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You asked: Why do I have to pay a pet fee when my dog is my carry-on?

By The Way Concierge investigates pet fees and the lack of perks for in-cabin animals

(Cynthia Kittler/Illustration for The Washington Post)

Traveling has always come with complications, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it more challenging than ever. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal. Want to see your question answered? Submit it here.

“Why do airlines make me pay for a pet when their carrier is my carry-on bag? I’m constantly getting this question from people when I tell them I fly with my dog. People are shocked. Also, if he’s flying, why can’t I earn points for the purchase?”

This week’s question came from By The Way Editor Amanda Finnegan, who flies with her dog often.

I’ve stopped asking why airlines charge for anything; I just expect to get nickel-and-dimed throughout the booking process.

That’s been the norm since airlines began “unbundling” their offerings in the late 2000s. Instead of selling a ticket that included everything, such as your passage, your checked bag and your meal onboard, they began selling their flight experience a la carte, offering customers a lower base fare with the option of adding on extras such as seat selection.

It has been a profitable shift in business model; according to the Transportation Department’s annual airline baggage fee report, domestic carriers brought in nearly $5 billion in baggage fees alone in 2018.

Airlines say the reason they specifically charge a pet fee is that bringing a pet onboard involves additional protocols, and more protocols mean more work for the airlines.

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“That’s always going to include additional responsibilities for our crews,” says United Airlines spokesperson Charles Hobart. “They’re going to have to ensure the animals and their carriers meet certain requirements and follow FAA regulations.”

Beyond making sure your pet is following those Federal Aviation Administration regulations, “there is a potential for the animal to get loose, which doesn’t happen often but is always a concern,” Hobart says.

The airline may also have to reseat customers around you if they have pet allergies.

“It’s really not as simple as bringing a carry-on with me that just happens to have an animal inside,” Hobart says. “It goes a little deeper than that.”

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Palo Cvik, CEO at the travel media company SmarterTravel, says charging a fee is basically a way of reserving your pet’s spot on board, because airlines limit the number of pets allowed in the cabin on each flight.

Jonathan Alder, owner of the luxury travel company Jonathan’s Travels, has flown with his cats on various airlines over the years. He thinks the reason airlines charge a fee is more straightforward.

“The real answer is because they can,” he says.

Whether you can accrue extra miles for flying with your furry family member depends on the airline. To most, “pets are considered luggage,” Alder says. “If you fly coach, you pay for a suitcase, but they don’t give you miles for it.”

You can’t sign your dog up for most loyalty programs to earn points, even if you’re buying them their own seat instead of toting them in a carry-on bag. Delta’s SkyMiles program rules, for example, explicitly state that “tickets purchased to carry excess baggage such as musical instruments and pets or to provide extra space for the primary passenger” cannot earn miles.

But some airlines do offer some points for pets. JetBlue travelers earn 300 additional TrueBlue points on each flight segment when traveling with their pet. Virgin Atlantic has a Flying Paws scheme that lets you earn some bonus points on select routes.

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Hobart says airline loyalty program points are based on fare purchases, and a pet fee is not a fare.

But we know you can earn points in various instances that have nothing to do with fares. American Airlines AAdvantage members can earn base miles by spending money with eligible partners, such as Hertz, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts and Shell. This week, Delta and Starbucks announced that their respective loyalty program members can link accounts to “earn one mile per $1 spent at Starbucks and double Stars on days traveling on Delta.” It has a similar program with Lyft.

Ultimately, airlines get to make up their own rules for their loyalty programs and change the game when they’d like. The issue even made its way to the Supreme Court in 2013 after an airline revoked a traveler’s frequent-flier membership for making too many complaints.

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“The Supreme Court ruled unanimously to say that basically frequent-flier-miles programs can essentially operate entirely how they want to,” says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “They have full rights to operate their mileage program how they want to, even if it feels like it’s arbitrary or capricious or completely absurd to travelers.”

On the upside, you can get miles for using an airline’s credit card, so you can earn points for paying your pet fee.

Keyes doesn’t see airlines waving pet fees or giving pets frequent-flier accounts anytime soon, particularly as they’re becoming more strict with pet policies and airlines aren’t facing any pressure to change.

“If anything, I would say pets rights have been getting diminished over the past five or 10 years rather than expanded,” Keyes says. “I would be pretty surprised if things started to swing in the other direction.”

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