treats in cellophane wrappers in a kennel, ingesting which choked the animal to death during a flight.  Another dog choked on newspaper put inside the kennel.

When an airline accepts an inappropriate kennel, some of the blame must go to the owner who used such a kennel.  One incident involved an airline accepting a collapsible kennel, contrary to airline rules.  No lock or a poor lock should never be accepted, but they have been on occasion.  Dogs that are sufficiently frantic from the flight experience have been known to chew through even airline-approved kennels.  Sometimes dogs eat part of the kennel in desperation, and this has led to at least one death.  Poorly designed kennels are particularly associated with animal escapes.  Animals that escape are sometimes found alive, sometimes not, and sometimes never found at all.  

Some incidents are definitely the fault of airline personnel.  Putting a kennel on a conveyer belt is generally contrary to policy and may result in damage to a kennel.  Stacking kennels on top of each other may result in one kennel falling and breaking.  Airline staff have been known to break locks, even steal valuable dogs.  Several times dry ice has been placed in the same hold with animals, precipitously lowering temperatures in a cargo hold and releasing carbon dioxide.  A US Airways baggage handler failed to enter into the airline computer system that a dog had been put into a forward bin, so the cockpit did not know to heat that bin, though the rear bin was always heated.  Fortunately, the animal survived.  Overly attentive employees kept watching a puppy they thought was too young so that it missed its flight.  The puppy died from not getting food supplements for too long a period.
Three Senators and the Animal Legal Defense Fund Push for Changes

Although some of the reasons for animals being injured or dying during flights might not occur as frequently in commercial shipments by breeders, there are still risks that can be brought about by airline mistakes.  On August 10, 2010, Senators Richard Durbin (D.-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.), and Joseph Lieberman (Ind.-Conn.) wrote to the Secretary of Transportation urging a rule change to require that airlines be required to report all incidents involving the loss, injury, or death of cats and dogs that occur while they are being transported, whether the dog or cat is a pet or part of a commercial shipment. 

The Animal Legal Defense Fund also petitioned the Department of Transportation to require that reports include all species of animals, regardless of why or by whom they are being transported.  Although the Department did not go as far on this as ALDF requested, it does seek comment on whether the reporting requirement for non-pet animals should be expanded beyond cats and dogs. 

Proposal Would Require More Airlines to File Animal Incident Reports

The present rule requires that reports be filed by “reporting carriers,” which are defined to include any air carrier that accounts for at least 1% of domestic scheduled-passenger revenues.  This amounts to 15 carriers that carry about 90% of domestic traffic.  Now the Department proposes to expand the requirement to all carriers that operate scheduled service with at least one aircraft with more than 60 seats.  This would increase the number or airlines reporting on animal incidents to 36, covering about 99.6% of domestic traffic.  The rule would not include foreign carriers since Congress mandated reporting only by U.S.-flag airlines. 

Air Transport Industry Reaction to Proposed Changes

Two airline industry organizations submitted joint comments, Airlines for America (A4A) and the Air Carrier Association of America, Inc. (ACAA).  Airlines for America lists 11 airlines as members (Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, Federal Express, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, United Continental, UPS Airlines, and US Airways).  The Air Carrier Association of America includes one airline member, AirTran Airways, but has 16 airport members.   These associations request that the Department withdraw its proposed rule changes entirely and complain that current regulatory burdens are already so high that carriers have had to delay new technology projects that would benefit all passengers.  Thus, the argument is that passenger safety is being compromised by too much concern about animal safety.  Given that only a few dozen incidents occur each year, it is difficult to see why the regulatory burden is so great as to delay other projects that would presumably be far more costly. 

Animal Legal Defense Fund Efforts

Not surprising, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, whose petition was part of why the Department is proposing the changes, takes the position that the proposed changes do not go far enough. The organization argues that the reporting requirement on non-pet incidents should be expanded to all animals, not just cats and dogs.  It points to the trial of a Miami-based animal broker who was charged with animal cruelty in a case involving the shipment of 25 monkeys from Miami to Bangkok in 2008 where 14 of the monkeys died from starvation, dehydration, and hypothermia in a series of flights, including a round trip from Los Angeles to China and back.  They describe another incident involving Continental in detail:

Tamarin (from petition)
“[I]n February of this year, two cotton-top tamarins, a critically endangered species of primate, were sent to the Pacific Primate Sanctuary in Hawaii from a research facility at Northeast Ohio Medical University in Cleveland. The tamarins were shipped using Continental's Pet Safe program. Both tamarins were certified to be healthy when they left Cleveland, but were dead upon arrival in Hawaii. The receiving agent at Animal Quarantine in Honolulu reported that the tamarins were face down, stiff and cold, indicating that they had been dead for some time. Moreover, there was a small amount of blood coming out of both of their mouths. Pacific Primate Sanctuary believes that tamarins' injuries were induced by mishandling, decompression and/or hypothermia. Continental has refused to provide any information regarding the incident.”

ALDF observes that by just adding the data from these two incidents would result in a nearly 70% increase in reported deaths in an average year, yet these incidents would not be required to be reported or explained even under the expanded rules.  The organization notes that even though not pets, the tamarins were being transported under a program, Continental’s Pet Safe program, designed for pet safety. 

