The news occasionally reports stories about pet dogs and cats that get loose in cargo holds of airplanes, or get sick, or even die while stowed during air travel. It’s disturbing to contemplate, and may result in more people wanting to put their smaller pets in airline approved pet carriers and stash them under their airplane seats. Traveling with pets on airplanes is nothing new. But what does this mean for those of us who fly frequently (or even infrequently) and are allergic to dogs, cats, and other furry pets? I’m not allergic to cats, but a relative of mine is, and she recently sent me this email (edited for clarity):
“Wanted your advice as a travel professional. I had very unpleasant experiences on my last two JetBlue flights. It appears that cats and small animals are permitted in the main cabin of planes, per FAA regulations. I was never aware of this, and neither are most people I have spoken to.
I am highly allergic to cats, and on the flight home from Los Angeles, a cat got loose on my flight. I had a terrible allergic reaction, and it developed into a raging eye infection. On my next flight there were two cats a few rows behind me. In contact with Jet Blue, I was told the onus is on me to change flights if I find cats to be on my flight. Not only is this highly inconvenient, I would only know this just before boarding the plane.
How can I get the word out that airline policy allows pets, and that people who are allergic need to be warned of the possibility there are pets on their flights. As I stated to Jet Blue (who by the way never responded to my request to have someone in management contact me) a severe allergic reaction could cause the plane to make an emergency landing.”
Very interesting issue! I asked my relative, PMG, if she contacted JetBlue’s customer service, which is ranked as one of the best three in the airline industry in terms of customer satisfaction. PMG is a resourceful grandmother of eight older kids and teenagers, well-traveled, and not one to sit back and accept life’s grievances. So, yes, she did. I should note that the customer service employees at JetBlue have been exceptionally polite and respectful, although the lip service is obvious. I’m editing only for spelling errors and clarity here.
- PMG: On our flight a cat got out of its carrier, and was running around the aisles. I am HIGHLY allergic to cats and this caused me great discomfort. Luckily I had Bendadryl with me, so I was spared more problems. There should be a way to notify passengers that pets are on board. What would have happened if my throat started to close up; an emergency landing would have been necessary. You stopped serving snacks that contained peanuts because of allergies, now you need to revise your pet policy too. Your flight crew were as helpful as possible, but it took a while to locate the cat’s owner.
- JET BLUE: Thank you for contacting JetBlue Airways regarding your recent travel. We welcome the opportunity to assist you. We regret to hear that a pet was not properly controlled onboard by its owner. We apologize for the distress and frustration caused. We appreciate you taking the time to provide us with valuable feedback. We will forward your letter to inflight operational leadership for their internal review and to improve service for the future. Please feel free to inquire with us at check-in if there are any pets onboard, so that we may best assist you in having a pleasant travel experience.
- PMG: Thank you for your reply. I am a frequent JetBlue flyer, and am concerned about the pet policy. I am flying again to Los Angeles soon, and will inquire about pets onboard my flight. My concern is even if the person is sitting a few aisles away from me, I am still likely to have a reaction. Would I have to change my flight or would the cat owner have to change? Can advance reservations somehow be tagged to indicate passengers with severe allergies to cats.
- Jet Blue: Thank you for your additional email to JetBlue Airways. We appreciate the opportunity to follow-up. If you are not comfortable and your seat cannot be changed to be farther away from the cat you would be the one who would need to change your flight. In addition to the four small pets allowed aboard we are required to allow customers with a medical documentation to bring Service and Emotional Support Animals aboard…As a result we regret to advise that we are not able to ensure that any flight will be cat free until the last customer has checked in.
- PMG: I was at the eye doctor yesterday and have an infection in my eye. It was caused by my allergic reaction. I am on heavy medication for five days now. I hold JetBlue responsible for my discomfort and complications. I also want JetBlue to know I think it is totally unfair to give more preference to a pet owner than a True Blue customer who regularly upgrades her seats.
- Jet Blue: Thank you for your additional correspondence which has been forwarded to JetBlue’s Corporate Office. On behalf of our Corporate Officers we sincerely apologize for the frustration you have experienced. JetBlue must accommodate customer requests to travel with service animals, which are not required to be in carriers. We generally allow up to 3 pets on each flight, while the number of service animals on a flight has no limit. You can check prior to flying whether pets or service animals are booked for you flight by calling us at 1-800-JETBLUE (538-2583) and we will try to seat you as far away as possible from any animal on the flight or allow you to take the next flight if there are no cats. However, we cannot guarantee that there will not be animals on a flight.
…At this point, the level of lip service this elderly passenger was receiving grew too much for her. JetBlue, with its famously personal and friendly customer service, sounded too cut-and-dried and impersonal. The cats that are in carriers are not necessarily service animals since those pets don’t need to be in carriers in the first place; this seemed to be a slight-of-hand regarding the real issue. PMG wrote a letter to JetBlue management, but has yet to hear a response. It’s a long email, so I’ve edited it down without changing the issue of pets in airplanes vs flying with cat allergies.
