What Does the Future of Flying with Pets Look Like?

Colleen Kilday Colleen Kilday · Updated July 1, 2024

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A small dog, one of the future of flying’s cutest pets, is standing on an airplane seat wearing a jacket. It holds a boarding pass in its mouth next to the airplane window, ready for travel.

Pets have been jet-setting since Kiddo the cat accidentally crossed the Atlantic by airship in 1910. Bringing a pet aboard a modern aircraft is quite a bit more complicated, though. Pet owners looking to fly with their medium- to large-sized dogs are typically faced with a risky prospect. Multiple incidents in recent years have resulted in dogs dying due to logistical challenges surrounding the cargo hold, but no major airlines permit medium- to large-sized dogs in the cabin.

While the conditions in the cargo hold are largely safe for animals, rough or improper handling, injuries from kennel escape attempts, and lengthy delays can lead to dangerous and sometimes fatal conditions. Such incidents have caused some major airlines, including United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, to ban pets in the cargo altogether, leaving pet owners with even fewer options than before.

So what’s a pet owner to do? CitizenShipper consulted travel industry experts, veterinary experts, news articles, and Department of Transportation data to explore the future of air travel with pets.

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An Emotional Separation

Gone are the days when emotional support pot-bellied pigs, turkeys, and the like could accompany owners in the cabin due to changes to the Air Carrier Access Act. In 2021, the DOT revised the definition of service animals to exclude emotional support animals, permitting airlines to ban most animals from the cabin. The change now defines service animals as specially trained dogs that aid people with disabilities. They are not considered pets, but working animals, and are exclusively permitted to fly in the cabin on any airline.

As a result, most major airlines only allow small pets that can fit in kennels that slide underneath the seats to fly in the cabin, including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines also allow pets to travel by cargo or as checked baggage.

Medium- and large-sized pet owners thus face a daunting prospect when seeking pet-friendly air travel: whether to check their beloved animal as cargo or forgo the idea altogether. While the idea of stashing a furry family member among luggage may cause some worry, flying is a relatively safe form of travel for most types of pets. In 2022, the most recent collected data available, there were 7 animal deaths out of 188,223 total transported, per the DOT.

Additionally, modern cargo holds are generally temperature-regulated and pressurized, just like the cabin. However, unexpected challenges in air travel and extreme weather conditions still occur. While annoying or uncomfortable for human passengers, they can prove dangerous or even deadly for cargo critters.

Dr. Ray Spragley of Zen Dog Veterinary Care in New York told Stacker that “weather conditions affecting the cargo hold” and “stress levels of the pet throughout the flight” are some of the top concerns among pet owners approaching a flight—and with good cause. A Seattle-based couple recently lost their two bulldogs to heatstroke when they traveled via cargo in August 2023 on a Patriot Express flight from Misawa Air Base in Japan.

However, with strategic travel planning, pet owners can mitigate their concerns about the cargo to avoid hazardous conditions. “This includes avoiding summer and winter, where the cargo hold may be much more uncomfortable for your pet,” Dr. Spragely said. “Flying midweek to avoid very popular travel days may give a pet more room in the cargo hold. It is also important to pick a flight with minimal layovers. Each time a pet has to be removed from the plane will cause more stress.”

Lida Amani, a Washington D.C.-based travel agent, also shared that pet stress is a concern pet owners have when trying to coordinate pet-friendly travel. “People worry about their animal being sick or scared on a plane,” Amani told Stacker. “And it makes pets have anxiety and discomfort when they go from one location to the other.”

Uncontrollable delays in takeoff and deboarding also stress out pets lingering unsupervised in an unfamiliar and dangerous environment. This can lead to escapes and related injuries, such was the case with Maia, the dog who escaped her crate and was found three weeks later at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Moreover, the cargo environment does present health risks for certain vulnerable species, particularly those that are brachycephalic (or short-headed) with stubby muzzles. In dogs, this includes bulldogs, Pekingese, pugs, Boston terriers, and shih tzus, as well as Burmese, Himalayan, and Persian cat breeds.

“Brachycephalic pets are more susceptible to the stresses and risks of flying because their short noses make them more susceptible to extreme temperatures and air quality,” Dr. Spragley said.

According to the DOT’s monthly air travel consumer reports, 14 of the 22 dogs that passed away in the cargo hold since January 2020 were brachycephalic—six of which were bulldogs, specifically. Of the remaining eight deaths, one was due to improper kenneling, another was because of an escape attempt, and three were puppies.

Owner distaste for these less-than-stellar cargo conditions, combined with increased pet spending, has spurred a new wave in pet travel with the launch of dog-friendly airlines such as BARK Air.

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A New Era in Pet-Friendly Flight

Wingless pets now have another way to take flight with the launch of BARK Air, per the company’s April 2024 press release. The new airline is a subsidiary of BARK, which produces the BarkBox subscription service, and it operates in partnership with a jet charter company.

The airline’s maiden flight took place on May 22, 2024, with six dogs and 11 people from New York to Los Angeles. The high-flying pups enjoyed chicken-flavored puppuccinos, snacks, and spa services en route. Currently, the charter air service flies through four cities—New York, London, Los Angeles, and Paris—but is expected to add more over time.

Capacity is capped at 10 humans per flight and tickets cost around $6,000 for one human and one dog, though CEO Matt Meeker reportedly intends to lower prices as demand increases. The announcement follows the 2023 inaugural flight of England-based K9 Jets, which currently flies to 11 cities, including Dubai, London, Los Angeles, and Melbourne.

Similarly, charter airlines such as Ohio-based NetJets and the VistaPet subdivision of VistaJet allow animal passengers in the cabin of their pet-friendly flights with trained staff and snack offerings. These advances are merely the beginning of dog-friendly travel. The hospitality industry is increasingly facing more demand for pet-friendly travel accommodations, per a study by the University of Surrey published in September 2023. More tellingly, BARK Air has reportedly already received 15,000 requests for more destinations.

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Story editing by Carren Jao. Additional editing by Kelly Glass. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Lacy Kerrick.  

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