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

The ASPCA supports the Department’s proposed rule changes.  Describing an incident involving several dozen rabbits shipped from the Netherlands to Atlanta on Delta Airlines, it says that nine died in transit.  Autopsy results suggested the animals died of asphyxiation.  Delta has received particularly bad publicity in this area, with one news article stating that over half of animal deaths during airline travel occurred on Delta flights. (Because the total number of animals carried by an airline are not made public, it is not certain that Delta's rate of incidents is actually higher than any other airline's.)

Association of Zoos and Aquariums Notes Practical Problems for Certain Species

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums focuses on the Department’s request for comments on whether the proposed rule should be expanded as to non-pet animals beyond just dogs and cats, pointing out some practical difficulties:

“From a practical standpoint, it would be impossible to monitor the myriad species of animals being transported by air. Carriers cannot reasonably be expected, for example, to count the number of pet fish, insects, or amphibians in a bulk shipment when received and again when returned to determine whether any were lost or to determine whether any such specimens were “injured”, a term not defined in the proposed rule. Similarly, how would the airlines handle the shipment of live eggs for birds and reptiles or the shipment of animal sperm or embryos?”

Emaciated Lion (USDA photo)
Zoos, to their credit, often receive animals that have been malnourished or mistreated in previous stages of captivity.  They are aware that flying such animals contains risks, but it is often the best and safest option.  Incident reports involving such animals would be able to indicate that the situation was not one of zoo or airline negligence. 

The Association is also concerned that if reporting requirements were not adequately defined, the “logistical burden placed upon the airlines could effectively force air carriers to completely discontinue the transport of all animals.”  The comment is valid as to the types of animals focused on in the organization’s comments. 

Veterinary Organizations Encourage Tighter Rules

The American Veterinary Medical Association, representing more than 82,500 veterinarians, generally supports the proposed rule, but asks why airlines that have to report must have at least one plane with more than 60 seats.  Also, they argue that incidents should not just be reported as to commercial shipments but should also “cover dogs and cats being shipped by animal shelters, and animal control and rescue organizations. Coverage of the latter animals is important because air transport is increasingly being used to relocate homeless animals.”  This is a good idea and should not meet with resistance. 

The AVMA agrees with an annual reporting summary but suggests that that the annual data should be broken down for each calendar month as this “may reveal whether or not incidents are related to season or other factors associated with air transport.” 

A separate organization, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, also supports the rule changes, and encourages making them broader to cover all species.  This organization’s comment letter concludes with the observation that “there are reports of animal health certificates declaring puppies to be acclimated to temperatures as high as 95°F and as low as 5°F.”  Since such certificates are being issued by veterinarians, the organization is criticizing some members of its profession.  (Actually, in one incident involving a Delta flight in 2008, the certificate said the dog could withstand temperatures up to 100° F.  Delta relied on the health certificate.  At some point common sense should take over since the issuing veterinarian may have signed a statement provided by the animal’s owner.)

It might be appropriate for the Department of Transportation to specify that when veterinarians certify that animals are healthy enough for travel, they be required to list their licensing boards. A similar requirement is provided by the Department for mental health professionals regarding psychiatric service and emotional support animals and could be useful in determining whether some veterinarians are being careless in approving flights for animals.  

National Association of Biomedical Research Opposes Rule Changes

The National Association for Biomedical Research represents universities, medical and veterinary schools, teaching hospitals, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and major commercial breeders of laboratory animals.  This organization argues that “dogs and cats being transported to research facilities in the United States are not intended to be sold as pets.”  Such animals are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency whose limitations were discussed in a prior blog.  The organization “urges DOT to ensure that any changes to the existing definition of animal recognize that the term should not apply to dogs and cats bred for use in research.” 

Although there might be a tendency to argue that asking the airlines to report on the “walking dead” has little benefit, the animals should not be made to suffer more than will be their fate.

Where Is Jack? Inc. Provides Detailed Analysis

The most detailed comments were supplied by Dr. Mary Beth Melchior, founder and CEO of an organization called Where Is Jack? Inc.  This organization is devoted to trying to obtain a higher level of safety and care in pet air travel. Dr. Melchior raises the issue of who actually handles animals flying as cargo:

“Most baggage handling is not performed by actual airline employees. Companies like Airport Terminal Services, Swissport, and a host of others compete to provide this service – at the lowest cost possible to the airline. If their actions – such as holding a dog back from flying – consistently cost the airline money, renewal of the contract may be in jeopardy. In addition, in many large-city locations, baggage handlers are often immigrants who may have a different view of animals (and particularly dogs and cats) than many middle-class Americans have.”

These baggage handling businesses should perhaps be separately required to report on animal deaths, injuries, and losses.  Correlating this data with air carrier data would be a way of verifying the full reporting of incidents.  This should not be particularly burdensome if the number of incidents is actually under 50 per year. 


The proposed changes are appropriate.  The Department of Transportation, as of this writing, has received almost 5,400 comments on the proposal, many of them from supporters of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. The Department has been responsive, and additional reporting requirements appear possible, perhaps even likely.  

