More airlines are taking steps to ensure safer transport of pets at a time when the federal government is preparing a program to require monthly reports from air carriers on animal safety.
For the first time, UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, the country's No. 1 carrier, and Continental Airlines, the No. 5 carrier, have implemented or announced plans to prohibit the transport of pets as checked baggage in an effort to lower the risk of injury or death during flights and handling on the ground.
United and Continental join Delta Air Lines Inc. and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, both of which have set in motion plans to reimpose temporary checked-baggage prohibitions they have enacted in recent years.
Most such prohibitions are seasonal but, starting today, Continental will go one step further and permanently stop accepting animals as checked baggage.
Airline representatives say the prospect of scorching temperatures from another La Nina summer and ground delays from expected record passenger loads prompted implementation of the policies, which require professional preparation of animals before flying.
"Professional pet handlers know how to properly prepare the animals for shipment," said spokeswoman Peggy Estes. "We want to ensure the safety and comfort of animals on their flights."
There are no hard figures on the number of animals that now fly, said Delta spokeswoman Diana Cronan of the Air Transport Assn. But the Washington-based industry group estimates that as many as 500,000 animals are transported on airplanes each year and that fewer than 1% are lost, injured or die during the process.
No. 2 carrier American launched its restrictions last month, and No. 3 Delta's will take effect today; United plans to begin its own embargo on animals as checked baggage on June 15. The American, Delta and United programs are scheduled to expire by early September.
Under the policies, passengers flying on the participating airlines will have to pay to transport their pets as cargo through commercial animal shippers or licensed pet breeders or, in the case of Continental, go through the carrier's Quickpak live-animal program, which charges a minimum fee of $139.
Air travelers are still allowed to bring aboard dogs and cats small enough for portable carriers that can fit under a passenger seat.
In April, President Clinton signed into law a bill requiring airlines to provide monthly reports to the U.S. Department of Transportation on the number of animals, if any, that have died or been injured or lost during transport.
Department spokesman Bill Mosley said Wednesday that officials are working on a timetable to implement the provision but that no start date has been set. The law also provides for public disclosure of any mishaps with animal cargo.
Nancy Peterson, a companion-animals specialist with the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States, said the law should encourage airlines to be more careful with pets, since travelers will be able to check to see which carriers have the best track records.
Carriers new to the transport restrictions, such as United and Continental, deny that their policies are a response to the law.
"We'd been thinking about making a change in our policy and just thought now would be a good time to do it," Continental spokeswoman Julie Gardner said.
Not all the major airlines have implemented restrictions. No. 4 Northwest Airlines Corp., for example, will still accept pets as checked baggage this summer, although spokeswoman Kathy Peach said the carrier is considering revamping its animal-handling policies in light of the federal tracking law.
Northwest, however, like all airlines, still follows federal guidelines barring transport of an animal if temperatures anywhere along a particular route are forecast to exceed 85 degrees. The guidelines, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have been in effect for several years.