(MNN.com) -- Something on the tarmac caught travel agent Ann Lombardi's attention while she waited to board her flight. Baggage carriers seemed unconcerned about a Labrador that was bleeding profusely as they unloaded its crate from the cargo hold. Disturbed by the scene, Lombardi alerted gate attendants.
"They were very nonchalant about it," says Lombardi, co-owner of The Trip Chicks travel agency, about the incident that occurred nearly five years ago. "I'm sure that's not as widespread as it used to be. But, if at all possible, I feel more comfortable avoiding pets flying as cargo. If it's drivable, and the person has to take their pet, that's better."
The American Pet Products Association estimates that more than 60 percent of U.S. households have pets. Those kittens, pooches — even snakes and gerbils — need to leave the nest, eventually. Some of those pets take family vacations, and commercial airlines have met that demand by opening their cargo bins and their cabins to our furry companions.
Most pets reach their destinations without incident each day. But horror stories — such as the pug that died in cargo during a trans-Atlantic flight or the baggage handler who lost her job over her refusal to load an emaciated dog on a plane — cause pet lovers like Lombardi to reconsider air travel. Before you book a ticket for your pet, do research about your destination and any scheduled stops along the way. Here are a few tips for a fun, safe and pet-friendly trip that includes airline travel.
Work the 'Net
After struggling to find hotels that would accommodate his dog Ruggles, travel agent Jerry Hatfield created PetTravel.com. His team works with commercial airlines to deliver guidelines about travel-worthy crates, pet-friendly hotel listings and tips on clearing airport security. Also check BringFido.com and FidoFriendly.com for travel tips — and don't forget to ask friends for recommendations. They may lead you to hidden treasures, like the fun, funky and dog-friendly Thunderbird Inn that I discovered in Savannah, Georgia.
Consider the season
Temperatures in the cargo hold can be dramatically different from passenger cabins. Some airlines even refuse to fly pets as cargo when temperatures hit extreme highs and lows. "Try not to travel with your pet in cargo during the cold winter or hot summer," says PetTravel.com President Susan Smith. "Depending on where you are flying, you cut down risk to the pet."
Get the best gear, and reinforce it
If your pet does fly in the cargo hold, purchase a sturdy carrier. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which comprises about 230 airlines, offers online tips to select the right crate for your pet. Cable ties add another level of security. "At end of the day, you want to make sure your pet does not get out of that crate," Smith says.
A cat named Jack gained international recognition after being lost — then found 61 days later — inside JFK airport in New York. According to the American Airlines incident report filed with the Department of Transportation, Jack escaped when a clerk placed the cat's kennel on another kennel and it fell, opening on impact. He eventually was euthanized because he was so malnourished and dehydrated that his skin tore easily, making him prone to severe infection and organ dysfunction.
"A lot more airlines are requiring the use of steel nuts and bolts as opposed to plastic [crate] fasteners," Smith says, adding that Boston Logan International Airport has a training program for its baggage handlers. "If you put on metal or steel hardware, the chances of keeping your pet safe are higher."
Watch your pet board — and de-plane
Pets are always boarded last, Smith notes. If at all possible, watch airport staff load your pet onto the plane. "If that's not available, I would not get on a plane until I received word that my pet has been boarded," she says. "Tell the captain you are traveling with a pet and say, 'Please be sensitive about pressurizing the cargo hold.' It's good to be a squeaky wheel. It's good that they know this is your pet."
Seek pet-friendly airports
In 2009, the Department of Transportation required U.S. airports to provide pet relief areas that help service animals stretch their legs between flights. PetFriendlyTravel.com lists pet relief areas for airports across the country, including the Poochie Park at Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta. Many airports and airlines have begun to upgrade these areas with fun features.
"KLM and Air France in Amsterdam have 24-hour-a-day service," Lombardi says. "Airline personnel will take your pet from one carrier to another, and they have dog walkers that take the dog from the kennel, clean the kennel, put ice cubes in the dish and pet the dog."
Stateside, Lombardi and Smith give Bush Intercontinental Airport high marks for its on-site kennel with more than 1,000 square feet of pet runs. Run by Continental, it's the only on-site kennel run by a commercial airline. The facility charges $100 for the first night and $15 each additional night.
"You can take the dog around, or airline personnel can take the dog around, and then put the dog in a nice spacious kennel area," Ann says. "It's considered the cream of the crop."
While pet relief areas typically exist outside the terminal, Lombardi also credits Washington-Dulles airport with providing a relief area inside, closer to departure gates. Overseas, carriers offer even more perks.
"The airlines have realized that the transport of pets is a very good thing for them in terms of the bottom line," Smith says, noting that Baby Boomers fuel the pet travel trend. "Baby Boomers are a mobile society — and they are taking their pets with them."
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