The Not-So-Friendly Skies

Commercial airlines are not deliberately cruel or even particularly careless when it comes to shipping dogs; they just aren't set up to deal with pets efficiently. Unless a dog is small enough to carry on board the plane, air travel is a risky way for it to go.

The basic problem is that to an airline, your pet is just an especially bothersome piece of baggage. And as everyone knows, baggage slip-ups are inevitable, given connecting flights scheduled too close together, long delays, and human error in a stress-filled, overloaded system. When a mistake means your luggage goes to Minneapolis while you go to Atlanta, you'll survive the inconvenience. But if your dog goes to the wrong city or is forgotten on a luggage carousel, it may not survive.

Special rules for assistance dogs. Assistance dogs travel with their owners, in the airliner's cabin.


For information on a specific airline's rules regarding animals, contact the carrier. Also check out the American Kennel Club's summary of airline animal shipping policies, available at

The Problems With Flying

Put simply, a lot of things can go wrong when a dog goes on a commercial flight. Most problems occur on the ground, not during a flight. (Conditions on the plane are described in "How Dogs Travel on Airlines," below.) Here are some of the more common problems you should be aware of before you ship a dog.

  • The dog escapes from a cage. This can lead to tragic results, as it did in 1988 for a small dog named Loekie. Loekie, on a TWA flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, got out of his cage during a stopover in St. Louis. The dog was killed by a car on an airport road.
  • The cage gets tipped or crushed during transport. Sturdy travel kennels alleviate this problem to some degree, but mishandling - for example, putting a pet carrier on a regular baggage carousel - can toss an animal around.
  • The plane is delayed on the ground, with the dog in it. During flight, the cargo area in which pets travel is pressurized, and the temperature is controlled. But on the ground, no fresh air gets in, and the temperature can fluctuate dramatically in a short time. If you've ever sat in a hot, stuffy plane during the summer, waiting to take off or pull up to a gate, you can imagine how an animal feels in the even hotter baggage compartment.
  • Baggage handlers remove the dog from the plane during a stopover and then forget to load it on again. Animals are shipped in a compartment near the door of the plane where baggage is loaded. Unknown to the owner sitting on the plane, they may be removed during a stopover (so that other baggage can be unloaded more easily) and inadvertently not re-loaded.
  • The dog is shipped to the wrong place. Just like a suitcase, a dog can end up in the wrong place. Because few airports are equipped to handle animals well, a dog flown to the wrong destination can have a bad or even life-threatening experience waiting for another flight or for you to show up and claim it.
  • The dog is left in the heat, cold, or rain. An animal left outside at an airport may be subject to extreme heat or cold. An English bulldog died of apparent heat stroke in 1984 during transport; the dead dog was sent out on a conveyer belt with other baggage, where it was found by the owner.1 Many airlines no longer accept pets during the summer, and federal regulations prohibit shipping animals if they will be exposed to temperatures below 45 degrees or above 85 degrees for more than four hours.
  • The dog is left unattended, without food or water, in a "lost luggage" storage area. Because most airlines don't have special places for live animals, animals can sometimes end up abandoned with misplaced baggage. Usually, employees care for the dog as best they can. But if a dog is scared and snappish, as it may well be, it may get little care. Employees may not even know a pet is there.

Even if you plan carefully and everything goes as planned, air travel is frightening and stressful for a dog. And you often can't cope with problems as they come up, because you and your dog are separated during the critical times.


Airlines are required to report any incident involving an animal who is injured, lost, or killed to the Secretary of Transportation. Complaint figures are published in the Department of Transportation's monthly publication, Air Travel Consumer Reports, available on the Web at Very few problems are reported.


When you fly, leave your Pekingese, bulldog, or pug at home. For these pug-nosed breeds, breathing - never easy - is just too difficult at high altitude. That's according to the Air Transport Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association. Some airlines don't accept dogs of these breeds if the temperature may be warm.

How Dogs Travel on Airlines

Some airlines don't accept pets at all, or allow them only in the passenger cabin. Others offer three options. From most to least desirable, they are:

  • in the passenger cabin
  • as excess baggage, or
  • as cargo.
In the Cabin

If your dog is tiny enough - generally under 20 pounds - to be comfortable in a pet carrier that fits under an airline seat, you can take it on the plane with you. You can find out the exact measurements of the under-seat space from the airline. Most airlines allow only one animal in the cabin per flight, so don't just show up with your dog; make arrangements when you purchase your own ticket.

