The Navigator: United’s pet policy spat reveals fliers’ distrust of airlines


A United Airlines Airbus A319 airplane waits on a taxiway to takeoff alongside private jets at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Perrito is a 4-year-old terrier from Yelapa, Mexico, who’s proud of having made it to “El Norte” with his human companions, Raoul and Baerbel Schuhmacher. At least that’s what his Facebook page says.

The fuzzy white lap dog is also an accomplished globe-trotter, regularly traveling the United States from the San Francisco Bay area, where Raoul Schuhmacher works for a biotechnology firm. Perrito prefers flying in business class and is known as a “quiet” passenger, according to Schuhmacher.

But Perrito may not be flying back to Mexico with his owners later this year for their annual visit home, at least not in the main cabin. A United Airlines representative recently phoned Schuhmacher to let him know that a “new” Mexican law bans pets in the passenger cabin.

“Perrito is devastated that he might not be able to go on his annual trip to the homeland,” Schumacher says.

Schuhmacher and other pet owners are upset, too. And they’ve started a petition on Change.org to persuade United to reverse its decision. They say that the laws are being applied inconsistently by U.S. airlines with an eye toward maximizing onboard revenue (flying pets in the hold costs more than bringing them on board). And even though at least two other airlines — US Airways and Delta — have similar pet restrictions on flights to Mexico, they’ve put United in their cross hairs.

This latest spat between pet owners and United exposes a deep distrust between the airline industry and its customers — one that grew by orders of magnitude when United’s chief financial officer, John Rainey, recently referred to certain elite-level passengers as “over-entitled.”

“This is nothing but a cash grab,” says Suzanne Montigny, who regularly flies to Cancun, Mexico, with her two calico cats, Angel and Isabella. Sending her kitties to the cargo hold would more than double the cost of traveling with them, she says. Besides, she adds, “there are so many of us who would never subject our small beloved furry companions to the hold of an aircraft.”

United says that it’s only obeying Mexican regulations. It cites three applicable laws: one from 1950, requiring that animals fly cargo class; a 2004 law according to which only seeing-eye dogs are allowed in the main cabin; and a 2007 law that appears to reiterate that rule. What prompted United to begin enforcing these requirements? A March 28 letter from the Mexican government reminding United of the restrictions. “It’s the law,” says Mary Ryan, a United spokeswoman, “and we’re complying with it.”

She said that unlike an online campaign that succeeded last month in pressuring United to reverse a ban on transporting certain supposedly dangerous breeds of dog, the current petition doesn’t stand a chance; United will change course only if the Mexican government revises its rules.

Arthur Wolk, an aviation lawyer based in Philadelphia, says that everything hinges on how United’s lawyers interpret international aviation law. A strong case could be made for United accepting in-cabin pets, at least on flights originating in the United States, where the airline would be governed by Federal Aviation Administration rules. The FAA allows pets on commercial flights. “United is using this law as an excuse,” Wolk says. “It’s a new revenue stream.”

United strongly denies that it has changed its policies to raise money. Passengers pay $125 one way for each in-cabin pet. By comparison, a dog or cat weighing less than 50 pounds and flying from the United States to Mexico in the cargo hold would cost $269. If it wanted to make more money, United would simply increase its pet travel fees across the board, Ryan says.

But some passengers don’t believe the airline. Janice Tunder, a retired public health worker who divides her time between Richmond and Patzcuaro, Mexico, is one. She thinks that United got it wrong — that it has chosen to interpret an older Mexican law in the most advantageous way. And she’s dismayed, because her 3-year-old mixed-breed terrier, Paisley, will suffer because of it.

“She is good as gold and a wonderful traveler,” Tunder says of her companion. “Doesn’t make a peep.”

Even after I showed Tunder the Mexican laws saying that pets aren’t permitted in the cabin, she said that she didn’t buy it. She noted that the laws had been on the books for a while and said that she’s suspicious of the timing of the implementation, coming just after United’s merger with Continental. To her, it looks as if United just wants pet owners to help pay for the merger.

“It appears that United somehow dug these [laws] up and decided to follow them all of a sudden,” she says. “It’s all just too weird.”

Just a few days after the online petition launched, US Airways quietly changed its policy to match United’s. American Airlines banned in-cabin pets on flights to and from Monterrey, Mexico, and is seeking clarification of the rule from the Mexican government.

But this isn’t really about pets on planes; it’s about trust. Because if we can’t take an airline’s word for it when it says that the rules have changed, then it seems that the relationship between airlines and their passengers is in desperate need of therapy.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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