Diplomats decry new United pet policy

A United Airlines baggage handler at the San Francisco International Airport.

Nearly 3,000 U.S. diplomats have urged United Airlines to extend to them a waiver from its more expensive and “unfriendly” new pet travel policy that the carrier has granted the military, the diplomats’ union said. While it took United just days to exempt the military, it has been mulling the State Department’s request for weeks.

The biggest hurdle appears to be the lack of understanding by United’s management — as is the case with most people — what the Foreign Service does, and why diplomats’ service to their country is no less important than the military’s. That’s exactly why — long before this issue arose — I decided to write my upcoming book “America’s Other Army.”

“Our immediate goal is for United to extend the waiver they have granted our military colleagues to civilian federal employees traveling on official ‘permanent change of station’ orders,” said Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). “This would allow federal employees assigned to embassies and missions abroad to continue to ship companion animals not eligible to travel in cabin as accompanied baggage at excess baggage rates, and makes use of professional pet shippers, freight forwarders, or cargo handlers optional.”

AFSA first sent a letter to United’s CEO Jeff Smisek on March 2, the day before the new policy took effect, Johnson said. The policy, known as PetSafe, had been used by Continental Airlines for more than decade, according to a former Continental employee whose daughter is in the Foreign Service. After the United-Continental merger was completed, the combined carrier’s pet policy followed what Continental used to do — just like almost everything else, including the reservations system, about which I wrote earlier this month. Smisek was Continental’s CEO.

Under the old policy, which was similar to that of most other airlines, pets that were too big to take in the cabin could be checked as excess luggage handled by the carrier, at an average rate of about $250 per each way. PetSafe requires that those animals be treated as cargo. In many countries, all cargo is subject to inspections and other customs formalities, which are typically handled by third-party vendors. The fees for those services range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Following the military’s outcry late last month, United quickly decided to allow personnel traveling to a new station to check pets as luggage and avoid a third-party provider — and the higher fees. However, United spokeswoman Mary Ryan said in an e-mail message, “We do not have plans to extend this exemption to anyone beyond military members who are traveling on orders or permanent change of station only.”

Mike Oslansky, senior manager for cargo marketing, customer service and business systems, responded to AFSA’s letter to Smisek, saying that United developed the waiver for the military “in recognition of the commitment made by members of our military and the family members (including the four-legged ones) who share in their sacrifice” and intends to limit this “special process” to military families only, Johnson said.

It seems United’s management doesn’t think that American diplomats make any sacrifices when serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, the Congo and many other extremely dangerous places. Not all diplomats are posted to London and Paris — not that those “cushy” in most people’s minds posts are not dangerous, judging by the 2005 London terrorist attacks or last week’s murders in the French city of Toulouse.

By many accounts, PetSafe has been very successful domestically. United takes care of the pets without using third-party vendors, it automatically transfers the animals to connecting flights on its own aircraft and keeps them in air-conditioned facilities during layovers. Although the pets are checked in as cargo, there are no customs or other bureaucratic formalities, so the service is not too expensive.

However, that doesn’t work internationally most of the time. Very few diplomats take a nonstop flight to their new post. In some cases, they make two or even three connections. In each city, they are now forced to leave the passenger terminal, walk or take a taxi to the cargo terminal, collect their pets, recheck them in — often on a different airline, which could add more fees — then return to the passenger terminal, go through security again, and finally arrive at their next gate. By the time all that happens, they may well miss their connecting flight. Even worse if a single parent with small children is trying to accomplish those tasks.

Because of the so-called Fly America Act, the federal government must book its employees on U.S. carriers — on full-fare tickets. Foreign Service members and their families often end up on United, and many of them are elite MileagePlus members. The State Department and its 50,000 employees around the world have supported United for decades. Not to mention that one of the missions of the Foreign Service is to help create and expand business opportunities for U.S. companies, and airlines tend to benefit from that significantly.