PMG: I have been a True Blue member for many years and carry a Jet Blue AMEX card, so you know I am a committed JetBlue passenger, and would like to continue as one.
I am highly allergic to cats, and my last two flights (both from LA to NYC) have had cats on board. These flights were highly uncomfortable for me and in the first flight caused such a severe allergic reaction that I developed an eye infection that required I see an eye doctor and go on a very costly medication regime. It is over six weeks now and my eye still has not fully healed.
I know your policy allows up to three pets, plus service animals. My issue is with your policy of giving the pet owner preferred rights over me. I was told the onus is on me to find out if cats are on board, and that I would only know this at the boarding gate. Since I had such a bad experience on my March 27 flight, I did everything I could to find out the situation on my upcoming trips. But of course it was not until I boarded that I found out that indeed there were cats on board and that I should change my flight. At that point it was impossible for me to change my flight, as I had to be in LA that day. You are putting me in an impossible situation. Why favor the pet owner over a valued customer?
She received no response and, frustrated, PMG emailed me her issue about flying with pets on airplanes. I emailed JetBlue’s media relations.
JWM: A relative visited my family in April, and flew JetBlue round trip JFK-LAX. Today, she emailed me this [here I included her email to me, as seen earlier].
I know she is very allergic to cats as she says. I also COMPLETELY understand the need for support animals to be on flights (seeing eye dogs and cats). However, I’m hoping you can tell me where the line is drawn; when an elderly woman suffers from a pre-existing condition brought on by the presence of cats, and has a continuing reaction days later? I’d think that there would be ways to prevent this. The Americans with Disabilities Act must be followed of course, but do you think that there is something to be done here, in terms of not making bad situations worse for your otherwise healthy passengers? Perhaps airlines should consider pet-free flights. I don’t know if this is the right answer, but certainly the free-for-all that currently exists is not tenable, either.
JET BLUE: Thanks for your inquiry…We allow customers to travel with their pets as we recognize they’re an important part of the family and many customers wish (or need) to have their pet accompany them when traveling.
Customers can call reservations at 1-800-JETBLUE to find out if a pet is booked on their flight; however, we can’t guarantee that there will not be a pet on the flight once they board. JetBlue will make every reasonable effort to re-accommodate the customer with allergies in another seat away from the animal onboard.
Customers can find out whether any pets are on their flight prior to booking their tickets. If someone with a pet ends up booking a ticket after this, we would work to move the customers away from each other on the plane; if that doesn’t work, the allergic passenger would be offered accommodation on the next available flight.
JWM: Thank you for your quick reply, Allison, I’m impressed!
Why must people allergic to cats be made to suffer? We both know that air is recycled throughout the plane (one reason why the “smoking sections” were so silly, back in the day). Moving passengers away does little for this. Also, if passengers picked seats to sit with their families, the amount of people being reorganized around the plane would be at the very least uncomfortable and embarrassing for both parties. Is the corporate response that people with cat allergies should bring their inhalers/epi pens and prepare to deal with it?
Everyone’s been exceptionally polite, but this does seem to be a disaster waiting to happen. There are no more peanuts served on flights even though most passengers don’t suffer peanut allergies. The airline doing nothing about highly fur-allergic passengers on flights is neglectful, and not in keeping the the level of customer care I know JetBlue takes pride in. By the way, PMG has up to this point had nothing bad to say about her JetBlue experiences.
JET BLUE: We’re happy accommodate customers on the next available flight.
And, that’s it, that’s where it stands, today. The Jet Blue representative is aware that this post is being published, but before she knew that, she was as polite and professional as seen above.
Now, my relative hasn’t heard back from anyone, although she does raise some very salient points. Why is the onus on the passenger with cat allergies to check at the gate? And why be expected to change her flight, especially if she needs to be at her destination at a specific time? Even if she wasn’t a True Blue member, it would hardly be fair. And — what if a passenger experiences a serious reaction to the pets on airplanes? An emergency landing would obviously be a very expensive inconvenience for all aboard, seeing that the allergic passenger is not of great concern to the airline (or else PMG would have received more than lip service from customer service about this issue).
As airline regulations have been changing to accommodate passengers who want their cats and small dogs in carriers in the main cabin, other passengers have just had to be quiet and deal with it, so far. Some airlines don’t allow pets as carry-on for overseas flights, but a customer with years of loyalty to an airline shouldn’t have to give up her miles at (or affection for, though that apparently holds less water) an airline. JetBlue management is being shortsighted about the effects of severe allergic reactions. Aside from service animals, I think the answer is to have pet-free flights as an option. It’s not a perfect answer, of course, but finding out you have to change your flight when you’re already at the gate — or onboard — is hardly an acceptable answer either.