On Sale But Is It Safe: United Airlines
Marketwatch.com had a short piece on pet travel by airline today, apparently prompted by the recent death of rabbit shipped from London to Chicago. This prompted IMPS to ask, should pet parents send their pets on the "Friendly Skies?"
To answer this question, IMPS needed to take a look at whatever safety data was available. Thirdamendment.com produced a report using data from the U.S. Department of Transportation airline animal incident reports. That information is contained as a subset of the monthly "Air Travel Consumer Report" compiled by the DOT (the most recent report, dated March 2017, is available here has data for January 2017).
The salient data can be summarized in these two tables:
January 2016 – December 2016:
|Delta Air Lines||5||5||0|
May 2005 – February 2017:
So what can be inferred from the above statistics? The DOT reports that approximately 2 million animals are transported by air each year, including passenger, cargo and private flights. Marketwatch was able to gather additional information on the number of animals transported by each airline in 2016. In that period, United reported 109,149, Alaska Air 112,281 and Delta 81,070 to name a few.
Delta no longer allows pets to be checked into the baggage compartment unless they are service animals or belong to active military personnel with transfer orders. That change went into affect in March of 2016, likely a result of continued bad press for deaths and lost pets over the prior decade, if not longer.
This brings up a difficulty in drawing too many conclusions from the data. It is unlikely that Delta transported 81,070 animals on passenger flights in the first two months of 2016 before their policy change. IMPS thinks it safe to assume that Delta is also no more likely to be the carrier of choice for service and/or military pets. Of note, Delta still accepts pets as cargo on its Delta Cargo subsidiary, the likely way all those pets were transported. However, the DOT does not require all incidents to be reported when
• the animals is not a pet in a family household in the U.S.;
• the animal is conveyed on an all-cargo or unscheduled flights;
• the animals is carried on a flight operated by a foreign airline, even if the flight carries the code of a U.S. carrier
Note that reports must be filed for animals that are carried as cargo (as opposed to checked baggage) on a regularly scheduled passenger flight.
So it is not really clear to IMPS what the Delta figures represent. Has Delta voluntarily included incident reports for cargo flights? We would need to dig a lot deeper to get to the bottom of that and it also calls into question the figures presented for other airlines.
IMPS does note that difference in incident rate between United and Alaska Air in 2016 (2.11 vs 0.27 per 10,000 transported, respectively) which appears to be much larger than any minor statistical fluctuation.
One possible explanation for this difference (beyond potentially better handling standards at Alaska Air) is that United travels to far more destinations than Alaska Air, including many that are hot weather locales. In 2016, for example, Alaska Air had just under 2,462 flights to Phoenix per the DOT. United on the other hand had 6,664. Considering that heat stroke is a considerable risk when transporting a pet, IMPS is not surprised that airlines with more diverse destinations may have higher rates of incidents, even taking into account the possibility that dedicated cargo transport may be biasing the figures.
Another possible explanation is that some airlines transport a greater number of pets on passenger flights (and thus are subject to incident reporting), while others handle a greater proportion on cargo only flights.
However, just looking at the absolute figures for deaths and injury filed from 2005 onward, IMPS feels an average of 29 deaths, 17 injuries and 5 lost pets per year is pretty low given how many pets are transported by air every year. In drawing this conclusion, IMPS also takes into account that at least some of the deaths may have been unavoidable - in the sense that some pets are just not up to the rigors of this type of travel no matter how well handled by the airline.
This is not, however, a blanket recommendation that pet parents take their dogs and cats with them on vacation to far away places. The entire process of travel by air for a pet (let's be honest, it is really "live shipment") is stressful and puts the well being of a pet in the hands of employees who may or may not care and who may or may not have sufficient time to do the best possible job when each minute of delay costs their employer thousands of dollars.
For one time travel for home relocation, if travel by car is not an option, pet parents should not be unduly fearful of putting their pet on the plane. IMPS urges pet parents to follow the recommendations of the US Dept. of Agriculture for safe travel at this page.