Airlines Can be Deadly for Pets: 35 Died in 2011

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Dogs, planes (photo by: flickr user derekb)


For 35 pet travelers, 2011 was the end of the line.

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.  It boarded a Delta flight at New York’s JFK Airport last June for the second leg of its journey from St. Louis to Moscow, Russia.  The airline notes that the flight was delayed 44 minutes in St. Louis before departure for New York.

Still, the pet chinchilla appeared fine to the Delta crew at JFK, according to a Live Animal Incident Report.  Without warning, 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.  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.

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 Coco, a 9-month old English Bull Dog who traveled from Stuttgart, Germany to Philadelphia via Atlanta.  The puppy was found unresponsive when unloaded in Atlanta, “less than 10 minutes after the aircraft had parked,” according the Delta’s Live Animal Incident Report.

Cats also died on Delta.  Phoebe, an 11-year-old short hair, 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 boarded her first flight with no issues.  Scattered clouds flecked the Pensacola sky.  Temperatures were moderate to warm, about 75 to 80 degrees.  The ground crew reported that Katie made it to Atlanta without incident.  Delta personnel then transported the middle aged Lab via temperature controlled van to await the next leg of her journey to Baltimore.  Katie boarded her second flight.  It was scheduled to leave at 1:50 pm.  But apparently the plane was delayed; the Captain and ground crew “were informed the delay would only be brief,” according to the Incident Report.

But two hours later, the flight still waited in the sweltering Atlanta summer heat for take-off clearance.  At 5:33 pm, the crew got the go-ahead for departure.  Yet somehow, the report stated, the flight was still on the ground at 7:46 pm, delayed an additional two hours.

Around that time, the crew finally got instructions to return the plane to the gate.  When ground handlers opened the cargo bin door, there was 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 died, Delta apparently 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.

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

In March 2011, a Chihuahua traveling Delta Airlines between Atlanta and Buffalo lost three lower incisor crown teeth chewing the handle and front corner of its crate.  Last January a Golden Retriever reportedly chewed and then tried to swallow the zip ties that secured its kennel door during a flight.  The ties ended up lodged in its throat – a vet anesthetized the dog and managed to remove the obstruction.  Both dogs survived their ordeals.

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

A necropsy isn’t always in the mix.  In Coco’s case, the puppy, one was performed.  It found that Coco, due to stress, “regurgitated food consumed prior to transportation which aspirated into the trachea and lungs,” stated the report.  Essentially, the puppy choked.  The vet also noticed “indications of a preexisting respiratory infection which was still inflamed,” according to the report.

TN reached out to Delta Airlines, sending emails and making several calls, but there's been no response as yet.  Airlines can make substantial ancillary revenue in part from pet transportation fees.   According to recent figures, TN reported that Delta earned the most revenue of any reporting airline from ancillary sources like pet transport fees, in the third quarter of 2011.  To see the additional Miscellaneous Operating Revenue data, go to BTS Schedule P-1.2.