Missy Lee, a civilian who works for the U.S. Army, paid Delta Air Lines $5,000 to transport her two white shepherds as cargo on the same flight she took when moving to Japan in 2014.
In the years since, the industry of shipping pets overseas has drastically changed — and Lee is forking over nearly double that amount to ship the pooches back home later this month.
Delta, like all U.S. carriers, now requires pets flying cargo on international routes — as large dogs like Lee’s must — to be booked through certain pet-shipping companies, which charge for their services. In May, United Airlines banned 21 breeds of dogs and cats from its flights, as well as big dogs, such as Great Danes and golden retrievers, that require a crate taller than 30 inches. That change meant no American airline accepts strong-jawed dogs, such as bulldogs, or snub-nosed animals, which tend to have respiratory problems that make flying risky.
Together, the policy shifts have left military members overseas — and other American expats — with two ways of flying those prohibited breeds or large dogs home: working with third-party firms to send them as cargo on U.S. airlines that accept them or on cargo-only carriers, or using foreign airlines with less direct routes. Either can be far more expensive.
The shrunken pool of options has U.S. military personnel all over the world scrambling to come up with enough money to ensure they don’t have to leave their four-legged family members behind. The impact is greatest in Asia, where commercial airlines offer fewer pet shipment options than do European carriers such as Lufthansa. U.S. Transportation Command, which oversees all movement of military personnel and property, estimates about 300 pets in Japan whose owners are moving this summer are affected by the United changes.
Lee, who is flying back to the States on Delta in late June, recently bought tickets for her dogs through Animal Fly International, a company that is a member of the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association. The best deal they found for the pups, however, was on the Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways. The price tag, including fees for the booking service: $9,400.
Lee’s next post is in Michigan, where she is under contract to buy a house. She said she has asked to delay the closing by one pay period because of the unexpected price tag of flying her pooches, Snowy and Andre.
“We could have used the money toward the closing costs,” she said. “But my dogs come first.”
United’s PetSafe program was previously a favorite for U.S. military members moving overseas, because its cost was routinely lower than competitors’. But after blunders earlier this year, including twice sending dogs to the wrong location and the death of a French bulldog that had been placed in an overhead bin by a flight attendant, the company put PetSafe on hold to review its policies.
In early May, United announced new restrictions on breeds that would be allowed on flights when the program reopens to new reservations on June 18. The no-fly list now includes dogs and cats with short or snub noses; “strong-jawed” dogs, such as pit bulls, and large dogs requiring a crate over 30 inches high. The regulations put United more in line with other U.S. airlines.
“The overwhelming concern was what was in the best interest of pets that we fly,” said United spokesman Charles Hobart.
Hobart said United will allow military families, no matter where they are stationed, to ship their pets stateside if United was the carrier that brought the animals overseas originally.
“If we flew your pet,” Hobart said, “we will fly it back.”
But there’s a catch: Travel must be completed by June 17, before the PetSafe reservation system opens again. Hobart declined to say whether the company would work out a way for military pet owners to ship animals home on the carrier after that date because, he said, he did “not want to set that expectation.”
An exception was already in place for military pets leaving the Pacific island of Guam, where the sole U.S. carrier to fly is United. Hobart said there is no closing date on that policy, which allows military families returning from the U.S. territory to send pets home even if they aren’t allowed under the new restrictions.
Sarah’s Pet Paradise, a California-based company that specializes in arranging pet shipments for military members, says it received about 275 emails a day from potential customers after United announced its new policy.
“They have changed the world of transport for everybody,” said Angelina Brewer, the firm’s senior adviser on international transport. “Internationally, it’s devastating — to us and to military members.”
United charges by the weight of the animal and its crate. Other passenger airlines, as customers are finding out, charge by volume, whether they’re shipping a pallet of Pepsi or a crated Corgi — and that’s almost always pricier.
Sarah’s Pet Paradise recently compiled a list of quotes from Nippon Express, a global pet and cargo shipper, for shipping larger dogs as cargo freight, Brewer said. Flying a Labrador retriever from Tokyo to Los Angeles, for example, would cost about $4,900. If the same dog is flying out of Okinawa, the price jumps to $6,100.
There aren’t many other options in Asia. All Nippon Airways, Japan’s largest airline, has a 100-pound weight limit for animals and accepts only three kennels per flight.
Some military families in Asia said they are looking into less traditional — and less direct — options, such as sending their pets on European airlines from Asia through Germany to the states. That can take more than 24 hours of travel, which is tough on the animals, and it can come at a hefty price.
“I’ve heard quotes over $10,000,” Brewer said.
Maj. Jon P. Quinlan, a spokesman for U.S. Transportation Command, said the military has been talking with U.S. airlines about ways to ensure all pets get back to the United States after their owners’ overseas tours are completed.
“We are working with commercial and contracted partners to ensure there is adequate capacity, along with temporary waivers to account for recent policy changes,” Quinlan said.
The military contracts a handful of flights that go between Seattle, Japan and South Korea every week; similar flights travel between Norfolk and Spain, as well as Baltimore and Germany. The Patriot Express, as it is known, is a commercial charter for military personnel and their families, and it allows them to bring pets on the flight when moving overseas or back home. Spots are highly coveted because of the price, which ranges from $125 to $375. They are also limited. Only three pets are allowed in the cabin, and 10 slots are available as cargo on each flight.
Quinlan said the military is looking at increasing the number of in-cabin spots, but that won’t help many people who are affected by United’s policy change. Only animals under 8.5 inches tall are allowed in the Patriot Express cabin, according to a brochure on the Air Mobility Command website. Pets in cargo cannot weigh more than 150 pounds, which might eliminate some hulking breeds such as Newfoundlands or Saint Bernards.
With so much uncertainty about how they are going to get their pets home, some military families said they are doing the only thing they have control over: saving money.
Marlena Montez Staley, who is stationed with her husband in Iwakuni, Japan, said she is setting aside whatever she earns as a personal financial counselor to ensure they can afford to send home their two Great Danes when they leave next summer.
“It’s going to be astronomical,” Staley said. “My last resort is to seek out a cruise ship and sail home.”