Share story

WASHINGTON — Harley was the bulldog’s name. He was pronounced dead at baggage claim at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last year despite a passenger’s attempt at pet cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Two months later, a mixed-breed Rottweiler arrived lifeless at Sea-Tac in his chewed-out kennel, dead of what later was diagnosed as aspiration pneumonia. And at Boston Logan International Airport, a male cat named Daunte twice escaped from his kennel before he could be loaded into the cargo hold; he was found the next day after a ramp vehicle had struck him dead.

The three were among at least 62 animals that died, were injured or lost since 2010 while being flown aboard Alaska Airlines, a tally that makes the Seattle-based company one of the nation’s leading carriers in recent years for reported pet mishaps.

Only Delta, the nation’s busiest airline, with six times Alaska’s passenger traffic, reported more incidents, 74, to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) during the same period. But for 2013 and for the first seven months of this year, Alaska topped the casualty rankings.

The reasons for Alaska’s number of victims are unclear. For one, the company suspects it may handle more than its share of animals. Alaska is practically the house airline in its namesake state, where residents have few alternatives to shipping their pets long distance.

Alaska, the nation’s ninth-largest carrier by passenger traffic, has one of the industry’s most pet-friendly policies. It offers Fur-st Class Care for most small domesticated pets, including potbellied pigs, birds, hamsters, turtles and nonvenomous snakes, either in the passenger cabin or in the plane’s climate-controlled belly. Several domestic carriers, including JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and US Airways, do not accept even dogs or cats as cargo.

Alaska also is one of few airlines to accept snub-nosed dogs, breeds that are more susceptible to heatstroke and respiratory issues.

Bobbie Egan, spokeswoman for Alaska, said the company ferries some 80,000 pets annually, virtually all of them without a hitch. She said Alaska employees are specially trained and follow strict federal guidelines to ensure safety.

“Transporting pets, whether in the cabin or as checked baggage in our cargo hold, to us is just like transporting a family member,” she said.

In all, Alaska and other U.S. carriers count several dozen animal injuries, losses or deaths annually — a minuscule fraction of the estimated several hundred thousand animals transported by air.

In the vast majority of incidents, pets suffer unexplained deaths or hurt themselves while attempting to escape their kennels. Airlines are rarely found to be at fault.

The DOT figures, however, capture only a partial safety picture. That’s because the federal agency currently requires tracking only for household pets. That exempts scores of other animals, including those bound for pet stores or research labs.

On Jan. 1, the DOT will mandate airlines to fill in some — but not all — of the missing data. That’s when airlines for the first time will have to report the total number of animals they handle, finally making it possible to calculate complaint rates.

More significant, the agency expanded incident-reporting requirements to include not only all warm-and coldblooded household pets, but dogs and cats shipped by breeders and suppliers to retailers and researchers.

The contentious rule changes come four years after the Animal Legal Defense Fund petitioned the agency to close loopholes it said camouflaged the true extent of risks to animals. Three U.S. senators, including Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, also urged the DOT to expand incident reports to animals that aren’t pets.

The National Association of Biomedical Research opposed the proposed rules as an “unnecessary” burden and cost to carriers, breeders and research facilities. Airlines for America, whose members include Alaska and most other major airlines as well as UPS and FedEx, lodged similar objections.

Ultimately, the DOT decided to exempt commercial shipments of animals other than dogs and cats from reporting requirements. That was a setback for animal-welfare organizations that had argued to include, for instance, monkeys and other primates bound for laboratories.

Animal-welfare experts generally consider flying inherently stressful, and they recommend against cargo flights.

Carter Dillard, director of litigation for the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), said numerous variables make it difficult to draw conclusions about any one airline’s safety record. The animals’ health, total length of trip, extreme temperatures and other factors can play a role.

ALDF’s original petition for expanded mandatory reporting was triggered by the August 2010 death of seven puppies shipped by a breeder in Tulsa, Okla., during a heat wave. But because the dogs were classified as a commercial shipment, American Airlines did not have to record the fatalities.

Dillard contends the DOT adopted a selective definition for animals to appease carriers, research institutes and universities.

“The whole point is to get a complete picture of the risks to animals,” he said.

Flying has been shown to be particularly hazardous to short-nosed or snub-nosed dogs. The breeds, which include French and English bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers and Shih Tzus, by Alaska’s calculations accounted for nearly 40 percent of its 16 pet deaths during the past two years.

United Airlines accepts short-nosed breeds as checked baggage, but Delta and American Airlines do not. Egan said Alaska is reviewing its policy on such breeds.

Mary Beth Melchior, founder of Where is Jack?, a pet travel safety-advocacy group in Miami Beach, Fla., said Alaska and its competitors can do more to avert potential harm. One way would be to refuse pets as cargo if they seem unfit to fly.

Another way, she said, would be to better train baggage and cargo workers, who in some cases are employed by outside contractors.

Melchior estimates the actual number of animals that died or were lost or hurt annually while flying could total in the thousands — not the dozens officially reported.

Melchior named her group after a friend’s cat that escaped inside New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport when his improperly stacked crate fell. He survived in hiding for 61 days, until he fell from the ceiling in a terminal. He was euthanized two weeks later.

Melchior said airlines often misreport cases like Jack’s, or don’t report them at all. For instance, Melchior submitted to the DOT an example from 2011 when an Alaska Airlines passenger landed at Sea-Tac to discover her cat, Wendy, missing from her crate. A United Airlines employee spotted Wendy four days later under the baggage carousel. Alaska did not file an incident report even though it’s required except in cases where pets are missing “only a few minutes or a few hours,” Melchior said.

Nonetheless, Melchior said Alaska stands out for its dedication to nonhuman customers. Last year, for instance, a passenger deplaned at Sea-Tac and learned her English bulldog had not survived the flight.

The woman needed to fly on to Fairbanks but did not want to take the dog’s remains. So an Alaska manager offered to drive it to an animal hospital in Burien for cremation.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com. Twitter @KyungMSong