Dog in carry-on container
Credit: Getty Images

On March 1, Delta rolled out changes to its pet travel policies. For the first time, the airline has decided to stop accepting animals as checked luggage—a common practice where dogs and cats are checked (in carriers or crates) and shepherded through the airport by luggage handlers rather than specially trained support staff. Now, anyone looking to travel with their dog, cat, or turkey will need to bring their pet aboard the main cabin in an approved carrier—or they'll have to buy a separate plane ticket, possibly for a different flight, via Delta Cargo.

The dimensions and approved weight for a carry-on pet vary depending on the plane and flight, but the rule of thumb across the industry stands at 20 pounds—that’s your average female French Bulldog or Scottish Terrier, at most.

This past year alone, Delta reported 18 animal-related incidents, most of them deaths, and a few severe injuries. According to the Department of Transportation, American had 7 such incidents, and United had 23; add in regional airlines like SkyWest, Hawaiian, Alaskan, and ExpressJet, and the total climbs to 63. It’s for that reason that PETA is celebrating Delta’s decision. Even still, the place where pets face the most danger is in the cargo hold itself—that's where erratic, sometimes extreme temperatures, and a high-stress environment lead pups to eat their food bowls, chew through the cages, or suffer serious physiological harm.

Delta's move certainly goes in the right direction. It addresses concerns that many pet owners have about how their pets are handled at airports. When checking a pet through Delta Cargo, specially trained handlers will accompany cats and dogs through from check-in to boarding, making sure that no crate is ever left abandoned at the foot of a departing aircraft. But it also adds logistical complications for travelers.

For one thing, pet owners booking with Delta Cargo need to buy separate plane tickets for their pets—and must do so within two weeks of their departure. For a sample flight from New York's JFK to Seattle's SEA, a ticket for a 25-pound pup started at $250; for a large breed, like a Bernese Mountain Dog, the price shot up to nearly $900. The difference in cost is significant, but just as important to consider is the timing. Owners are given a two-hour window to pick up their pet upon arrival; if your flight is delayed beyond that point, and your pet is traveling on a different aircraft, the layers of stress only add up. Beyond that, Delta Cargo only serves domestic flights (unless you're a professional pet handler)—so taking the Berner on an ancestral pilgrimage in Switzerland is simply out of the cards. For some, this could signal an end for doggie travel dreams.

With that in mind, we’d like to challenge airlines not just to create healthy, sustainable travel conditions for animals, but to create an environment that allows pet owners to move the globe in the company of their best friends. It starts with safe conditions at airports, but it should end with broader and more accessible policies—along with better in-flight conditions that mitigate the biggest health risks for our furry friends.

Not only this reopen the door for dream trips and practicalities alike, it would also create economic opportunity for fee-loving airlines. After all, a recent study from market research company Ipsos found that 65 percent of dog owners think of their dogs as an ideal travel companion—regardless of whether they fit in a carrier or not.