At just two pounds, Natalie Maldonado's teacup Chihuahua weighs less than her purse. But on a recent AirTran flight from Tampa to Atlanta, as she tucked the dog under her seat, a crewmember stopped Maldonado because the pet had been improperly tagged, she says.
"I was surrounded by four agents, a gate agent, the flight attendants and another crewmember," she remembers. "They demanded that I pay a $70 pet carry-on fee."
That's when her flight went to the dogs. Although she reluctantly agreed to pay the surcharge, she was walked off the flight after an attendant told her she was committing a "federal offense" by interfering with the flight schedule. She and her Chihuahua were allowed to take the next AirTran flight to Atlanta.
"The manner in which I was treated was completely unacceptable and the pet policy fee is ridiculous and excessive," she told me.
In their struggle to turn a profit, airlines have piled on a lot of fees in the last year, from surcharges for checked luggage to extras for confirmed reservations. And just when it seemed they had found every last fee, it looks as if they've turned up one more: They're looking to Fido and Fluffy for a little extra cash; specifically, to their owners.
Maldonado's pet problem may sound like a tempest in a teacup. But it isn't to her. She alleges AirTran employees intimidated and humiliated her and her dog. When she tried to take names, one flight attendant told her he "wasn't allowed to give last names." I was sure the airline would respond to her complaint, so I suggested she send a polite letter describing the incident.
AirTran's response? A form letter saying it regretted "to learn of your disappointment with our pet travel policy" but pointing out that pet fees are "standard" in the airline business. It promised to pass her comments about the crew's behavior along to a supervisor.
Here's the kicker: When it comes to pet transportation fees, AirTran is widely considered to be one of the most reasonable airlines. Its competitors, who at some point must have caught wind of the fact that close to two-thirds of Americans have traveled with their pets and exclaimed, "Ah-ha -- there's money to be made there!" routinely charge twice what this discount airline does.
Call it pet fees gone wild. To get an idea of how crazy these charges have become, consider what happened to Richard Grove, who was asked to pony up $300 to transport his 7-pound cat roundtrip on a recent Delta Air Lines flight. "That's more than I paid for my own ticket," he complained. Grove wrote Delta to protest the absurdity of paying more to fly his kitty than himself. The airline replied with a form letter thanking him for letting them "know how you feel."
It would be tempting to see this as yet another airline industry money grab. But aviation analyst Michael Miller says pet transportation charges differ from other so-called "ancillary" fees charged by airlines today in a few important respects. Pets represent more of a liability than a revenue opportunity, for starters. If a dog or cat dies in the luggage hold -- more on that in a minute -- the company may face an expensive lawsuit. Although that's far less likely to happen to animals in the passenger cabin, pets of any kind are essentially unwanted guests on a plane, from an airline's perspective. Miller says airlines aren't just "charging whatever they want" to make more money, but to discourage people from bringing animals on board.
That's not to say there isn't a market for airborne pets. This summer, Pet Airways, which is billed as an alternative for pets traveling in cargo holds, is scheduled to begin flying between New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles.
Still, this may be one of those rare times when I agree with the airlines. If dogs and cats belonged at 36,000 feet, they would have wings. But the current system, whether it's a moneymaker or a deterrent, is hopelessly broken. Here's why:
Air Travel Can Kill Animals
Literally. Pets die on planes, particularly when they're in the cargo hold. According to the Web site ThirdAmendment.com (www.thirdamendment.com/animals.html), a total of 109 animals have perished since 2005, most of them dogs. Airlines must report deaths, injuries and losses to the Transportation Department, but the numbers are thought to be artificially low, since animals that aren't kept as pets or carried on an all-cargo or unscheduled flight aren't counted. Continental Airlines had the most deaths (34) followed by American Airlines (21) while Delta Airlines and United Airlines tied for third, with 12 casualties. Delta lost the most pets (11) while Continental had the most injuries (14) according to the government.
The Price Isn't Right
Why does it cost AirTran $70 to carry a pet one way, but Delta charges $150? Does the cumulative weight of these creatures make planes consume more fuel on one airline, necessitating a higher fee? You don't have to be an airline employee to know the answer: of course not. Then again, when have airline prices ever made sense? A seat bought two weeks before a flight costs just a few hundred bucks, but buying it the day before your trip can set you back a few thousand. Madness!
Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others
Jacking up the prices for man's best friend exposes one of the last remaining airline subsidies: lap children. On domestic flights, airlines don't charge parents with kids under two who sit on their lap. Fido flying under the seat pays $150. Junior sitting on the lap pays nothing. Does that make any sense? No. When you account for all the extra stuff that you have to bring along, like diapers, formula, snacks and toys, lap kids account for far more weight than most pets stowed under the seats.
No Self-Respecting Dog Would Subject Itself to Air Travel, Anyway
Southwest Airlines used to have the right idea. It didn't accept live animals in the cabin or cargo compartment other than those trained to assist people with disabilities, until it reversed itself this spring, citing the soft economy. (Here's a handy list of airline pet policies.) Think about it. What self-respecting cat or dog would intentionally lock itself in a pressurize aluminum tube for several hours? I don't know of any.
Full disclosure, here: I am owned by two cats that I love dearly. And I interviewed Miller as he was taking his Australian Shepherd, Nikki, for a walk. So it's safe to say neither of us have a problem with pets in general.
But flying with them is a terrible idea, at least for now. "I would never put Nikki on a plane," Miller told me.
My cats Max and Pollux are grounded, too. At least until airlines can come up with a better and fairer way to transport their animal passengers.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.