Most airlines charge about $50 to $100 for the animal's one-way fare, regardless of destination. Many will also rent or sell you a kennel that will fit under the seat.

This is by far the best way to fly with your dog. Aside from being stuck in a carrier for a while (and not being able to stick its head out the window), it's not much different for the dog than a car ride.


Police escorted Zsa-Zsa Gabor off a Delta Airlines flight several years ago after she refused, according to airline officials, to keep her two dogs in cages. A Delta agent told the press that Zsa-Zsa's language was "less than ladylike."

Excess Baggage

When you're traveling with your dog, the dog may be able to travel as excess baggage. Many airlines, however, no longer accept animals as baggage of a ticketed passenger. Some airlines refuse to take certain breeds - American Pit Bull Terriers or Rottweilers, for example. And most major carriers now refuse to take dogs at all, except in the cabin, during the summer months, from about May 15 to September 15.

The dog travels on the same plane you do, in a cargo compartment that's pressurized, lighted, and heated. It's where all kinds of fragile items (flowers and musical instruments, for example) travel, according to airline officials.

Most airlines use the USDA regulations for commercial animal shippers as a guide for all animals they accept for shipment. These regulations require animals to be shipped in individual carriers big enough for them to sit, stand, turn around and lie down in.2

Many airlines require a veterinarian's certificate, saying that the dog is healthy and has had a rabies vaccination, before they will accept a dog to be shipped as excess baggage. You must present the certificate when you check in with the dog before your flight. The airlines that demand a certificate also vary on how recent it must be; 30 days is a common limit. This requirement is imposed by the airline, not by the law. The federal law that requires health certificates for animals shipped by air applies only to commercial animal shippers (dealers, exhibitors, research facilities, and others).3

Notify the airline in advance that you want to ship a dog as excess baggage. Even if it's allowed, each plane will only carry a few animals, and

certain items - things being kept cold with dry ice, for example - can't be put into the compartment with live animals.

Shipping a dog as excess baggage currently costs about $75, no matter what the destination. (Some airlines base their charge on the dog's size or weight.)

The size and weight limits that airlines impose on excess baggage apply to animals just like they apply to suitcases. Generally, anything over 100 pounds (counting the dog and the carrier together; a large carrier weighs about 25 to 30 pounds) must go as air freight instead of excess baggage. That means if you have an extra-large dog, you may have to pay an extra-large price to ship it. Shipping a dog as cargo is discussed just below.


If you're not traveling with your dog, or if your dog is too big to meet excess baggage size limitations, or the airline doesn't accept pets as baggage, the only alternative may be air freight. It's a poor option, for lots of reasons.

First of all, it is tremendously expensive. If you think of it as sending an overnight mail letter that weighs 100 pounds or so, you"ll get the idea.

Additional regulations may apply to dogs shipped as cargo. For example, you may need a health certificate signed by a veterinarian and rabies vaccination certificate.

Airline Liability Limits

Whenever you ship a dog, you run the risk that the dog will be injured. What you may not realize is that unless you buy extra liability coverage for a dog you ship by air, and something does happen to the dog, you may get stuck with the airline's decision about how much it will pay for your loss - no matter how much you lose.

International flights. Claims for damage that occurs during international flights are covered by special rules. (See "International Travel," below.)

How Liability Limits Work

The "NOTICE OF BAGGAGE LIABILITY LIMITATIONS" on the back of an airline ticket says that the airline's liability for loss, delay or damage to baggage is limited to a certain amount unless the passenger declared a higher value for the baggage and paid an additional fee to transport it. Remember, your dog is classified as baggage (carry-on or excess) unless you ship it air cargo. Similar liability limits also apply to air cargo.

Airlines can't declare themselves free of all financial responsibility for their carelessness toward baggage. They can and do, however, limit their liability to $2,800, the minimum required by the federal government.

The theory is that passengers agree to the liability limit in exchange for getting to pay the relatively inexpensive baggage rate to ship the dog. The airline can charge the low rate because it doesn't risk being liable for a huge amount of money if something goes wrong. And passengers have the chance to declare a higher value if they want.

