When Janet Sinclair decided to move to the East coast from San Diego, she signed up for United's PetSafe program. She wanted to make the trip as easy as possible for her greyhound Sedona and cat Alika. "We had never been on a plane together. This was our first," Sinclair told the News4 I-Team.
The PetSafe program promises "personal handling in climate-controlled vehicles ... if animals will be exposed to temperatures greater than 85 degrees for more than 45 minutes." But Sinclair said that’s not what happened. "That was the beginning of the worst day of my life."
During a layover in Houston, Sinclair watched from her window seat as her animals came off the plane. "I watch this man kick her crate six times. Kicked it, kicked it, kicked it unit it was underneath the wing of the plane," said Sinclair. Photos snapped with her cell phone show the animals sitting on the tarmac, where, according to the National Weather Service, temperatures reached 94 degrees that summer day.
As Sinclair's concerns grew, she started periodically recording videos of the trip with her cell phone, which she shared with the News4 I-Team.
On the videos, Sinclair narrates what she’s seeing.
“It's 4:06, the animals are still sitting on the tarmac. As this man is about to load luggage. Why they’re out there in the heat before the luggage, I don’t know."
"It's 4:25. That's the fuel truck. Animals were loaded on, doors still wide open. It’s 91 degrees in Houston. Who knows what it is out there. We were supposed to have left at 4:20."
“It's 4:58. We’re having air conditioning troubles and they’ve had issues with the seatbelts. The door is still open to the cargo. At 4:58 we still sit here. The animals have been out here for at least an hour."
After a three-hour delay, they finally took off and made it to Boston. Sinclair said Sedona was barely alive when she finally got to her. "Sedona's entire crate was filled with blood, feces, urine. She was dying. Literally dying," said Sinclair.
United says cases like Sinclair's are few, telling the News4 I-Team the airline transported 77,000 pets this year with incidents in “less than one tenth of one percent (.023%).” Reported problems to the Department of Transportation are relatively low for most airlines. According to the DOT, there have been 21 deaths, seven injuries and two lost pets reported so far in 2013.
But Kelly E. Carter, best-selling author on pet travel and founder of www.TheJetSetPets.com, said, “There's only a small percentage that don't make it. But that small percentage is a huge percentage for the parent." Carter told us stories like Sinclair‘s show flying with pets can be risky. "People have to really stop and think about it long and hard. Is it worth it for me to check my family into baggage," said Carter.
A vet diagnosed Sedona with heat stroke, a urinary tract infection and liver problems. "She was in ICU for three days," said Sinclair. The bill totaled more than $2,700. Sinclair wanted United to pay for it. But the airline argued Sedona had a pre-existing condition, even though she received a clean bill of health prior to the trip.
“They would give me $1,000 if I signed a non-disclosure agreement," Sinclair told the News4 I-Team. She refused, instead going public by creating a Facebook page called "United Airlines Almost Killed My Greyhound," which now has thousands of supporters. The next day United offered to pay the entire bill but still required that non-disclosure agreement, which is standard for all settlements with the airline. "The only reason I can do this interview is because I didn't sign that. And I won't sign it," said Sinclair.
In an email, United told the News4 I-Team, "We are committed to ensuring safe and comfortable travel of all the pets that fly with us and regret that Sedona did not have a good experience. We offered to compensate Ms. Sinclair by fully reimbursing her vet bill, but unfortunately she declined to accept the terms of the agreement.”
Carter said while non-disclosure agreements are common among airlines, she doesn't think passengers should sign them. "You have to go public. You owe it to the public, to the passengers, to pets," said Carter.
United did refund the fee for flying Sinclair's pets. She said she deserves to be reimbursed for the medical bills, too, but not at the price of her silence.
"I feel it is my responsibility to let people know. I still want to be reimbursed, but I'm not going to be quiet.”
The Humane Society of the United States does not recommend flying with pets unless absolutely necessary. Click here to get more advice on traveling with animals.