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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How to Redo Kennel Training for a Traumatized Pet

We recently reported on a story about a woman whose dog was lost by American Airlines for a day in which the pet was locked inside its travel carrier for 24 hours. The dog was hungry, thirsty, and clearly stressed out, but in the days following this traumatic event, the pet continued to show a natural fear of the carrier. Unfortunately, this type of story isn’t that uncommon. Whether it happened while flying on a plane, sitting in a cargo facility, or even just at home, many animals will show a natural fear of their travel carrier. Rather than accepting that the pet will never be the same again, often times, the solution is to simply redo the kennel training with the traumatized pet.

 

  1. Get rid of the old carrier. This may not be necessary in every case, but if your pet continues to show considerable fear over the carrier, we recommend getting rid of it. In fact, we recommend doing it in front of the pet so they know it’s gone and isn’t coming back.

 

  1. Give the pet a transition period. Don’t bring a new kennel into the home right away. Ideally, you’ll have a yard, safe room in the house, or a dog-sitter that can look after the dog and the house if you’re working during the day. You likely don’t need to wait so long that the dog loses all memory of what it’s like to be in a kennel. A week or two should hopefully be sufficient so that the pet is no longer so overwhelmed that it won’t even approach the new carrier.

 

  1. Introduce a new crate. Don’t rush it, especially at first, but leave the door open and let the pet know that it’s there to explore. Be ready with a treat if the pet decides to go into the kennel carrier right away. If not, give the pet a day or two and then try to entice them into the kennel with a treat and verbal encouragement.

 

  1. Let the pet set the pace. Reward and let the pet explore the kennel at least a few times before trying to close and lock the door. Even then, you should stay close by at first, keep these initial kenneling efforts to shorter periods, and continue to give your pet treats each step of the way. Give close watch to your pet’s reactions and overall demeanor in deciding how fast to accelerate the kennel training. Eventually, you should be able to return to your normal kenneling schedule and/or be able to travel with your pet in its new carrier.

 

  1. New treats for old tricks. If your initial efforts don’t succeed, you can wait a little while and then try again with a slightly different strategy. Look for new kinds of treats that your pet may like and which can be used exclusively for kennel training. If there’s a viable option, move the carrier or kennel to a different location in the house. The point is to try to reset the environment and associations the pet has with being in its travel carrier or home kennel.

 

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Understanding the Two Main Types of Pet Travel Insurance

Pet travel insurance is typically available either as part of an animal transportation service or as a component of regular pet insurance. You don’t really need to worry about the first type of travel insurance because it’s usually a commercial insurance policy that’s purchased by the animal shipping company. Still with us? Good. Sowhat is pet insurance, and does it cover travel? Pet insurance is a billion-dollar industry that’s like health insurance for your pet. It’s available with varying levels of coverage and your pet at least can still get denied coverage for pre-existing conditions. There are more than a couple options out there. You’re not the only one who’s interested in getting their vet bills covered, and there are more than a couple options out there. So, let’s unpack some of the details about these policies, so you can feel confident when making choices for your pet and household budget.

 

When is Pet Travel Insurance Offered?

Pet travel insurance is offered by animal transportation services who do not automatically cover any unexpected costs that may arise out of delays or problems with your pet’s travel itinerary. Due to the high potential for abuse and fraud, insurance is not typically available for pet owners traveling with their pets. Let’s say that you chose an itinerary that has your pet connecting through Dallas in April. The odds were supposed to be good that the temperatures would be moderate, but an early heat wave collided with your pet’s travel schedule and now the pet and travel concierge have to spend an extra night in Dallas. Aside from the inconvenience of the delay, pet travel insurance will ensure that you’re covered for any extra pet care and travel costs that may result.

 

How Much Does Pet Insurance Cost?

Pet insurance will cost in the neighborhood of several hundred dollars a year to a few thousand dollars a year. How much your insurance premium will cost depends on the type of plan, the age and breed of the animal, and the location of your permanent residence. Just like regular health insurance, you can find policies with considerably different deductibles and policy inclusions/exclusions.

 

Will My Pet Insurance Cover Pet Travel?

