Image: Midwest Airlines
Sandy Robins
Midwest Airlines' crewmembers board a dog in the cargo area.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/3/2009 3:35:04 PM ET 2009-06-03T19:35:04

Not long ago, an airline was considered to be “pet friendly” if it allowed animals onboard. However, as more people travel with their furry friends, many airlines are catering to the growing, important market. Today, “pet friendly” has a whole new meaning.

Pet-friendly airlines, among other things, board pets right before takeoff and de-board them first once at a destination.

Susan Kerwin, Midwest Airlines’ Premier Pet Program creator, says a pet-friendly airline is “a carrier that goes above and beyond to pay attention to the comfort and care of the pets on board, to ensure that their travel experience — whether its in-cabin or below — mirrors the quality of service and comfort also experienced by its passengers.”

“All the decisions we make for the animal while it’s in our care are based on what’s best for that animal,” adds Lisa Schoppa, manager of the Continental Airlines Petsafe Program.

Airlines that take pet travelers seriously make sure a “must love animals” attitude is part of the job description, and ground staff are trained accordingly. It’s not just about careful handling of the animals, but making the experience to board and deplane as stress-free as possible for the pet.

Recently, Midwest Airlines flew me from Los Angeles to Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport for a behind-the-scenes look at how the ground staff are trained to handle "baggage class" pet travelers once they leave the care of their owners.

When I arrived at the Midwest counter, the ground staff immediately produced a goody bag that contained various travel–sized pet toiletries and a carob cookie similar to the chocolate chip cookies that they bake on board for their passengers.

Behind the scenes, pets are kept in a climate-controlled hangar-type area. A transport tag is attached to the pet's crate detailing all the pet and owner's information, destination and seat number. The agent who personally loads the animal onto the flight reviews paperwork with the pet owner prior to takeoff to verify they are on the same flight.

Similarly, while most airlines used a motorized cargo cart, Continental Airlines has special climate controlled vans at many of its major airports to board pets directly onto the aircraft.

Pets on airlines such as Midwest, Alaska and American are transported in the front bin directly below the flight deck. Carriers are firmly strapped into place, if necessary. No suitcases or heavy cargo is loaded in this area.

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Cabin class
In-cabin travel is restricted to small pets, usually dogs and cats — although some airlines allow birds and rabbits, too. Pets traveling in-cabin never leave the company of their owners, and the owners are solely responsible for their animals.

Most airlines accept a pet carrier in lieu of a piece of carry-on luggage. Even if you are booking your ticket online, it’s advisable to make it known that you are bringing a pet, as most carriers limit the number of animals allowed in the cabin. Some airlines insist on a reservation, so be sure to do your homework.

Baggage class
Many airlines do not require reservations for pets checked as baggage. Airlines check pets on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Realistically, this means the airline doesn’t know until the last minute if there are pets on the flight. Some airlines may load pets alongside baggage, and your animal may not receive the quality of care you are anticipating.

Cargo class
A reservation is required when your pet travels as cargo. Pets will be taken care of at the airline’s cargo reception, not where you check in for flights. An advantage of this is that airlines can plan for the number of pets onboard and where they are located in the cargo section of the plane.

Airline pet travel policies and fees

With the introduction of their Petsafe Program, Continental Airlines is the only national carrier that no longer allows pets to travel as checked baggage. Their travel arrangements are incorporated into the airline’s Quickpak cargo service instead.

“This way we can pre-plan for them and communicate the information to the necessary airports around the country and around the world,” explains Schoppa. “Also, our load planners know ahead of time to ensure there’s plenty of breathable air space for the pets on the flight.

“Forward and aft compartments in the hold area have different amounts of air moving through them. With advance planning, our agents are able to input the number of animals, and their size and weight, to account for carbon monoxide emissions. Also, each animal requires a different temperature — all this is taken into account when loading them to ensure they are being given the best service and comfort possible.”

Image: Midwest Airlines
Sandy Robins
Dog flies cargo class on Midwest Airlines

While most airlines have seasonal travel restrictions relating to extreme weather conditions — especially during the summer months — this system allows Continental to fly pets year-round and not worry about temperature restrictions.

“However, irrespective of the time of year, strange weather patterns can prompt temperatures to drop below 45 degrees or go higher than 85 degrees. If this happens, we place last-minute restrictions on pets traveling as checked baggage,” explains Hans Hauck, Baggage Manager for American Airlines. “Even if it’s an inconvenience to the passenger, we consider it a safety concern for the pet.”

Furthermore, pet parents who are not flying on the same flights are able to track their pet’s travel by calling the airline’s 24-hour animal desk.

Frequent-flier programs
An airline that offers the best frequent-flier program for you isn't necessarily the best choice for four-footed passengers. Consequently, many people who fly regularly with pets now belong to a second program that not only has great pet-friendly service, but also has a frequent-flier benefits for pets.

  • Midwest Airlines is the only national carrier that offers pets free trips. Last year, the airline awarded 636 free trips to frequent pet fliers on its Premier Pet Program. For every three paid pet round trips (or six paid one-way trips) made with their owner, a pet earns one free round trip. Alternatively, human Midwest frequent-fliers can redeem 20,000 Midwest Miles for every round trip their pet travels.
  • Pets that are members of the Continental PetPass program can earn one mile for every dollar spent, including tax, fuel and security surcharges. The miles are credited to the pet parent’s mileage account.
  • Pets can earn two points on JetBlue for each flight. The points show upon their pet parents’ TrueBlue frequent-flier account, allowing them to earn free travel awards faster.

Rating pet-friendly airlines
Just how pet-friendly are the major carriers? I researched their Web sites and phoned the service agents to talk about their airline’s pet policy.

The airlines that had the best, easiest-to-navigate Web sites were: Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue and Midwest.

Look for words like  “programs and services”, “special travel needs” or “travel information” to lead you down the right information path.

Special kudos to American, Continental, JetBlue and Midwest for their knowledge — an  indication of the type of service that will follow.

Tip: When an airline representative doesn't know its regulations and needs to refer to manuals and supervisors, it’s a red flag.

And how does a true pet-friendly airline handle those sticky situations of passengers who don’t want to sit next to a cat or a dog, or who are allergic? All of the airline staff members I spoke to said that their air crew is trained to handle it as a customer service issue.

The passenger with the pet will never be the one to be asked to move. Instead, a flight attendant will move the complainant and, if necessary, accommodate them on another plane.

Passengers with pets are not allowed to occupy the emergency exit or bulkhead seats. Some airlines will insist on seating a passenger with a pet in a window seat.

Tips
It’s important to ascertain whether your airline requires a health certificate for domestic travel. Some don’t require anything. Others require a certificate within 10 days of travel that is valid for 10 days (meaning you'll need a new certificate if you plan on returning return beyond the 10-day limit).

Certificates are valid for 30 days at Midwest Airlines. Alaska requires a certificate that coincides with your travel plans no matter how short or long your trip. Continental will negotiate a longer timeframe if necessary.

And to further complicate things, while an airline may not require a certificate for a flight, certain states do. It’s important to remember that veterinarians are not automatically issued with a list of changing state laws, so find out what certification is required.

For more information on traveling with pets, go to PuppyTravel.com or Petfinder.com to see a list of the most pet-friendly airlines in the United States.

Bone voyage!

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