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.”