Best U.S. Airports for Pet Travel: What Makes an Airport Pet-Friendly?

As part of their travel advice, Upgraded Points recently issued their ranking for the most pet-friendly airports in the U.S. Along with the rankings itself, the study was interesting for the method and criteria it used to evaluate the airports: 5 points awarded for indoor pet relief areas, 4.5 points for outdoor relief areas and other amenities, and half a point for boarding facilities and pet care programs. So, we wanted to present the Upgraded Points rankings, but we also wanted to explore what these rankings and their criteria can teach us about making the experience of flying with a pet easier.

 

The Most Pet-Friendly Airports in the U.S.

1. John F. Kennedy International Airport: 10 points
2. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: 9.5 points
3. Sky Harbor International Airport: 9 points
4. Los Angeles International Airport: 8.5 points
5. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport: 8.25 points
6. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport: 7.75 points
7. Reno-Tahoe International Airport: 7.5 points
8. Dallas Love Field Airport: 7.25 points
9. Denver International Airport: 7 points
10. Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport: 6.75 points

We could quibble with some of the entries near the bottom of this list, and how to properly rate the available pet amenities based on the size of the airport and the number of passengers that pass through its terminals each year. But for the most part, we agree with the airports and rankings on this list. Nevertheless, there are a couple things about this list that are potentially misleading. At the very least, we thought could provide more details and context to help our audience understand what to look for with pet travel and airport amenities.

 

JFK and the Ark: The Gold Standard for Pet-Friendly Airports

First, while we’re glad JFK Airport tops the list, the point system doesn’t really capture how far ahead of everybody else they truly are. Airport pet travel is often a balance between visiting modest outdoor dog parks outside of the security area and oversized closets that serve as indoor pet relief inside airport security areas. But JFK’s combination of The Ark (state-of-the-art pet care facility) and the T5 “Wooftop” Terrace (4,000 sq ft. garden patio) has set a new standard for both cargo-based pet care services and post-security pet relief that rivals some of the best dog parks out there. Yes, Atlanta has a lot of relatively nice pet relief areas, but so does Sky Harbor in Phoenix. More than a half-point edge, JFK is playing in a whole other league.

Photo Credit: Paul Rivera for Gensler

 

Amenities vs Access to Pet Relief Areas

Any point rankings system will naturally have to simplify some of the nuance that comes with pet relief areas and other airport amenities. Passengers and their pet travel companions will have different priorities for various pet amenities. Depending on how far your dog likes to roam and how well-trained it is for voice command will likely determine whether you’d prefer a smaller fully-fenced pet relief area or a larger open grassy area outside the airport terminal. In fact, our own pet amenity travel preferences can change from one trip to the next. If we don’t have a lot of extra time before our flight but we want to let our pup out one last time before getting on the plane, then we’re hoping to find even a basic pet relief area on our concourse. If there’s a long flight delay, we’re more interested in a nicer, cleaner pet relief area—even if it means walking over to the next concourse.

Of course, you can’t always get what you want. The takeaway at the end of the day is to know your pet, know your itinerary, know your airline policies, and know your airport policies so that you’re ready to make your pet as comfortable as possible, while also staying flexible for unexpected travel disruptions.

 

What about Airport Cargo Facilities?

As central as pet relief areas are, they’re not the only airport-based pet travel resource. Boarding and pet care programs are easy to take for granted until there’s a major flight delay in a connecting airport and you need help with your pet. But these types of pet care services are also a big part of pet cargo travel, and this is perhaps are biggest gripe with this list. It gives short-thrift to medium-and-large-sized dogs that travel in the cargo hold of the plane.

The access and quality of pet care service programs—both in the terminals and in the cargo facilities—is worth a lot more than half a point. What’s more, this skewed point-value system reinforces the misconception that reliable pet travel can be determined by what you see at the airport, when often it’s neglect and a failure to follow protocols behind the scenes that cause the biggest problems.

 

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