Report Shows Flying Can be Deadly for Some Pets

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For 35 pet travelers, 2011 was the year they met their maker.

More than half of the deceased, 19 pets, flew Delta airlines. All of the deaths happened in the cargo holds of the planes, government documents show.

The pets ranged from dogs and cats to a chinchilla.  The chinchilla boarded a Delta flight at New York’s JFK Airport last June for the second leg of its journey to Moscow, Russia. It appeared fine to the Delta crew at JFK, according to a Live Animal Incident Report.  Still, the chinchilla arrived in Moscow deceased. The airline was forced to ship the pet, without its owner, back to New York, because Russian authorities refused to allow the dead animal into the country.

Other airlines also noted pet deaths last year; five animals died on American Airlines, three on Continental and two perished on United. The pet injury and death figures are drawn from the January-December 2011 Airline Reports to USDOT of Incidents Involving the Loss, Injury or Death of Animals During Air Transportation. 

Some of the Animal Incident Reports indicate the pets injured themselves during flights, desperate to break free of their crates.  Rides in cargo holds can be grueling, with extreme temperature swings.

The lost and deceased pet tallies are included in the U.S. DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report.  The 2011 figures are lower than in 2010, when 39 animals died.  Delta again recorded the most pet deaths, with 16; Continental had six.  Far fewer pets perished in 2009 – about 23 total.  Nine animals died on American Airlines that year. There are no official figures for how many pets travel in cargo per year.

Delta’s record for pet deaths this January was no better than its record in January of 2011 – it again recorded one pet death for the month.  American Airlines also recorded one death for January.  Monthly 2012 reports can be found here.

The most recent death involved T Bone, a 1-year-old Yorkshire Terrier traveling from Frankfurt, Germany to Nashville via Atlanta on January 13, 2012.  In the Incident Report, Delta notes that there were no indications of a problem with the cargo hold being too hot or too cold.  Yet the necropsy indicated the tiny Terrier died from hypoxia, “perhaps associated with seizures, hypoglycemia, or hyperthermia.”

Other Delta victims include  Phoebe, an 11-year-old short hair cat, who was traveling with her companion kitty Newman, from Pittsburgh to Phoenix through Atlanta.  The flight was just ten minutes behind schedule, and the airline reported temperatures in the 60s.  But when the flight landed in Atlanta, the ramp crew noticed Phoebe was unresponsive, lying in the back of her crate.  She had passed away.  Newman had to do the final leg of the journey without his buddy.  A necropsy revealed that Phoebe died of chronic heart failure.

Some of the incidents over the years involved older pets, or dogs that are susceptible to breathing problems, like Bull Dogs.  But others involved younger, less at-risk animals.  Like Katie, a 6-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever whose last trip was from Pensacola to Atlanta last July. Her final destination was supposed to be Baltimore. Katie’s plane was delayed several hours on the ground in Atlanta. By the time the plane returned to the gate, ground handlers opened the cargo bin door and found Katie non-responsive inside her kennel.  Katie’s necropsy report is still pending according to the report, even though her death happened almost 8 months ago.

After Katie’s death, Delta took action. The airline stated in the report that it will try to ensure the crew is notified if there’s a pet in the cargo section of the plane when flights are delayed.  “As a result of the animal’s death, our Load Center will pull another Load Manifest in order to determine if an animal exists on a delayed aircraft,” stated the Delta report.

The Airline Incident Reports are required since passage of a federal law, the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act.

Calls and emails to Delta Airlines for comment were not returned.

Airlines can make substantial ancillary revenue in part from pet transportation fees.   According to recent figures, Delta earned the most revenue of any reporting airline from ancillary sources like pet transport fees, in the third quarter of 2011. 

For more on this, go to Transportation Nation.