Federal law lets airlines set pet travel policies

This week’s death of a dog after his owner was reportedly told to put her dog into an airplane’s overhead bin made us wonder if Uncle Sam regulates pet travel in airline cabins.

Negative, we found, unless there’s an animal injury or death.

According to news reports including this March 14 CNN account, a United Airlines flight attendant told a passenger to place her dog in its carrier into an overhead bin for what proved to be a more than three-hour March 12 flight from Houston to New York. When the plane landed at LaGuardia Airport, the dog was dead.

United issued a statement calling the death a “tragic accident.” Also, CNN reported, United spokesman Charlie Hobart said a flight attendant should not have told the passenger to put the dog in the bin used for carry-on bags.

“We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them,” CNN quoted United saying. “We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again,” United said.

No law requires airlines to even let pets into passenger cabins, we subsequently learned, though the Federal Aviation Administration says on its website that Department of Transportation rules require airlines to allow passengers to fly with their service animals in the cabin on U.S. airlines. “Service animals are not pets,” the FAA says. “They are working animals that assist persons with disabilities.”

And what of pets and companion animals, often small dogs nudged into soft-sided portable carriers?

The administration says it allows each airline “to decide if they will allow you to travel with your pet in the passenger cabin.”

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The FAA elaborates: “If an airline does allow you to bring your pet into the cabin, we consider your pet container to be carry-on baggage and you must follow all carry on baggage rules (14 CFR part 121, section 121.589):

  • Your pet container must be small enough to fit underneath the seat without blocking any person’s path to the main aisle of the airplane.

  • Your pet container must be stowed properly before the last passenger entry door to the airplane is closed in order for the airplane to leave the gate.

  • Your pet container must remain properly stowed the entire time the airplane is moving on the airport surface, and for take off and landing.

  • You must follow flight attendant instructions regarding the proper stowage of your pet container.”

Both the Department of Transportation and FAA say individual airlines set policies on transporting pets–a declaration reaffirmed by FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro at our inquiry.

A DOT spokesperson told us by email that while that agency doesn’t have specific regulations concerning the treatment of pets on flights, it requires U.S. airlines to report monthly on any incident involving the loss, injury or death of a pet that is shipped as cargo on a scheduled passenger flight.

Caitlin Harvey also said that DOT “is looking into the circumstances surrounding the recent death of a pet onboard a United Airlines flight and is in contact with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that enforces the Animal Welfare Act and handles complaints about alleged animal mistreatment.”

Separately, a USDA spokeswoman, Tanya Espinosa, similarly said by phone that no federal agency regulates pet travel in airline cabins.

Molinaro said in an email that the agency “allows each airline to decide if they will allow you to travel with your pet in the passenger cabin.” Molinaro further said: “You can find out what the specific policies and procedures are for each airline in several ways. You can call the airline’s reservations line and get information from the agent who takes your call. You can also look at an airline’s website to get information about their policies for traveling with pets.”

We sampled pet travel policies posted by United and Texas-based Southwest Airlines–spotting no mentions of overhead bins as places to put pets.

United allows “domesticated cats, dogs, rabbits and household birds (excluding cockatoos) to travel accompanied in the aircraft cabin on most flights within the U.S. An in-cabin pet may be carried in addition to a carry-on bag and is subject to a $125 service charge each way,” the airline says.

United says a pet traveling in a plane’s passenger cabin “must be carried in an approved hard-sided or soft-sided kennel.” This guidance includes specific permitted kennel dimensions and then it states: “Soft-sided pet carriers may exceed these dimensions slightly, as they are collapsible and able to conform to under-seat space without blocking the aisle.” United’s posted policy makes no mention of overhead bins.

Southwest Airlines says it allows small vaccinated domestic cats and dogs to travel in-cabin under the seat in front of the respective pet-keeper, for a one-way $95 fare. All pets must be carried in an appropriate carrier, the airline says. Southwest makes no mention of overhead bins on its “Pet Policies” web page.


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