One cold, snowy afternoon last month, while waiting out a delay at Denver Stapleton International Airport, I stood at a terminal window and watched a big jet being loaded with baggage. A small electric tug pulled a row of carts up underneath the belly of the jet. On the carts were those boxy metal containers that hold the suitcases. Sitting atop the rear deck of the tug was a little green cage. I could barely make out the dark shape within.
After the last container was gobbled into the jet, the driver grabbed the cage and loaded it onto the lifting platform. As it rose, the cage shifted and then tilted precariously. When it stopped, another handler snatched the cage inside, and the hatch slid shut. By then, the animal by been exposed to extreme cold for 20 minutes.
With the increased frequency of delays since airline deregulation, what happens to an animal that finds itself in a cage for hours? Or if your pet doesn't get onto the same flight that you do? Or if luggage is mis-routed so that you end up in Oakland and your pet ends up in Auckland?
The baggage compartment of a passenger jet is a stark place. It is done in the same institutional beige that you see in the passenger compartment, but there is no padding, no soft lighting. Not that it would matter; when the doors close, it's pitch-dark. And the noises of a jet's takeoff, flight and settling--the nearby slamming, whining and rumbling of the landing gear, the shrieking and whooshing of the huge engines--are much louder than in the brightened passenger area above.
Although baggage and passenger compartments are pressurized, internal pressure does not equal sea level. "The pressure in a jet is the equivalent of 14,000 feet above sea level," says Donald W. Needham, veterinarian at the Animal Medical Clinic in Carpinteria. "Animals get most of the same diseases as people, and an older dog with heart trouble may be fine at home but may suffer cardiac arrest when the air gets thin." And although most baggage compartments are insulated, they're not heated; eventually, the temperature inside will equal the temperature outside, whether that is the freezing cold of a February night at O'Hare or the damp heat of a summer day in Miami.
All the major airlines will take pets as baggage, though all have strict, detailed regulations governing the procedure. Rules for pets traveling in the baggage compartment can differ from rules for those that are carried on, depending on such things as animal size and space availability. All airlines emphasize the need to make reservations for pets, because without having done so, you might arrive at the airport to find that your section's animal quota has already been filled. Animals too large to fit in cages under passenger cabin seats must go into the baggage compartment, and there is a limit on the number of animals permitted to travel there. Because luggage compartments are not ventilated, too many animals in the small space use up all the oxygen.
And the rules are varied and complicated. Several airlines enforce restrictions based on outside temperatures. Douglas Scherff, American Airlines station manager at Orange County's John Wayne Airport, says that American will only allow pets in luggage compartments if outside temperatures fall between 45 and 85 degrees. Also there are restrictions when connecting flights are involved or if the time between transfers is to exceed 45 minutes. Food and special instructions should be included with the cage so that if there is a delay in reuniting you and your animal, airlines personnel can provide it with food and water. (Your pet probably won't be walked, though, because of the liability risk should the animal get lost, be injured or injure someone).
Many airlines require health certificates provided by veterinarians and dated within 30 days of the flight. "Traveling can be extremely stressful for an animal," Needham says. "A complete physical is called for, including a blood workup."
Perhaps the animal I saw in Denver had been tranquilized. "It can be really frightening for an animal to wake up in such strange surroundings," Needham says. "But most sedatives don't last longer than four to six hours, and they take an hour to take effect, so people should give the animal the pill only an hour before flight time. If the flight's going to last longer than four or five hours, the animal's doctor needs to know that so he can consider prescribing one of the longer-lasting drugs.
"Making these decisions," Needham says, "a doctor walks a medical tightrope. Tranquilizers depress blood pressure and respiration. A young, healthy animal may be fine; a 16-year-old dog with kidney and liver problems, I'd worry about. Some animals don't need tranquilizers or sedatives. On the other hand, animals can die of fright. If it's a hyper animal to begin with, you might want to use a sedative. You can also injure or kill pet with indiscriminate use of potent drugs."