That's the theory. The reality is that this "agreement" exists mostly in lawyers' minds. After all, it's not as if you bargain with the reservation clerk every time you buy a ticket, and finally agree that you'll accept a certain limit on the airline's liability in exchange for a certain fare. Most people assume that if an airline damages their baggage - suitcases, animals, what-ever - the airline will be responsible for paying a reasonable amount for the damage.

If you lose more than $2,800, and the airline refuses to make it good, you can challenge the liability limit in court (including small claims court, if the amount you're asking for is within your state's small claims court limit). In general, for a liability limit written in fine print to hold up in court, the passenger must have had:

  • notice of the limit, and
  • an opportunity to declare a higher value for the baggage.

Notice of the limit. If, as a passenger, you honestly have no reason to know about a liability limit, it obviously isn't reasonable to bind you to its terms. Courts look primarily at two factors: first, how obvious the limit

written on the ticket is, and second, the circumstances surrounding its purchase.

If the liability provision is buried in the fine print on the back of a ticket, a court may rule that you weren't given adequate notice. The limit must be clear and conspicuous, in big enough type to draw attention to itself. The language of the limit must be comprehensible. You may also be able to challenge the notice if the ticket says only that the complete liability limit rules are in a booklet that you have to ask for at the ticket counter.

If you didn't have time to read the ticket - if you bought an e-ticket and didn't print anything out, and you're not an experienced passenger - you may not be held to its limits. But if you're familiar with flying and with baggage liability limits, and you had your ticket days or weeks in advance, you will probably be held responsible for knowing what's written on it. The same is true if you were notified in some other way - by a conspicuous sign on the ticket counter, for example, or by an airline employee.

A chance to declare a higher value for the baggage. The airline must also give you a fair opportunity to declare a higher value for your dog, and pay a correspondingly higher shipping fee. If it didn't, you won't be held to the liability limit.

Most airlines do allow passengers to declare a higher value for baggage. The ticket will probably only inform you that you have this option; to find out how much the added liability coverage will cost you, you'll have to ask the airline. (See "Getting Extra Coverage," below.)

Example. In 1983, Thomas Deiro shipped nine racing greyhounds by air from Portland to Boston. The airline left the dogs in their cages on a baggage cart in the sun, in 97° heat, during a stopover in Dallas. Seven of them died, and the others were injured. Deiro sued American Airlines for $900,000.

The court awarded him $750, the liability limit at the time.4

The court analyzed the factors discussed above and upheld the airline's baggage liability limit. It reasoned that Deiro, who was an experienced traveler and regularly shipped dogs by air, should have declared a higher value for his greyhounds. "We find it difficult," the court stated, "to imagine how any passenger with Deiro's experience, planning to check a quarter of a million dollars worth of baggage, could have had more opportunity or incentive to familiarize himself with the baggage liability provisions."

Deiro had received his ticket nine days before his flight, but hadn't bothered to read all the print on the back. He paid dearly for his casual attitude.

Getting Extra Coverage

If you don't want to abide by an airline's liability limit, you can either get extra liability coverage from the airline or buy insurance from a private insurer. Obviously, if you're shipping economically valuable dogs, it will be worth your while to investigate. You can find out how much the airline charges for extra coverage by getting a copy of the airline's "contract of carriage," which is available at the ticket counter.

To get the airline to agree to a higher liability limit, you must declare that the dog's value is over the liability limit. The airline will charge you a higher fee, and if anything happens to the dog, you will be covered for the value you declared. For example, say you are shipping a show dog worth $10,000 as excess baggage, and the airline limits its liability to $2,800. Before the trip, tell the airline that you want to declare a higher value on the dog. The airline will charge you an extra fee based on the $7,200 of excess declared value.

The airline may limit the amount you can declare to a few thousand dollars. Above that amount, you will have to talk to private insurance companies to get coverage. Obviously, this all takes lots of time - another reason you should make your arrangements well ahead of time. Don't expect to take care of everything when you show up to get your boarding pass.

The same goes for air freight. Airlines limit their liability to about $9.07 per pound. Say you're shipping a 100-pound dog as air freight. The dog and carrier together weigh 125 pounds. So unless you declare a higher value, the airline's liability is limited to $1,133.75 (that is, $9.07 x 125 pounds).

