Monday, July 7, 2014

Flying with Your Pet in Cargo: New Rules Help Choose the Safest Airline

A year and a half ago I wrote a blog about changes the Department of Transportation was proposing to make on the incident reports airlines must file when an animal is lost, injured, or dies in their custody.  Now the proposal has been finalized, largely in the form proposed by the Department. All transport of pets is covered, so if you bring your pet parrot with you on vacation and it gets loose and bites a baggage handler the airline will have to file an incident report, but commercial shipments of parrots are not covered, only commercial shipments of dogs and cats. Animals that fly with you in the cabinservice animals and small petsare not covered because they remain in your custody.

Foreign carriers are not covered by the law, though overseas flights of domestic carriers are covered, including flights between two foreign airports.  Cargo airlines and all-cargo flights are not covered.  This may encourage some organizations, such as laboratories using dogs and cats for experiments, to avoid transport of these animals with domestic passenger carriers since, without reporting requirements, foreign and cargo carriers are likely to offer lower rates. If you are considering flying with your pet, my advice would be to choose a U.S. domestic airline.  It may not be any more careful than a foreign carrier, but at least it will have to report an incident if one occurs, which involves some reputation risk. That does not assure anything, but it allows you to follow up by at least making sure that the airline publicly acknowledges any fault they may have had with regard to the incident. 

Covered air carriers will now be required to report the total number of animals transported each year.  This will be important for consumers in that it will allow for a calculation of what percentage of animals are lost, injured, or die with each carrier on an annual basis.  A number of commenters, particularly animal rights and welfare organizations, had argued that reporting requirements should cover all types of animals, not just dogs and cats.  The Department of Transportation declined to do this, saying:

“We are not expanding the definition of ‘animal’ to cover all species of animals. We believe it would be unduly burdensome to require covered carriers to report the death, loss, or injury of all species of animals because there potentially could be thousands of individual animals such as fish, rodents, and insects that are transported by air carriers in a single commercial shipment.”

If an air carrier had no incidents during the year, it must still file a report indicating that that it had “0” incidents. It will take some years for significant statistics to gather, but this change will in time provide important data for passengers who want to be sure that they are using the safest airline, at least where there is a choice between several. 

The expansion of the number of carriers that must file reports will affect any carrier that operates scheduled service with at least one aircraft with a design capacity of more than 60 seats.  Previously, reporting carriers were defined as carriers receiving at least 1% of domestic scheduled-passenger revenues. Thus, some smaller airlines that did not have to report incidents before will have to do so now. 

Categories of Animals in Flights

The preamble to the final regulations explains the categories of animals in flights from an airline's perspective:

“There are three categories for animals transported in scheduled passenger air transportation: ‘unassigned in the cabin;’ ‘accompanied baggage;’ and ‘live cargo shipments.’ Animals categorized as ‘unassigned in the cabin’ are usually small pets that remain with the owner in the cabin for the duration of the flight. Air carriers may allow a limited number of passengers per flight to transport their animals as ‘unassigned in the cabin.’ [S]ervice animals accompanying individuals with a disability are not included in this category. Animals categorized as ‘accompanied baggage’ are pets traveling with passengers on the flight that are checked as baggage, remain in the custody of the air carrier for the duration of the flight, and are transported in the cargo compartment. Animals categorized as ‘live cargo shipments’ are animals that are not associated with passengers on the flight and are transported in the cargo compartment. While ‘accompanied baggage’ and ‘live cargo shipments’ may or may not be in different areas of the cargo hold of an aircraft, the primary differences between these two categories are shipping procedures and price points.”

Incident reports are filed on the second two categories, pets traveling with passengers and live cargo shipments on passenger flights. 

