Congress befriends pets lost by airlines

The `Boris Bill' to foster safe air travel for family-owned animals takes effect next week.

July 01, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Almost six years after a U.S. senator moved by the tale of a lost dog introduced legislation to safeguard pets on airplanes, the "Boris Bill" is set to be unleashed.

Beginning early next week, the Safe Air Travel for Animals Act will require the first public reports from airlines on pets that are lost, injured or killed on their planes so passengers can make informed decisions about booking travel with a four-legged companion.

Industry officials say monthly reports to the U.S. Department of Transportation are unnecessary because animals are rarely hurt or lost, although no one knows how rare. But supporters say that the law will show passengers the airlines' track records on handling pets - an estimated half-million a year in total - and that more should be done to protect them.

"The whole purpose behind the legislation wasn't just to get airlines to report injuries and losses; it was to make it better and safer for all animals transported in cargo holds of planes," said Lisa Weisberg, a senior vice president for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a New York-based animal rights group that pushed for legislation.

"Unfortunately, we have to tell people that, in fact, flying with our companion animal is no safer than it was before the law's passage. The one thing we got is that airlines can no longer treat pets as baggage. They have to be a reported as a separate category when one is lost," Weisberg said.

In addition to the separate reports, animal rights groups want airlines required to air-condition and ventilate cargo holds - something the industry says will come in time as newer airplanes are purchased. They also want the law to apply to all animals, such as zoo and breeders' animals, but it applies only to family-owned pets.

Older planes do not have temperature controls. And before the incident involving Boris, a mixed-breed dog on his way to a new home in Brooklyn with his owner Barbara Listenik in 1996, many airlines didn't offer baggage handlers much training on proper care of pets, such as where to keep them while the plane is being loaded and when to provide water. Since then, many airlines have stepped up the training, air-conditioned waiting areas off the tarmac and even banned pets from their cargo holds during the hottest days of summer and coldest times in the winter.

Boris was lost while being offloaded from a Delta Air Lines flight from Florida to New York's LaGuardia Airport. Listenik and baggage handlers searched the surrounding neighborhoods for hours, but the dog wasn't found for more than six weeks and was badly injured. Listenik began a campaign against what she says was mistreatment by the airline.

`Banged around'

She caught the attention of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who introduced the bill that was passed in 2000. Debate over which agency would have authority over the airlines' reports delayed implementation for five years, federal officials said.

"The senator read about Boris," said Alex Formuzis, a spokesman for Lautenberg. "[Boris had] been on a long flight, and there were some issues with his cage and he was banged around and he nearly died. It was a compelling story, and [the senator] wanted to do something so people's pets are safe and secure."

Kevin E. Murphy, a research engineer at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, often travels with his cat, Jolie, and said the reporting requirement would help people who travel with their pets choose an airline.

Still, Murphy said, this law won't convince him it's safe or secure to put his tabby in any cargo hold. He travels often with Jolie and uses a small kennel that fits under the seat in front of him.

"I don't trust any of the airlines with my luggage; I don't think there is a carrier out there I'd trust with my cat," he said. "I carry on my luggage and I carry on the cat. She's always in front of me under the seat."

The Air Transport Association, the trade group for domestic airlines, says each carrier has its own rules about carrying on pets and checking them in as cargo. Many allow pets in the cabin and in cargo because they make money off them - $50 to $200 a flight - and because it's a service for passengers.

Jack Evens, a spokesman for the group, said carriers are doing a good job of caring for the animals. But bad publicity from a few mishaps has gotten a lot of attention, he said.

He also said federal law and rules passed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture already require general humane treatment of pets. They also require specific things such as hard-sided kennels for transporting animals and providing water at certain intervals.

"There's no incentive for us not to transport pets safely," Evens said. "It's so harmful to your reputation if you don't transport them safely and good for business if you do transport them safely. Besides, pets are members of the family and no one wants to hear the story told in graphic details about something that happened. That brings me to tears, too."

No pets allowed

Some airlines seeking to avoid any stories at all, such as Southwest Airlines, the leading carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, do not carry pets. Some, like AirTran Airways, the No. 2 carrier at BWI, will carry pets in the cabin but not in the cargo hold.

That means AirTran will transport only pets small enough to fit under the seat, a spokeswoman acknowledged.

The Department of Transportation officials, who began collecting airline data in mid-June, said they can't say what the forthcoming reports will reveal. Without the reporting requirement, only two complaints from passengers have been logged this year about problems with pets. Four complaints were logged last year.

The reports will be available monthly, as of next week, at the department's Aviation Consumer Protection Division Web site, airconsumer.ost.dot.gov.

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