United's New Pet Policy Ruffles Feathers

Ever since Jack the Cat died, I never thought I'd see flyers clamor for the chance to check pets as baggage. I was wrong. United has joined the ranks of several major airlines that prohibit passengers from checking pets as luggage—but some travelers are outraged that they can no longer drop off Sir Barksalot at the ticket counter.

After merging with Continental in 2010, United is now transitioning to Continental's PetSafe animal-transport program. Beginning March 3, flyers will no longer be able to check creatures as baggage on United flights. Pets can still ride in the cabin as carry-on luggage; however, animals that do not meet the requirements to travel in airplane cabins (basically, they have to be able to fit in a carrier that can stored under an airplane seat) must be shipped as cargo via PetSafe.

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But some say the cost of cargo transport is too expensive—especially for those in the military who are stationed overseas. A press release issued by FlyersRights.org states that the price of pet travel via United for military service members has increased by 1,300 percent due to the policy shift. For those stationed in and around Japan, the cost of sending a pet to the U.S. via United cargo now ranges from $1,440 to $3,869—a hefty fee for pet-owning servicemen and women.

Kate Hanni, a spokesperson for FlyersRights.org, issued this statement in the press release: "Service members and the flying public in general are outraged that the United-Continental merger is having such a negative impact on mans' best friend. They are literally forcing people to abandon their pets because they cannot afford to transport them."

For many in the military, booking with another airline just isn't an option; they often have to fly with United, which contracts with the U.S. government to provide military service people with reduced rates.

What will happen next? United responded to backlash on Facebook, promising to take another look at the cost of shipping animals from Japan. Assistance for the military families who are stationed overseas with their pets would be ideal. Still, the jury's out on whether it's safe for pets to travel as checked luggage in the first place.

Air-travel related pet deaths and injuries have recently dropped, according to numbers gathered by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In 2011, there were 25 pet deaths, nine pet injuries, and two lost pets, compared with 39 pet deaths, 13 pet injuries, and five lost pets in 2010. These numbers represent a small fraction of the thousands of pets that fly each year, so the chances that a pet traveling as checked luggage will get lost or hurt are low. But there is, nonetheless, still a chance.

United's not the first airline to play it safe and banish pets from the cargo hold altogether. US Airways permitted pets to fly as checked luggage on some flights, but starting March 1, it will no longer allow pets to travel this way. Southwest, AirTran, and JetBlue only allow pets to travel in airplane cabins, while Delta and American still permit animals to be checked as baggage.

Do you think pets should be allowed to travel as checked luggage? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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(Photo: Shutterstock/ingret)

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