There are two basic types of pet insurance plans: Simple and comprehensive plans. Because simple pet insurance plans only cover a finite list of injuries and illnesses, there is a greater potential for a travel mishap to fall outside the scope of the policy. With a comprehensive plan, the pet itself is covered, though you still ask about any fine print, especially exclusions that may apply while traveling away from home. Pre-existing conditions is another common pet insurance exclusion with an immediate parallel to health insurance plans. You may not be able to get a pet insured for a condition that was diagnosed before the policy was purchased.

 

Is Pet Insurance Worth it?

It really just depends. Statistically, on average, dollar for dollar, pet insurance doesn’t pay for itself, but it can come close and, more importantly, it eliminates the worry of unexpected vet bills and the impossible choice of, say, falling behind on the mortgage or car payment or extending the life of a beloved member of the household. A financial advisor might tell you to put that insurance premium into an interest-bearing account that can be set aside for pet health needs and then reabsorbed into your general savings if the pet is blessed with generally good health over the years. On the other hand, few people have the discipline to start a savings account just for their pet.

 

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Pet Travel Programs Can’t Clean Up Gaps in Airline Business Culture

As Delta prepares to make a fuller announcement about its new pet travel program and partnership with Carepod, it may need to evaluate and make changes to its broader business culture. On a flight last Thursday, passenger Matthew Meehan boarded a flight from Atlanta to Miami and stepped in dog poop left by a golden retriever puppy who had gotten ill on the previous flight. Whether it’s a dog or a person, people get sick. Especially when traveling on a plane and the turbulence that may occur during the flight.

As Meehan told Yahoo Lifestyle, it was what happened after the puppy pooped in the plane that was a failure on multiple levels. First, while there is supposed to be a biohazardous waste kit onboard every flight, this plane didn’t have one. So, when Meehan alerts the flight crew of the dog feces underneath and surrounding his seat, he learns that the flight crew already knew about the incident. Apparently, the flight crew had reported the problem so as to have some airline staff member clean the mess up, but it never happened. So, instead of calling back to the gate to have proper sanitation materials brought on board, the flight crew gives Meehan two paper towels and a small bottle of gin to clean himself up in the airplane lavatory. Needless to say, this is woefully inadequate.

Photo from Facebook

Meanwhile, the flight continues to board. When other passengers in nearby seats smell the mess of dog poop, they rightfully demand it is cleaned. A member of the flight crew cleans the area with what appears to be nothing other than paper towels. The flight crew says they checked the flight records and they believe it was either a German Shepherd or an old man. Again, the truth was that it was a golden retriever puppy. So, now because the flight is full and with the area and passengers still smelling of dog poop, Meehan is given the option of getting off the plane or retaking his seat.

After the flight, Delta Airlines refunded the cost of the flight and offered Meehan, who is a million-mile Diamond Medallion member of Delta’s SkyMiles program, 50,000 frequent flyer miles. They also said they took the plane out of service to have it completely disinfected. The most troubling sign in this ordeal, however, is the lack of accountability as the flight crew, gate staff, and airline managers all proceeded to avoid responsibility in making sure the plane was properly cleaned before take-off.

Like so many unfortunate incidents we hear about, the problem isn’t so much in the pet travel programs and policies themselves. Rather, it’s a multi-point failure to follow through on these air travel policies that create these nightmare scenarios. And that’s a function of the larger business culture.

 

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Dog Lost by American Airlines Shows Need for Advanced GPS Tracking

We came across a story on our social media that American Airlines lost track of a pet dog and then failed to give accurate information about the pet’s whereabouts and care after the fact. Ares was six hours into a scheduled layover when his owner contacted the airline, who said they knew where Ares was. Except, they didn’t. Hours later, they finally found the beloved pet still in the main cargo area, rather than being moved to the kenneling area where the pets can be properly cared for.

Photo from Facebook

Despite this troubling news, the airline assured the pet’s owner, Katie Trusiak, that Ares had been given water, food, and let out of his crate during the roughly 24-hour period in which he was in the airline’s care. Only the evidence seemed to tell a different story since the crate was still locked with the original zip ties. The airline later confirmed that Ares was given water but was NOT let out of his crate or given any of the food that had been taped to the top of his crate.

 

 

While Ares now appears to be on the mend, he is still afraid of his kennel. Hopefully, he isn’t permanently traumatized by the event. If it were up to us, American Airlines would, as part of their response to this incident, offer to buy Ares a brand-new dog carrier to help him rebuild positive associations with kenneling. When we heard about this story 48 hours after the facts, the airline still hadn’t even reimbursed the owner for the cost of Ares’ travel.

