dog canine Maggie Rizer golden retriever

The issue of whether air travel is safe for dogs and cats is now back in the news because of an unfortunate incident involving Maggie Rizer. You probably are familiar with Ms. Rizer even though you might not know her name. She is a supermodel who has been the face of Gap, Louis Vuitton, Versace and Calvin Klein in numerous advertisement campaigns. Now she has attracted the attention of the public because she published a passionate blog post titled "United Airlines Killed Our Golden Retriever, Bea."

To give a brief summary of what happened, Bea was a wedding gift to Maggie when she wed Iranian businessman Alex Mehran at Lake Placid in 2010. In her blog Maggie reports, “Two weeks ago, on our way back to San Francisco after a great summer vacation on the east coast, Beatrice lost her life due to the negligence of United Airlines.”

She goes on to say, “When we arrived in San Francisco to pick up our dogs we drove to the dark cargo terminal and on arrival in the hanger were told simply, ‘one of them is dead’ by the emotionless worker who seemed more interested in his text messages. It took thirty minutes for a supervisor to come to tell us, ‘it was the two year old.’ Subsequently we requested that our dog be returned to us and were told that she had been delivered to a local vet for an autopsy. Whatever thread of trust remained between us and United broke and we then insisted that she be returned to us for our own autopsy by our trusted veterinarian, Shann Ikezawa, DVM from Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center. Over the next two hours the supervisor’s lie unraveled as it became clear that Bea was right behind a closed door the whole time and he had been discussing how to handle the potential liability with his boss who had left and was sticking to the divert and stall tactic that they had been taught. Eventually Bea was returned and we drove her to the vet at midnight.”

Shortly thereafter William Spangler DVM, Ph.D., performed Beatrice’s necropsy (a dog autopsy).  From the findings, it was Dr. Spangler’s opinion that Beatrice’s death was from heatstroke. United Airline’s only response so far has been to offer a refund of the extra fare that Maggie paid to have the dog shipped.

While this sad story provoked an emotional response in the dog lover part of my brain, the scientist part of my intellect wondered about just how safe or dangerous air travel is for pets who travel in the baggage compartment of an airplane. I know that, although checked pets travelling in kennels are carried in a hold under the plane just like checked luggage, they are supposedly placed in a special pressurized and temperature-controlled area. However, many people have told stories about dogs who have been found to be ill, injured, dead, or occasionally even simply are reported to be lost at the end of an airline trip. So I decided to tabulate the actual data on this problem.

The reporting of animal related “incidents” on airlines is far from perfect. Since May 2005, airlines have been required to report when there is a pet related problem to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The data are limited, however, since the airlines don't also release data on number of animals safely transported each month, and the government doesn't keep track. Furthermore, incidents involving pets sent on cargo planes, rather than checked in as excess baggage on a passenger plane, do not seem to be systematically reported.

Despite the limitations on the data, a lot of useful information can be extracted from the monthly reports. The overview that is published each month lumps together incidents involving dogs and cats, and looks at three categories: deaths, injuries, and animals that are lost. I tabulated the data starting with the very first report published in 2005 up until September 2012. I found the results to be quite interesting with a large degree of variability between the various airlines.

dog canine pet cat airline safety transport baggage

As can be seen from the table here, over this 7.5-year timespan, 330 pets either died, were injured, or were lost when traveling as baggage on passenger airlines. The largest number of incidents involved Delta Airlines, who reported 105 such problems. Continental Airlines was a distant second reporting 69 incidents. Virtually tied with Continental was Alaska Airlines with 64 incidents. American Airlines reported 53 pet-related incidents, and United Airlines (on which Maggie's dog died) reported only 29. The lowest number of problems was reported by US Air with a total of only four. However taken by themselves, these numbers do not present an accurate picture.

There is a potential flaw in these data, since presumably, the larger the airline (in terms of pets transported per year), the more likely it is to have reportable incidents of problems transporting pets. As I noted above, airlines do not make regular reports as to the number of pets that they carry. So perhaps one way to see if the data on problems involving pets simply reflects the size of the airlines, we can look at the number of passengers that each airline carries annually (since presumably the percentage of passengers travelling with pets is fairly constant across all airlines).

Although there is some correspondence between the size of the airlines and the number of incidents involving pets being shipped, there are also discrepancies. Delta Airlines flies the most passengers and has the highest number of pet incidents. However when we look at United Airlines, although it is ranked second in passengers carried at 142 million, it reports less than half the number of pet related incidents than Alaska Airlines, which carries only 18 million passengers a year. Therefore I created a simple index which compares number of pet incidents to number of passengers carried (in millions) to take the size of the airlines into account. You can call this a sort of “Flight Hazard Ratio” for pets. When we do that the rankings change dramatically. Now it becomes clear that the most dangerous air travel for pets is on Alaska Airlines, followed by Continental, whose hazard ratio is only half as large. The safest air travel for pets seems to be on US Air with the lowest hazard ratio, while United scores here as the second safest airline when it comes to Rover or Fluffy travelling as excess baggage with their owners.

However, one truly comforting thing comes out of these Department of Transportation statistics. Given the fact that the airline industry estimates that the number of pets flying as baggage is more than 600,000 per year, the likelihood of major problems for your dog or cat is really quite small. The chance of your pet dying, being injured, or reported lost when traveling as baggage with you on your passenger plane, is approximately 0.009 percent. This is only a little bit higher than your chances of winning one of the big prizes in a state lottery.

 Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

 Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

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