Felix the cat spent 29 days in the cargo hold of a Pan Am jet and escaped with a few lives intact. The 2-year-old feline somehow got out of its cage in flight and traveled 180,000 miles before it was spotted by luggage handlers in London and returned--first-class to an LAX hero's welcome--by a Pan Am employee who searched the plane until the cat was found.
Loekie the terrier-poodle wasn't as lucky. On a TWA flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, the dog somehow escaped from his cage on the ground during a changeover of planes in St. Louis. The owner, a Dutch tourist named Leo Koewe, staged a hunger strike at the TWA terminal at LAX until the dog's body was discovered in St. Louis alongside an airport roadway, apparently hit by a car.
The stories of Felix and Loekie, one happy and one tragic, unleashed a torrent of national and international publicity in recent weeks and focused attention on an issue long eclipsed by the more human concerns of near-collisions, maintenance schedules and on-time performances: the shipment of pets and other animals by plane.
But while pet passengers haven't gotten a lot of ink over the years, according to airline and government officials, the traveling public's concern over the way the airlines handle and treat pets has long been an issue of high emotional intensity, despite the dearth of formal complaints.
Air travel by pets has been going on for many years, long before the Animal Welfare Act was amended in 1976 to include assuring their safety. Besides common household pets such as dogs and cats, exotic animals from apes to llamas are shipped by zoos and researchers.
Last Tally in 1973
But the exact number is hard to find. The last available tally appears to have been done in 1973, when the Civil Aeronautics Board estimated that 3,700 animals traveled daily on domestic flights. No agency appears to have updated those numbers, but a spokesman for the Air Transportation Assn. of America said he didn't think the number of animals being shipped today was any greater. By comparison, last year approximately 1.2 million people took domestic flights daily, according to the ATA.
Shipping a pet can be a nerve-wracking experience, since once the animal is out of the owner's hands, it is up to airline personnel to ensure its safety.
Catherine Crenshaw of Van Nuys still feels pangs of guilt over an experience she had shipping her 2-year-old collie, Sara, last fall. Crenshaw took Sara with her, shipped as excess baggage, on a flight from Los Angeles to Detroit on Northwest Airlines.
However, the dog did not arrive when Crenshaw did. After she and her husband spent several days making frantic calls to the airline, the dog was finally discovered in Minneapolis and sent to Crenshaw in Detroit. Sara arrived, she said, disoriented, dehydrated and lying in its own waste.
Today, Sara is fine, but, Crenshaw said, "When we first got her back, she didn't trust us. She could have died. Had I known then what I know today, I never would have shipped my dog. It's almost like I was abused. It's my ignorance that did it."
Animals can be shipped three ways on commercial airlines: by air freight or air cargo, as excess baggage or as carry-on luggage. When shipped as air cargo, the pet does not travel with its owner. As excess baggage, pets travel with passengers' luggage in a lit area that has the same pressurization and temperature as the passenger cabins. The kennels are kept separate from all other baggage and are usually stowed near the door for quick access.
Most airlines will allow pets as carry-on baggage, but they must be small enough to be stowed in a kennel that fits underneath a seat, and there is only one domestic animal allowed per cabin per flight.
Kennel Too Small
Problems that have occurred include leaving the animal exposed to extreme heat or cold for prolonged periods of time while waiting for a plane or a plane change, shipping in a kennel that is too small or poorly constructed (which could allow the animal to escape), not including shipping information and the owner's name on the kennel, placing the animal on a steep conveyor belt that can cause it to tip over, or shipping a pet that is unhealthy. Although the USDA sets up and enforces these and other regulations, it is up to the airlines to comply. When the pet is ready to be shipped, it is the decision of airline personnel whether it is safe enough to travel. Airlines are also responsible for it en route.
During 1986 and 1987, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services of the USDA handled 24 cases of alleged Animal Welfare Act Violations at airports around the country. Last year, the Humane Society of the United States received 25 letters of complaint from passengers over treatment of their pets. Officials estimate that there may be more problems, but they say that pet owners often do not know what recourse to take.