Animals transported on airplanes can lead to tragedy

Last month, Michael Jarboe’s beloved companion died during a routine United Airlines flight. Bam-Bam was a 3-year-old, 140-pound mastiff who was flying with Jarboe from Florida to San Francisco.

Bam-Bam was flying as cargo, but United regulations said that Bam-Bam would be kept in an air-conditioned holding area during any layover of more than 45 minutes. After a four-hour layover in Houston in August, Jarboe saw Bam-Bam brought back to the plane in a small van, looking devastated by heat. By the time the plane landed, Bam-Bam was dead.

This is not an isolated tragedy. Media reports say a golden retriever died of heatstroke on a United Airlines flight a few weeks before Bam-Bam’s death. In 2010, seven of 14 puppies in the cargo hold of an American Airlines flight leaving Tulsa died after an hourlong delay on the tarmac in 86-plus degree heat. The Department of Transportation recently reported that 221 animals died in the custody of airlines between 2005 and 2012 and another 138 were lost or injured.

In 1994, Andrew Gluckman sued American Airlines after his dog, Floyd, died of heatstroke during a flight. Gluckman was on a flight out of Phoenix, where the temperature on the runway was 115 degrees.

After an unexpected hourlong delay in takeoff, the cargo compartment where Floyd was kept was at 140 degrees. Gluckman abandoned the flight, but it was too late for Floyd, who had collapsed in his crate after bloodying the inside of his container in a panicked effort to escape. After a further delay of 45 minutes, American got Floyd to a vet, where he spent the night in intensive care but could not be saved.

Transportation of animals is generally governed by the federal Animal Welfare Act and monitored by the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. APHIS has enacted regulations for the transport of animals by airplane generally, and for several specific species.

Despite the regulations, airlines have only been required to report injuries to animals since 2005, during which time the USDA has sanctioned various airlines for violations of law, including United, US Airways, Delta and American. Penalties imposed by USDA are minimal: For four incidents of improper handling of animals in 1987 and 1988, American was fined $4,000; and for five incidents in 2004 to 2007, United was fined $11,500, but $10,000 was deferred if the carrier improved its animal-confinement system.

The USDA is currently proposing a change to its regulations, expanding the reporting required. The original, 2005 reporting regulations applied to “loss, injury or death” to “any warm- or cold-blooded animal which, at the time of transportation (was) being kept as a pet in a family household in the United States.” The reporting requirement was unclear as to which airlines were required to report.

This summer, the USDA proposed to make new rules. One change clarifies those airlines required to make reports to all U.S. carriers that conduct at least one scheduled flight for 60 or more passengers. The public was invited to comment about whether carriers operating at fewer than 60 passengers per flight should also be included.

Another proposed change expands the definition of “animal” for the reporting requirement to also include “any dog or cat which, at the time of transportation, is shipped as part of a commercial shipment on a scheduled passenger flight.” The agency specifically requested public comment about whether the definition should also include any animal of any species in commercial air transportation. The public comment period ended Sept. 27, and the agency should issue its new regulations soon.

What can we take away from all of this? First, that putting animals on airplanes as baggage is a perilous proposition. Second, that our legal and regulatory system persists in parsing out animal species for protection based on their proximity to human hearts. The vast majority of reported airline injuries and death have involved cats and dogs, but dozens of other species, including wild animals, are carried by airlines every year.

Injuries and death have occurred in such species as meadow voles, chinchillas and primates. Voles, chinchillas and primates can certainly suffer as much as dogs and cats. It may take several more sets of amendments, but it would be nice to see the USDA and APHIS recognize that preventable suffering is not to be tolerated, regardless of the species of the sufferer.

Kate Burke is an attorney in general practice, including animal law, with Insight Law, LLC, in Durango. Reach her at 385-7409.