 

 

The Need for Modern-Day GPS Pet Tracking

This disturbing incident also shows the need for more universal adoption of modern-day GPS tracking systems. Sendum helped develop and pioneer modern-day tracking devices that provide information in real-time for GPS location, temperature, humidity, shock events, and other data about the location and conditions in which your pet is being transported. In 2015, Delta Airlines first introduced these tracking devices to the airline industry as a standard part of their pet travel services. And while pretty much every major airline allows customers to place these tracking devices on their cargo packages, very few include this type of tracking as part of their pet travel programs.

 

No System is 100% Foolproof

Of course, the most sophisticated tracking and monitoring system in the world is only effective if it’s properly activated and attached to the pet crate. No doubt, if American Airlines pet travel and cargo system had been followed to the letter, they never would have lost Ares in the first place. When there is a travel incident, especially one in which the airline is so clearly at fault, it’s on them to do what they can to make things right. We were saddened to hear about what happened to Ares, but we were also disheartened that when the airline contacted the pet owner, they apparently failed to make even basic assurances that they would reimburse the cost of travel and help make sure that Ares could recover from the potentially traumatizing incident.

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Different Airline Strategies for Pet Travel Programs

From new airport pet relief stations to the newest pet carriers, we try to keep track of every corner of the pet travel industry. Especially the information that is likely to have a real-world impact on your travel plans. But more than just the nitty-gritty details that will guide you through airports and cities on any particular trip, we also wanted to take a step back and look at the broader strategies and programs that airlines are implementing to facilitate pet travel.

A wide-angle view of the pet travel industry over the last decade or so shows that a handful of stories about pets deaths have largely been the result of more people bringing more pets with them on their travels. Sometimes, people do so even when the animal is vulnerable to dangerous health conditions that can be triggered by stressful situations.

This has led airlines to take implement tighter regulations and pet travel policies, while also working to add pet amenities and safety features designed to make the entire experience more comfortable for pets and pet owners. Today, some 2-3 million pets fly on planes each year just within the U.S. Pets suffering serious harm during air travel is becoming increasingly rare. And when it does happen, it’s almost always because either the pet owner or airline employee wasn’t following the rules.

 

Consider These Airline Pet Travel Programs

In this context, we wanted to highlight three different airlines and the programs and partnerships they’ve created to enhance their pet travel offerings. These examples also demonstrate that, while the airline industry is being aggressive in developing and marketing pet travel programs, individual airline carriers are taking different approaches.

 

  • United: What’s happened with the United PetSafe program has been the most visible change this year and over the last few years. Known for being the go-to airline for pet travel, United Airlines was for a time the last carrier to allow cargo pet travel of high-risk snub-nosed pet breeds. This led to a number of animal deaths and a bunch of negative publicity. Without litigating every detail of every case, this is a classic case of market overreach to the detriment of the core brand. While striving to lead the industry in pet travel, the airline suffered harm to its overall reputation for safety. After being suspended for several months, the United Airlines PetSafe program relaunched in June of this year with new prohibitions against sub-nosed pet travel.

 

  • Alaska Air: Going back to 2012, Alaska Air and Banfield Pet Hospital have partnered together to market their brands but also to enhance the pet travel services to an existing segment of their respective customer bases. To this day, Alaska Air customers can get a personalized travel consultation and a great deal on their pet travel services by visiting a qualifying Banfield location. Meanwhile, Alaska Air adds credibility to its program, Fur-st Class Pet Care. With more than 750 locations in more than 40 states, Banfield Pet Hospital is one of the largest providers of small animal veterinary care in the country. Thus, this partnership is also one of the first national pet travel programs of its kind.

 

  • Delta: Even if the exact details aren’t available yet, one of the more recent developments worth noting is Delta Airlines announcement that they are partnering with CarePod, a pet technology start-up, to expand their pet tracking and concierge services. It’s perceived to be part of a larger play the airline is making for pet travel and the growing importance of supplemental revenue streams to today’s airline industry.

 

It remains to be seen how successful these airline pet travel programs will be. Undoubtedly, the airlines define success by at least two different measures: How much revenue/profit is generated by their pet travel programs directly and whether those pet travel operations positively or negatively contribute to their company’s reputation for safe, reliable air travel. As a passenger and as a pet owner, this larger context may help you understand why various airline pet travel policies are put in place.

 

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