Airline reverses pet policy after catching complaints

Margie Shankle holds an oil painting of her son, Air Force Staff Sgt. George Brigham, and his dog, Gracie, a 6-year-old Labrador and greyhound mix. (Frederick News-Post/Bill Green)

When Gracie flew United Airlines to Japan in March 2010, it cost about $400 plus about a year of paperwork and planning.

A few weeks ago, United announced policy changes that could have cost as much as $3,900 to send her home, according to estimates made by Air Force Staff Sgt. George Brigham III.

Gracie, a 6-year-old Labrador retriever and greyhound mix, is a link to home for Brigham, who has served at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa since late 2009.

Brigham, who said he is up for a duty change later this year, and several friends he is stationed with turned to their email and Facebook accounts to complain.

Those complaints were acknowledged Wednesday when United announced it would cancel plans to force service members traveling overseas on orders to ship their four-legged friends as cargo instead of baggage, company spokeswoman Mary Ryan said.

Gracie is “pretty much the only family I’ve got over here,” Brigham said, talking via Skype with his mother, Margie Shankle, at her home in Frederick. “It’s pretty hard being away from friends and family. It’s the same for a lot of us out here. The pets are, for some people, all we have.”

Under United’s original plan, which was to have started March 3, some pets would travel as cargo under the airline’s PetSafe program, which United planned to adopt as part of its merger with Continental. The change in classification from excess baggage to cargo would have subjected some overseas travelers, including Brigham, to a “third party forwarding fee” under Japanese law, Ryan said.

The reclassification was an unintended consequence of the company’s move to PetSafe, Ryan said.

She could not say exactly how many complaints United received, but she said many came from Okinawa.

“It was never our intent to put anybody out in that regard,” Ryan said. “It was just a circumstance of the product change.”

The military contracts with airlines, including Continental and United, to offer scheduled, chartered flights, according to U.S. Transportation Command spokeswoman Cynthia Bauer. Rules for pets traveling on those flights — called Patriot Express — did not change, she wrote in an email.

“Travelers are responsible for the cost incurred in shipping pets, either on commercial flights or Patriot Express missions,” Bauer wrote.

Between October 2010 and September 2011, about 1,500 service members and their families traveled from Okinawa on United via its contract with the government, Ryan said.

Brigham said most Patriot Express flights, which leave about once a week, are booked well in advance with little space available for pets.

Service members traveling on commercial flights must be approved. The Defense Department buys the ticket.

United’s move to PetSafe will still cost military travelers more — and the classification of pets as cargo would still apply to nonmilitary, Ryan said.

Before the merger, it cost about $250 to ship a 120-pound animal from Japan as luggage, excluding taxes, she said. Beginning March 3, it will cost $479 to ship an animal weighing 101 to 150 pounds.

That’s a figure that Brigham called “doable.”

Brigham could have paid as much as $6,000 to bring 80-pound Gracie home as cargo in her dog carrier in the underbelly of an airplane, World Care Pet Transport Chief Operating Officer Don Uyeno estimated Wednesday. The company helps arrange for overseas animal travel, including with Japanese third-party freight forwarders.

For Brigham, United’s reversal means less stress as he prepares for his next move with the military, though he does not yet know his destination. He had no idea how he would have come up with thousands of dollars to bring Gracie home, he said.

“I know that a lot of us were really stressed about it.”

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