Delta to stop shipping pets on passenger jets

If you travel with your pet you will want to know that, effective March 1, Delta Air Lines will no longer accept pets as checked baggage.

If your pet is small enough to qualify as an “allowable” pet, Atlanta-headquartered Delta (NYSE:DAL) will continue to transport such pets in all cabin classes except Delta One, its name for the First Class cabins on long-haul international flights and cross-country flights between New York’s John F. Kennedy International (JFK) and Los Angeles International (LAX) or San Francisco International (SFO).

Instead of checking the pet into the cargo hold of the plane, owners of larger pets may ship their animals for travel within the United States as freight through Delta Cargo.

“Many of us at Delta are pet lovers and we know that they are important members of the family,” Bill Lentsch, SVP for Airport Customer Service and Cargo Operations, said in a statement announcing the change. “This change will ultimately ensure that we have a high-quality, consistent service for pets when their owners choose to ship them with Delta Cargo.”

Callie crated for travel
Pets that are transported via Delta Cargo are monitored closely by customer service teams during their travel, the airline said. While at airports, pets are handled in temperature-controlled holding areas and vans. Delta Cargo also enlists professional kenneling services if overnight stays are required.

Passengers traveling with a pet after March 1 should be prepared for some logistical challenges.

Customers will need to make a separate booking for the pet, and a pet being shipped domestically on Delta Cargo cannot be booked until 14 days prior to departure.

There are separate fees for shipping pets via Delta Cargo, and passengers must also be aware that, because schedules between passenger service and cargo differ, the pets could arrive at their destination before or well after their owners. Further, the pet will need to be picked up at a Delta Cargo location; it will not be delivered to the baggage carousel area of its owners' arrival airport.

One notable exception to this new policy will be members of the military with active transfer orders. They will be allowed to transport a pet as checked baggage. Additionally, Delta said it will “[C]ontinue to accept service and emotional support animals that comply with federal regulations including proper documentation.”

However, Delta's choice of wording may prove confusing, as "service" and "emotional support" animals are defined differently by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a well-known federal regulation that applies to air carriers' ground operations.

The ADA defines a service animal as “[A]ny guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) website

The website also makes clear that, "Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support [emphasis added] do not qualify as service animals under the ADA."

Service animals need not have been trained by a professional trainer; the ADA also allows an animal’s owner to do any required training. As to documentation, the DOJ is quite specific. “Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person's disability.”

The Air Carrier Access Act, a federal regulation that applies to airlines' flight operations, defines service animals more broadly than the ADA and serves as Delta's benchmark.

"Delta complies with the Air Carrier Access Act by allowing customers traveling with emotional support animals or psychiatric service animals to travel without charge in the cabin," an airline spokesperson told TheTravelPro in an email, adding that "We reserve the right to review each case and make every effort to accommodate our customers’ travel needs while also taking into consideration the health and safety of other passengers."

Guidance for customers traveling with pets can be found at

While Delta’s actions appear to be well-intentioned, I question how necessary they really are.

Airlines are required by a law called “AIR-21,” or Public Law (P.L.) 106-81, to submit monthly reports detailing the number of pets that die, are injured or are lost while in their care. However, many airlines reported those figures prior to the law’s effective date of Jan. 1, 2015.

For all of 2014, a total of 17 pets died while in the care of six U.S. airlines, 26 were injured and two were lost. During all of 2014, Delta reported that four pets died while in its care and one was lost. American Airlines (NYSE:AAL) had three pets die in its care. United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) had five die, 13 were injured and one was lost.

In addition to the three major U.S. carriers, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK), Hawaiian Airlines (NYSE:HA), and SkyWest (NASDAQ: SKYW) reported having a total of five pets die and 14 become injured while in their care during 2014. None of the three smaller carriers lost a pet.

For the 12 months ending in Nov. 2015, the most recent month for which figures are available, 33 pets being transported by eight U.S. carriers died, 25 were injured and three were lost.

During that period, nine pets died while in Delta’s care, four were injured and two were lost. American had two pets die, four were injured and one was lost. United had 14 pets die and 10 injured, with none lost. Alaska, Hawaiian, SkyWest, ExpressJet and Endeavor Air also reported pet mishaps during the most recent 12-month period. ExpressJet is wholly owned by SkyWest, Inc.

But, as Mark Twain said, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics,” and statistics need context. To provide some perspective, P.L. 106-81 requires airlines to report annually on the total number of pets they transported. However, because the rule went into effect Jan. 1, 2015, the total number of pets transported during 2015 won’t be reported until the December report, which is to be issued in mid-February.

Finally, while each animal death or injury is unfortunate, the cause of many of those deaths will never be known because the owners declined necropsies. The cause of many of the injuries were self-inflicted from actions including a pet chewing on his or her carrier while in flight – actions that are not likely to change simply because a pet is riding a cargo jet instead of in the hold of a passenger jet.

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Photo by Carl Dombek 
Callie, a field Golden, appears courtesy Paws in the Park, Normandy Park, Wash.
Click on photo to view larger image