The certification of the accuracy of the December report should be made by someone more than an "authorized representative," probably by a member of the board of directors or a senior executive.  It should be as to more than "knowledge and belief," stating that it is an accurate summary of all incident reports filed by personnel of the carrier.  It should also state that the certification is made under penalties of perjury, and should perhaps state that a false oath could be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. In other words, the certification proposal needs some real teeth to be meaningful.    

Some organizations, such as those involved in biomedical research, are not so much opposed to information about the transportation of animals, but rather fear that higher numbers of deaths will result in negative publicity, or that additional reporting requirements for airlines will mean additional transport costs to shippers or that some airlines will get out of the business of animal transport altogether.  While this is an understandable concern to the biomedical research industry, it is a little more difficult to justify for breeders who have objected, who should want their animals to arrive safely at stores and other locations.  There is also no reason that shelter organizations that fly animals should want to limit airline reporting responsibilities.  The purpose of the shelter is to save animals, so proper shipment should also involve concern for their safety in transit. 

The organized reaction of the airlines, and the evident frustration with paperwork, is unseemly given the fact that lives are involved. By reporting on breeder shipments, airlines may be able to recognize breeders that do not appropriately prepare their animals for shipment or use dependable shipping containers.  Airlines should dispel any notion that they accept certain levels of losses as inevitable in the air transport of animals.  Part of the reason that so many people are now trying to fake service animal status for their pets is that they believe airlines are sometimes careless with animals traveling in the holds.  The resistance to seeking and releasing information can only increase this concern. 

As air transport of animals increases, it would also be advisable for airplane manufacturers to consider designing special holds.  This might avoid problems that arise when animals are placed in baggage holds.  

Finally, owners should recognize that there are higher risks in shipping pets, particularly animals that are old, have certain diseases, or breeds with frequent respiratory problems.  Risks are compounded if flights involve layovers or transfers. The odds of an animal dying or being injured in a flight, though not high, are much greater than the odds of getting a winning Powerball ticket.  Air transport of pets should remain a last resort, though it must be acknowledged that it is sometimes necessary. 

Department of Transportation, RIN 2106-AE07, Reports by Air Carriers on Incidents Involving Animals During Transport.  77 Fed. Reg. 384747, June 29, 2012.  The comment period on DOT’s proposed regulatory changes was extended into September.  77 Fed. Reg. 53779, September 4, 2012. 

This blog was written by John Ensminger and L.E. Papet. Thanks to Hilary Phillips and Ronald Keats for comments and suggestions.

Appendix: Proposed Rule

The proposed rule would delete the current regulation, 14 CFR 234.13 and replace it with a new Part with three sections:

14 CFR 235.1 Definitions.
For the purposes of this part:
Air transport includes the entire period during which an animal is in the custody of an air carrier, from the time that the animal is tendered to the air carrier prior to departure until the air carrier tenders the animal to the owner, guardian or representative of the shipper of the animal at the animal’s final destination. It does not include animals that accompany a passenger at his or her seat in the cabin and of which the air carrier does not take custody.
Animal means any warm or cold blooded animal which, at the time of transportation, is being kept as a pet in a family household in the United States and any dog or cat which, at the time of transportation, is shipped as part of a commercial shipment on a scheduled passenger flight, including shipments by trainers and breeders.

14 CFR 235.2 Applicability.
This part applies to the scheduled domestic and international passenger service of any U.S. air carrier that operates such service with at least one aircraft having a designed seating capacity of more than 60 passenger seats.

14 CFR 235.3 Reports by air carriers on incidents involving animals during air transport.
(a) Each covered carrier shall, within 15 days after the end of the month to which the information applies, submit to the United States Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division a report on any incidents involving the loss, injury, or death of an animal during air transport provided by the air carrier, including incidents on flights by that carrier that are operated with aircraft having 60 or fewer seats. The report shall be made in the form and manner set forth in reporting directives issued by the Deputy General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation and shall contain the following information:
(1) Carrier and flight number;
(2) Date and time of the incident;
(3) Description of the animal, including name, if applicable;
(4) Name and contact information of the owner(s), guardian and/or shipper of the animal;
(5) Narrative description of the incident;
(6) Narrative description of the cause of the incident;
(7) Narrative description of any corrective action taken in response to the incident; and
(8) Name, title, address, and telephone number of the individual filing the report on behalf of the air carrier.
(b) Within 15 days after the end of December of each year, each covered carrier shall submit the following information (this information may be included in any report that the carrier may file for the loss, injury, or death of animals during the month of December):
(1) The total number of incidents involving an animal during air transport provided by the air carrier for the entire calendar year, including incidents on flights by that carrier that are operated with aircraft having 60 or fewer seats. The report shall include subtotals for loss, injury, and death of animals. Report ‘‘0’’ for any category for which there were no such incidents. If the carrier had no reportable incidents for that calendar year, it shall report ‘‘0’’ in each category.
(2) The December report must contain the following certification signed by your authorized representative: ‘‘I, the undersigned, do certify that this report has been prepared under my direction in accordance with the regulations in 14 CFR Part 235. I affirm that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, this is a true, correct and complete report.’’

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