Air travel has always been stressful for some, but if you’re hearing more growling on planes these days, it’s probably not your imagination: The number of dogs flying with owners is on the rise.
Requests for dogs to fly in airline cabins have increased steadily since 2021, according to the International Pet And Animal Transportation Association, a professional pet shippers trade group.
“Pet ownership surged during the pandemic, and now all those owners want to travel with their furry friends,” Elizabeth Schuette, a member of the association, told The Washington Times.
Carrying a small dog onto a plane can be much cheaper, she said, than shipping Snoopy cross-country — or even paying to leave Fido behind in a kennel.
The economics are even more attractive for fully trained and certified service dogs. If an owner has made even a minimal effort to make it look like that’s the case, most airlines will allow the animal to fly in the main cabin free of charge.
Department of Transportation rules define service animals as those trained to assist disabled passengers.
Officials have “limited enforcement capability” to track passengers passing off small dogs as service animals on the required service animal transportation forms, Ms. Schuette said.
Ms. Schuette, who oversees day-to-day animal transportation operations at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, said loopholes in the Air Carrier Access Act make it easier for travelers to falsely claim their pets as service animals.
“Although the ACAA allows for felony prosecution for incorrect information, the practicality of confirming both the service animal training and veterinary records required by the DOT form is limited, especially given constrained resources,” she said.
Changes in airline policies and a fluid job market during the COVID-19 era also add to the packs of dogs on planes, according to other companies with membership in the International Pet And Animal Transportation Association.
“I believe that there are more pets traveling as in-cabin carry-ons,” said Jeni Redmond, founder of PetsFly. “Many of the airlines’ policies have changed since the pandemic hit. Some airlines are no longer taking animals as cargo.”
More people are looking into private flights as they “find any means necessary to travel with or relocate their pets” for new jobs, Ms. Redmond said in an email.
Aviation company VistaJet has reported an 86% increase in animals on their private flights over the past two years.
“It is much more commonplace now for people to relocate for work and, in doing so, they want to keep their family unit together,” said Ms. Redmond, who is based in Phoenix. “Some people are even choosing their new dog’s breed because they know they will want to travel with a dog that is small enough to fit inside the aircraft cabin.”
Angela Passman, CEO of World Pet Travel in Texas, said the trend predates the pandemic.
“I believe there has been an increase in the number of pets being carried in-cabin since the restrictions of COVID were lifted, but it is still far less than it was pre-COVID,” said Ms. Passman, who operates primarily out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Federal law requires airlines to admit service dogs into cabins on commercial flights.
The advantage of classifying a dog as a “service animal” rather than as a “pet” is that it prevents airlines from adding fees for in-cabin transportation. Most airlines charge $100 to $200 for a cat or dog weighing less than 15 to 20 pounds to travel one way in a small carrier under the seat.
Officials at the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration declined to respond to questions about the number of dogs flying in airline cabins, but they shared copies of federal guidelines for transporting animals by air.
“Service animals are considered to be working animals and not pets,” an FAA spokesperson said in an email.
Because of 2021 amendments to the Air Carrier Access Act, analysts say, the number of dogs in airplane cabins has increased while the number of exotic animals traveling as “emotional support” animals — including peacocks and miniature horses — has dropped.
Bringing a dog in a carry-on crate is less risky than shipping, said Robert W. Mann, an independent airline analyst and consultant in Port Washington, New York. The former American Airlines pilot said some unscrupulous pet owners buy harnesses and vests online to create the impression that their dogs are trained service animals, or at least emotional support animals.
Flying alongside an owner can be critical for snub-nosed breeds such as French bulldogs. Most airlines ban such breeds from riding in cargo holds because of higher risks of adverse incidents.
About 23 million Americans adopted pets during COVID-19 quarantines in April and May 2020 — nearly 1 in 5 households — according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Most of these dogs are small breeds weighing 5 to 25 pounds, said James D. Grant, director of the Los Angeles-based Animal Wellness Centers.
“People are choosing to carry pets on and bring them along on trips because they view them as members of the family,” Mr. Grant said in an email. “I am sure there might be a few pet owners that do this to save money.”
Mr. Grant’s animal shelter was one of many that reported an uptick in Americans surrendering their dogs last year as inflation jacked up pet care costs and reduced disposable income. Prices of pet food and veterinary care increased at the fastest rate.
With inflation eating into budgets, more Americans are bringing dogs onto planes, said Jeffrey Tucker, president of the free market Brownstone Institute for Social and Economic Research.
“That only makes economic sense,” Mr. Tucker said in an email. “Inflation is changing many aspects of our lives in ways noticeable and not.”
Airlines are not required to report the number of pets and service animals traveling with them. Most major carriers did not respond to emails asking about dogs traveling on commercial flights in recent years.
A Southwest Airlines spokesperson confirmed in an email that the company allows “small vaccinated domestic cats and dogs” on domestic one-way flights for $95 apiece. The company allows six pets on each flight, although the spokesperson said “circumstance may allow for more.”
“Pets will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis until capacity is reached,” said the Southwest spokesperson, noting that the animals must “check in” at the airport ticket counter.
An American Airlines spokesperson shared the carrier’s pet policy, which allows passengers to pay $125 to bring a dog in a small crate on a one-way domestic flight and $250 round trip. The pet carrier replaces a carry-on bag and must remain below the seat.
United Airlines also charges $125 for a dog to fly one way in a carry-on. United adds a $125 service charge for stopovers of more than four hours inside the U.S. or more than 24 hours internationally.
These prices still beat the cost of shipping a dog across the country in an airplane’s cargo hold, according to airline websites.
Shipping a dog that weighs less than 25 pounds on American Airlines from New York to California costs about $265 one way or $530 round trip. Delta ships dogs from New York to California in small carriers for about $244 one way.
Paying to bring Fido in a carry-on crate is also easier and cheaper than leaving him behind on long trips. It costs about $40 a day to board a dog in the U.S., according to HomeGuide.
Still, nothing beats registering man’s best friend as a service animal, even if a dog flies under false pretenses, according to the nonprofit Pet Advocacy Network.
“We’re thrilled at the growth in pet-friendly hotels, restaurants, offices and more,” Pet Advocacy Network President and CEO Mike Bober said in an email. “But we are concerned by a rise in attempts to fraudulently represent pets as service animals, which puts the safety of human passengers, staff and legitimate service animals at risk.”
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