How to protect your pet during an in-flight emergency

by Сашка

Dogs and cats are not covered by standard safety rules on a plane.

A recent spate of in-flight emergencies — severe turbulence, a burning plane, a blown-out door panel — has underscored the importance of aviation safety protocols. The measures are clear, comprehensive and potentially lifesaving if you’re a human.

But the protocols are murkier for cabin pets and service animals.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s rules cover lifesaving gear and procedures designed for people, including seat belts, oxygen masks and life vests. During an emergency evacuation, flight attendants order passengers to leave all hand baggage behind; there is no asterisk for carriers containing pets.

Passengers with cabin pets or service animals hope to never find themselves in such a dire situation. Even so, Deborah Mandell, a professor of clinical emergency and critical care at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, encourages travelers to have a plan of action.

“Being prepared and thinking about all these things is really important,” said Mandell, who is also an American Red Cross pet-care adviser.

Secure your pet during turbulence

Airlines require cabin pets to remain in their kennels at all times, though some carriers, such as Delta, allow passengers to hold their enclosed pet on their lap when the plane is not taking off, taxiing or landing. If the air turns choppy, owners should tuck the kennel under their seat — the safest spot for the animal and, by extension, any nearby passengers.

Liz Rozanski, a critical-care veterinarian at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, recommends traveling with a hard-shell pet case rather than a soft-sided bag. “The stiffer ones are more like a child’s seat,” she said. A hard case can also better repel rolling objects, such as water bottles.

Inside the enclosure, soft bedding will provide protective padding. Mandell suggests removing any objects that could turn into projectiles, such as toys or food.

The rules are different for service dogs, which are allowed to sit in the open, by their owner’s feet or on their lap. If you have a carrier, place your service dog inside as soon as the pilot switches on the seat-belt sign. If you don’t have one, Mandell said, seat the dog on the floor, cradle it between your legs, and wrap your arms around its chest in a safe and comforting hug, “as long as you’re not putting yourself at risk.”

Use a spare oxygen mask

Each airplane seat is equipped with an oxygen mask, plus extras intended for lap babies. Airlines do not specify whether passengers can use a spare mask for their pet, but it has happened before. In 2018, JetBlue flight attendants deployed an oxygen mask to help a French bulldog named Darcy, who was struggling to breathe.

Similar to the rule for adults traveling with children, passengers should put on their mask first, then help their pet. Keep in mind that masking an animal may require some finessing, because the gear is not made for canine or feline faces. Mandell said the equipment might be a trickier fit for larger breeds, such as a German shepherd or Great Pyrenees.

Because of all the different conformations of dog heads, it may or may not stay on with just the elastic,” she said. “So you may just have to hold it.”

Based on her experience in animal hospitals, Mandell said some pets might object to having their snouts covered with a foreign object. The owner needs to position the cup so that the pet can inhale the oxygen. Don’t press it too tightly against their nose, which can impede their intake.

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If a spare mask is not available, the passenger and pet would need to share. Rozanski said to trade off air every 15 seconds or so.

BYO life vest

By law, planes flying over or near large bodies of water must carry life vests for each passenger, including a few models for infants. Pets are not part of that equation, but Mandell said you can bring your own pet life jacket.

The gear might make sense if your trip includes family swims in the vacation rental pool or boat rides in the Pacific Ocean. It’s probably excessive if you’re carrying it solely for the plane ride. Fortunately, emergency water landings by commercial aircraft are very rare.

Evacuating with your pet

In the event of an evacuation, flight crew members will instruct passengers to proceed to the emergency exits and leave all carry-on items behind. Passengers must be able to deplane within 90 seconds, according to the FAA. Searching for or shouldering a bag can slow the process; luggage can also puncture the inflatable slide.

Pet carriers, which are considered carry-ons, are no exception.

Airlines such as Southwest say passengers should remove the dog or cat from its case and hold it in their arms. (Flight attendants will provide real-time guidance, because each crisis is unique.) Animal experts, however, said a freed pet comes with risks. The pet can become spooked and escape in the plane, for example, or its claws can pierce the slide.

Rozanski suggests exiting with the pet inside its carrier and dealing with the consequences later. If the plane is burning up, I would take the carrier with me,” she said. “If somebody says no, I would jump anyway.” Just be aware that ignoring or defying a flight attendant’s orders could be classified as unruly behavior.

For sliding down with a larger dog, Mandell said, try to hold the animal on your lap facing out, with its back to your chest and its feet up. That way, its nails won’t rip the material.

Service animals, meanwhile, are trained for emergency situations, Rozanski noted, citing the guide dogs that led their owners out of the World Trade Center to safety on Sept. 11, 2001.

Service dogs “are not going to have a problem,” she said, “because they are going to follow instructions.”

More on air travel

Leave flying to the pros: Think you could land a plane in an emergency? Experts say you’re wrong. Here’s what you should actually do if something goes awry during a flight.

Pet peeves: Why do “gate lice” line up early for a flight? Psychologists explained for us. Another move that annoys airline workers: abusing the flight attendant call button. For more on how to behave on a flight, check out our 52 definitive rules of flying.

Plane mess: Stories about extremely disgusting airplanes have been grossing out travelers. The question of plane cleanups became the subject of a recent debate after a flight attendant allegedly told a pregnant passenger to pick up the popcorn spilled by her toddler.

Frequent flying: Airline status isn’t what it used to be, but at least there are some good movies and TV shows to watch in the air. And somewhere out there, experts are trying to make airline food taste good.

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