How to Figure Your Losses

If the dog is injured or killed during air travel, you must put a dollar amount on your loss in order to make a claim to the airline. If your dog performs in races or shows, it may be relatively easy to put a dollar value on your claim. But if you got your dog free from a shelter, and its value is emotional rather than economic, what must the airline pay you in damages? It's a difficult question, and the answer seems to be changing as more and more courts become willing to take into account noneconomic factors.


Even though airlines may not be legally bound to compensate pet owners for their emotional distress at losing a pet, lawsuits over such incidents are bad publicity, and an airline may be willing to settle a suit rather than go to trial.

American Airlines agreed to pay $15,000 to the owner of a dog that died in transit. The dog had been left in the cargo hold of an airplane - in 115-degree heat - when the plane was delayed on the runway for more than an hour.5 When the owner, Andrew Gluckman, sued the airline, it first offered just $1,250, the standard amount for lost baggage at that time.6

Advice for Air Travelers

If you must ship a dog, it's up to you to make sure the dog is on the plane every time you take off. Ask a flight attendant for confirmation from the baggage handlers that the dog is on board - or talk to the baggage people yourself. Be polite, but be persistent.

If you can, book a nonstop flight, even if it means choosing a less convenient schedule or airport. Most problems occur in airports, not during flights. Missed connections are a prime source of complications when you're shipping a dog; if you can't get a nonstop, make sure there is enough time between flights to get all the baggage loaded on the connecting flight. You can also do valuable research on how often a certain flight is delayed; statistics are now available from the airlines. When you tentatively schedule a flight, ask the airline representative what the on-time percentage is for that flight. Avoiding peak times (holiday weekends, for example) may also get you more cooperation from airline personnel. During hot weather, avoid flights in the hottest part of the day. During cold weather, try to schedule a stopover in a southern city instead of a cold northern one.

Be sure to get a well-made kennel for your dog. Watch out for ones that use wing nuts to attach the top and bottom. The wing nuts have been known to come off because of the vibration of the plane. You may also want to put a note on the outside of your dog's cage. The note should include the dog's name, your name, destination, flight numbers, and any special instructions or cautions.


If you want help arranging transport of your dog, you may find it from the Independent Pet and Animal Transportation Association International (IPATA), a trade association of animal handlers, pet moving providers, kennel operators, veterinarians, and others. Its member organizations use regularly scheduled flights on commercial airlines to ship pets, primarily for people who are moving, not traveling. They can help with pick-up and delivery, find flights with airlines and schedules that are best for your pet, provide flight kennels that meet legal and airline requirements, and help with health certificates and with documents that may be required for international travel.

The IPATA website is at; you can call them at 903-769-2267. Another company that offers similar services is AirAnimal, at or 800-635-3448.

Don't feed your animal for six hours before the flight, but attach containers of food and water to the outside of the carrier, if possible. This will allow someone to feed and water the dog without opening the cage. Opening the cage is to be avoided as much as is possible: it not only makes the handler risk getting bitten, but also might let the dog escape.

Your dog, of course, should be wearing an identification tag - but not just one that gives the address you've just left, where there may be nobody home. Attach a tag with your destination, including a phone number where you can be reached. (You may also want to consider a method of permanent identification, such as having an identification number tattooed on your dog or injected on a microchip. See "Lost and Found Dogs" in the State and Local Regulation section.)

What about mildly tranquilizing your dog? The answer depends on the dog's temperament, health, and metabolism. Tranquilized dogs may be more susceptible to breathing problems, especially if they get overheated. And tranquilizers slow down an animal's metabolism, which is also affected by the change in pressure during flight. A less drastic alternative is motion sickness medication, which a veterinarian can prescribe. Talk to a vet who's familiar with your animal before you decide on a strategy.


  • Did you book the most direct and reliable flight?
  • Does the airline know you're bringing an animal, and do you know all the airline's rules?
  • Have you obtained health or vaccination certificates, if necessary?
  • Is the kennel big enough for the dog to stand up, lie down, and turn around in comfortably?
  • Is the kennel sturdy and well ventilated? Have you lined the bottom with shredded paper or other absorbent material?
  • Have you securely attached your name, address, phone number and any special instructions to the outside and inside of the kennel?
  • Have you labeled the kennel "Live Animals" and "This End Up" in letters at least an inch high?
  • Is the dog wearing an identification tag and a snug but comfortable collar (not a chain collar, which could get caught on something and choke the dog)?
  • Have you obtained adequate liability coverage for your dog from the airline or an outside insurer?

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