Recent Incidents

For the December 2012 blog I reviewed all prior incident reports—which go back to 2005—that had been filed by airlines.  Although there were some gruesome cases, there were fewer than I had expected, and I had to concede that the risk of putting a pet in the cargo hold was generally very low.  Since that blog, there have been more incidents, but many appear to have been at least partly the fault of owners.  Some pet owners used poorly constructed crates, or crates that pets were able to claw or bite their way out of.  One report (November 2013) included the following narrative:

“Upon arrival into Los Angeles, ramp personnel opened the cargo door to find a female boxer loose in the cargo area. Supervisors contacted the pet’s owner and escorted her planeside. The dog had chewed out of her kennel and had a small piece of metal stuck in the skin, next to her eye. The pet owner was able to flick the piece of metal out of her dog’s skin. The pet owner put a leash on her dog and they were escorted back to baggage claim.”

Some animals died because they had heart conditions or other illnesses.  One narrative described a seven-year-old pit bull dying because of a “combination of underlying cardiovascular disease and acute interstitial pneumonia.”  Necropsy of another dog discovered “histopathological diagnosis of multifocal chronic proliferative pneumonitis.”  Another narrative stated:

“Veterinarian determined cause of death as severe gastric and SI loop distension from air. Suspected animal was anxious during flight which lead to panting and air distension of stomach resulting in increased abdominal pressure on major abdominal vessels and subsequent hypotension and shock.” 

The message is: don't put your pet in cargo unless you're sure the animal can handle the confinement, isolation, noises, and the general spookiness of the experience that can cause physical and emotional stress.  Discuss it with your vet if you're in doubt.

Not too many cases involved clear fault of the airline.  One cat that had been on an American Airlines flight was removed by an employee during TSA screening so that crate could be x-rayed.  The owner was not present and the cat escaped. One death could not be explained because the flight (in August 2013) landed in a Spanish-speaking country where the authorities required that a dog’s remains be cremated in order to be released to the owner. Thus, overseas flights contain the possibility that local authorities may not allow a necropsy or other procedure that would be administered in the U.S.

A month by month compilation of incident reports of all sorts, including animal incident reports, has been posted by Jol A. Silversmith on a website called Third Amendment.  Mr. Silversmith is to be thanked for going to the trouble of extracting these reports from arcane locations in the Department of Transportation website structure and making them easily available.  

Additional Note.  Jol Silversmith, whose posting of incident reports was just mentioned, advises me of a gap in the regulations, in that they may not cover service animals that are put in cargo.  Service animals are not pets under Department of Transportation regulations, nor would they generally be part of a commercial shipment. Consequently, they are not "animals" for purposes of the incident-reporting regulations. Horizon Air filed a report about an incident involving a service animal, a dog, on February 20, 2013, but it would appear that an airline would not be required to file such a report under the wording of the regulations. I admit that I would probably never have noticed this possibility, but Mr. Silversmith is an expert on aviation law. It probably reflects an oversight on the part of the drafters of the regulations.  Of course, the more common situation involves passengers claiming that their pets are service animals in order not to have them travel in cargo.  The facts of the incident indicate that the passenger used a wheelchair.  She may have felt that managing the dog during the flight would be too much of a burden. For additional perspective, see "The Dog That Did Nothing: The Curious Incident of DOG's Animal Incident Reporting Requirements," TransLaw (Summer 2006).        

Department of Transportation.  Reports by Air Carriers on Incidents Involving Animals During Air Transport. RIN 2105-AE07, 79 Fed. Reg. 37938 (July 3, 2014).  The final rule is as follows, with major changes from the December 2012 proposal in italics. An 

235.1 Definitions.
235.2 Applicability.
235.3 Reports by air carriers on incidents involving animals during air transport.
Authority: 49 U.S.C. 41721.

§ 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 coldblooded 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.

§ 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. The reporting requirements of this part apply to all scheduled-service passenger flights of such carriers, including flights that are operated with aircraft having 60 or fewer seats.

§ 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 known;
(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. Covered carriers shall use the following data table when reporting the total number of animal incidents during air transport provided by the air carrier for the entire calendar year:

Total number in the calendar year

(2) The total number of animals transported in the calendar year. If the carrier did not transport any animals for that calendar year, it shall report ‘‘0.’’
(3) The December report must contain the following certification signed by the carrier’s 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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