When Alexander Lim was promoted to a new job that required a move from Beijing to Washington D.C., he was thrilled. The 40-year-old international bank employee started plans to move his entire family, including his English bulldog, Bua Loy.
“Giving up the dog never crossed my mind,” he said. But he quickly realized that the easiest trip available, taking a nonstop flight from Beijing to Washington D.C., was impossible with his dog.
Only two airlines, United Airlines and Air China, offer nonstop service, and both now ban snub-nosed breeds like Bua Loy from the cargo hold. Knowing that his dog was also too large for the airplane’s cabin, Mr. Lim researched going by boat (“difficult transit”) and by private jet (“beyond my means!”).
Annually, some four million dogs and cats are moved worldwide, according to estimates from the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association, a professional body of pet relocators. But while governments have made mandatory quarantine periods shorter or nonexistent (if you have the correct paperwork, that is), airline rules have become increasingly restrictive, not to mention confusing. Overseas expats particularly have been left scrambling.
United officially stopped flying brachycephalic breeds (more commonly known as snub-nosed dogs or cats) last June, as the dogs’ compressed facial structure can compromise their ability to breathe. United also no longer accepts dogs that require crates taller than 30 inches. In March, Delta Air Lines stopped transporting large dogs requiring crates taller than 24 inches, which effectively grounds large breeds like Labrador retrievers. American Airlines still ships large dogs, but much of their fleet cannot actually handle the larger crates, says Jeni Redmond of petsfly.com, a Phoenix-based pet relocator.
Mr. Lim turned to Globy, a Beijing-based pet relocation company, to help him book a flight through Lufthansa, one of the few international airlines that still accept snub-nosed pets in the cargo hold. This meant Mr. Lim flew alone to Washington while his spouse accompanied Bua Loy flying through Europe, with a lengthy layover in Frankfurt. The transport fee for the dog was $450 and a 12-hour journey was stretched to 42 hours.
“The last couple of years has seen all of the airlines … putting more restrictions on pets flown as cargo to alleviate their risk,” Ms. Redmond said. When the case of a pet tragically dying during air transport makes headlines, as recently happened when a husky died in the cargo hold of an Air France-KLM flight, airlines are tempted to further restrict animal travel.
The recent and not-so-recent restrictions are confusing, as there are different rules for different airlines. Traveling with your pet as carry-on or checked baggage is usually the most convenient option, and it is relatively inexpensive, with carry-on generally starting at about $100 for a pet on a domestic flight. And breed bans typically do not apply to pets that can be carried onto the cabin and fit inside a soft carrier that slides under the seat ahead.
Animals can also be sent alone as air cargo, and air cargo usually (but not always) accepts a broader range of animal breeds and sizes. This is more expensive, and can run into the tens of thousands for particularly large breeds.
“Unfortunately, what this does is put more stress on the pet, because they are typically forced to take a longer route,” Ms. Redmond said. For example, she said the only way to transport large dogs between South America and the United States, excluding a cruise ship or private charter, is via Europe on either Lufthansa or KLM.
While Lufthansa, Korea Air and KLM are options for international fliers, Hawaiian Airlines is the only domestic carrier without a banned breed list for their cargo holds. Many airlines, including Delta and United, now require international pet travel be booked with an IPATA-certified pet relocator.
An experienced relocator can suggest creative routes or identify loopholes in airline policy. “We keep up-to-date on what airlines do and don’t allow, and what airline is best for your pet,” says Bridget Monrad, president of Happy Tails Travel.
“Know which countries you might relocate to,” advises Mary Peng of the Beijing-based International Center for Veterinary Services. Expats are often required to move with little notice, so researching and planning with a set of future destinations in mind can smooth the relocation process.
But advance preparation isn’t always enough. Airline regulations can change at any moment, leaving pet owners in the lurch.
Amy Ryder, a 35-year-old environmental protection worker, discovered this when she planned to ship her Great Dane from Okinawa, Japan to Spokane, Wash., last April. Just a few days before she was set to leave, United stopped flying pets in cargo after a series of mishaps that included the death of a French bulldog puppy in an overhead bin.
Mrs. Ryder had to cobble together a new reservation with Japan Airlines and ANA, and she ended up spending $7,000 out of her own pocket to get her Great Dane to San Francisco. There was no affordable option to get the dog any further, so she and her husband rented a pickup truck and drove the rest of the way to Spokane.
“Pets are members of the family,” she said. “My Great Danes are rescues. Abandoning them, giving them away — that’s not an option.”
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