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6 animal disasters which remind us why airline pet fees might be justified

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Airlines pet fees can be hard to swallow, but animals on planes do pose a risk. (Reuters)

Pet lovers (and I'm one of them) are sometimes outraged by the fees airlines charge.

For example, it costs $250 round-trip on many U.S. airlines to bring pets in the cabin and in the cargo hold. And they're not too happy that the pet carrier is their one allowed carry on item.

What's the big deal about bringing a pet inside an airline cabin? How much does it really cost an airline to ship a pet in the cargo hold?

Airlines say the costs are justified. It's not just the extra fuel that a 100-pound golden retriever might consume, but there are liability and operational costs, as well.

Plus, traveling with your pet is a dicey proposition. Cargo conditions are, at best, risky. Experts insist that the risk is low, but risk is risk. Animals die in transit routinely; if there's a malfunction in the hold (temperature, pressurization) then all bets are off. 

The Department of Transportation now requires routine reports from the airlines, made available at www.dot.gov.  

And then there's the inconvenience to other passengers, when you bring your furry friend inside the cabin.  An emergency landing – which can be caused by something as small as a passenger's allergy to cat dander, for example – is an expensive hassle for an airline.

Lawsuits, should a pet bite another passenger, for example, are another consideration. And if a pet gets loose on the tarmac (it happens), airports are shut down, flights are delayed and canceled, adding up to more expense to the airlines. 

Simply put, you'd be surprised what can happen when you mix animals and airplanes.

Here are just a few examples that might give you pause:

The pooping pooch

In June, passengers boarding US Airways Flight 598 in Los Angeles on a recent morning weren't expecting to be taken to Kansas City – they'd paid for Philadelphia, after all. But an expensive emergency landing couldn't be avoided, after one of their fellow travelers – Truffles, a large service dog – wouldn't stop, well, pooping in the aisles. Flight attendants couldn't keep up with the cleanup, passengers began dry-heaving and, well, the rest was all over the news that night.

The fleeing feline

In 2012, Karen Pascoe's Norwegian forest cat, Jack, spent 61 days lost at New York's JFK Airport after escaping his kennel. An American Airlines clerk stacked his kennel on top of another, causing it to fall and open, which sent the frightened feline scurrying. When Jack eventually was found – he fell through the ceiling of the customs area in Terminal 8 – he was so malnourished and dehydrated, he had to be euthanized.

The terrier on a tear

A plane full of Phoenix-bound travelers got an unexpected – and very impromptu – free trip to Pittsburgh one morning in 2011, thanks to fellow passenger Mandy, a 12-pound Manchester terrier, who went on a rampage after her owner let her out of her cage, biting passengers and crew on a flight that had originated in Newark. Victims were treated by airport medical personnel; Mandy and her owner were sent packing.

The Golden is a goner

Model Maggie Rizer carefully followed the instructions provided to her by United Airlines before allowing her beloved Bea, a Golden Retriever, to travel in cargo. A carefully labeled crate, a bowl filled with ice – the works. Bea died of heatstroke en route to San Francisco. "Please, don't trust that an airline will truly care and provide safety to your beloved pet," Rizer wrote at the time.

Booboo bites the dust

It's a long way from the island of Guam to Houston, but 1-year old Booboo, a Jack Russell Terrier-Chihuahua mix, made it just fine. Unfortunately, during the cargo unloading process, Booboo managed to escape from his crate, dashing onto the runway, where he was run over by an oncoming vehicle.

When Byrdie bolted

Airports shut down for all sorts of reasons, but a 2012 closure of New York's LaGuardia Airport had nothing to do with, say, weather, and everything to do with a 30-lb Rhodesian ridgeback named Byrdie, who bolted from her crate, bringing the busy hub to its knees. The dog's owner, Austin Varner, was eventually transported out onto the runway to retrieve her terrified pet.

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.