The State Department is not seeking a waiver from the new policy for all 50,000 employees. In fact, more than 30,000 are locally hired foreign nationals who don’t travel as much as the American officials. At issue are only the 12,000 Foreign Service members — a fraction of the overseas military personnel — and only when they change posts, not Washington-based officials who may travel several times a month. After all, anyone moving from Bolivia to Uganda would find PetSafe very challenging, indeed.

Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, has spoken with Marc Anderson, United’s senior vice president of corporate and government affairs, Johnson said, but that conversation has yet to produce results. More than 2,800 AFSA members have sent e-mail messages to Smisek and other United executives, she added.

“I love the Foreign Service,” an officer in Southeast Asia told me, “but moving my family is getting harder and harder.”

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11 thoughts on “Diplomats decry new United pet policy

  • While I support the goal of seeking exemption, I would have to disagree with drawing parallels to the U.S. military — unless those same individuals are open to multiple deployments in combat zones and experiencing the mental/physical trauma that our men and women wearing the uniform experience. I respect the mission of the State Department, but comparing it to the military is taking it a little too far. Good luck.

  • How about the rest of us? I travel overseas for business often and take my pet with me, in cabin. Because of United’s new policy, I’m taking only one more overseas flight with United. I will only fly Lufthansa or Delta after that. United has lost a customer with me.

  • Our family has worked/lived overseas now for 13 years as my husband works for the State Department. Although our family has lived in safe countries, my husband frequently travels to war zones and to other very unsafe places for work. He is often gone months at a time. How is this any different from what the U.S. military members are doing?

    We have 2 labs that are permanent loved members of our family, and we would not ever move anywhere without them, but the job does require that we move from country to country every few years. So many families like us are going to pay these outlandish fees for more than just one permanent change of station (PCS) move. Also, how can United justify requiring us to pay a huge percentage more than we used to when our animals are still going to be flying from point A to point B, just as they always have.

  • Frankly, all this lobbying and special exemptions for specific groups (including both the military and Foreign Service) doesn’t make sense. United should either decide for or against allowing pets as excess baggage, and then apply the rules to everyone who flies, regardless of who they are. If it’s no problem for military members to bring pets, it shouldn’t be a problem for everyone else either. They should charge fees that cover their costs for the service and freely allow everyone to take advantage of them.

    As it stands now, FS pet owners would want to find an airline with more pet-friendly policies, which of course is not easy under government flight-purchase procedures, so it would be up to someone with authority on negotiating the contracts to exert some leverage, as Carla suggests.

  • I spent 8 years as a general services employee in embassies in Asia and Africa, none of which were considered cushy. During that time, I shipped my dog back and fourth and probably spent near $3000 on her transport. Prior to working in embassies, I spent four years in the Air Force. The missions are different and the remuneration scales are also different. I honestly can’t side with the Foreign Service on this one, because the take-home salary for them is much higher. I do agree, however, that the FS’ mission is as important, if not more important, in keeping our country safe from foreign agressors.

  • As a parent of a Foreign Service officer, I think these government employees are critical. They take care of other American citizens who live in another country, they do a lot that most have no idea about. United should grant them this benefit for bringing their pets home.

  • Interesting post. If implemented, the UA policy could affect all U.S. diplomats, not just one category. U.S. diplomats perform service to their country under multiple personnel systems — it is important to understand that not all U.S. diplomats are considered “Foreign Service members,” and that there is no single American “diplomats’ union.”

  • Many thanks for sharing this story. I wish that folks understood the sacrifices that Foreign Service officers and their families make when serving overseas!

  • I really wish that, before any company could bid on Fly America fares, they would have to follow a few rules — allowing pets on change of station being one of them (the other would also be extending the 3 bags of 70lbs each that United currently offers for active military and its dependents — even on pleasure trips!). Can we try to push Congress to put that through? After all, the airlines are benefiting a ton by winning a certain fare (government fares are a big chunk of their profit!), and it’s ridiculous that we have to abide by their rules, instead of the other way around. I have no doubt that, if it was a minimum requirement to bid, they would ALL follow these rules without a second thought.

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