Saturday, March 31, 2012

Hattie's Legacy Deserves Better

I'm sure it comes as no shock to any of my readers that I love animals.  Pretty much all animals big and small, with the possible exceptions of spiders, giant worms, and squirrels.  And in particular, I love MY animals.  My pets.  My might-as-well-be family members.

I grew up in rural New Hampshire.  We had horses, sheep, chickens, turkeys, dogs, and more feral cats than we knew what to do with.  All of whom had names, of course.  Plus, at one point or another, we also were home to parakeets, a cockatiel, a duck, an iguana, countless betta fish, and a gerbil.  We see deer, foxes, turkeys, moose, and the occasional bear in our pastures.  So for me, having pets is a way of life.

I have lived overseas with animals and without, and it is much better for the soul to have animals to greet you when you come home.  So I am extremely angry with United Airlines and its new policy that penalizes FS members who bring their beloved pets with them overseas.

Basically, pets used to be able to fly as excess baggage on United flights.  Not only is this option straightforward and relatively uncomplicated, it doesn't break the budget.  Now, though, they must go as cargo if they don't fit the in-cabin size and other requirements (and few do).  And in-cabin through United is being severely limited as well for many posts.  What used to cost roughly $200-500 per pet will now be $1,000-4,000 AND will require pet owners to do more paperwork, leg work, and transfer work.  And since we are required to fly American carriers, we're limited to just a few companies.  And United is one of the primary ones.

Now any FS pet owner knows flying their pets is going to be an expensive prospect.  But the difference between $500 and $2,000 for two pets (on the low end) is pretty substantial.  Not to mention that United has already created a waiver program special for military personnel and their families.  But so far United has been unresponsive, noncommittal, and downright obtuse about the AFSA/FS lobby to show that we, too, serve our country.

The issue has been well covered elsewhere.  (See Nicholas Kralev's very good summation or AAFSW's round-up of FS pet-related blogs.  I particularly like fellow FS blogger Lisa's United Airlines Screws the Pooch video.  Digger's Pet Lovers: Unite Against United is well worth a read, as is At Post's collective of FS pet stories.)

What I want to highlight here - and, really, the only thing I'm qualified to highlight - is my personal story.  Here is why I lose sleep night after night trying to figure out how to safely and cost-effectively get my cats back to the United States this summer. 

In August 2010, I flew to Saudi Arabia to begin my first tour.  My beloved shih tzu, Hattie, joined me as cargo on the flight from Frankfurt to Jeddah.  Due to heat limitations, size limitations, and a host of other reasons, Hattie flew as cargo rather than excess baggage.  It was not my preference, but it was the only way it worked at that time.
Many of you know that Hattie died before she was released from Customs.  See this post about losing her.  It took 20 hours to get her released from the cargo terminal, which (we learned too late) was not air-conditioned, and she was never offered food or water.  Her poor body couldn't withstand that kind of extreme heat in a confined space for that long.  August in Jeddah is miserable. 

Because Hattie came in as cargo, she went to the cargo terminal.  And her paperwork was late in getting there.  And the customs agents were reluctant to release here.  And the chain of events unfolded as it did, and the rest is history.  It hurts too much to think about it.  But almost daily I replay in my mind the joy I felt at finding out she was finally being released and then the complete and total heartbreak that followed when I opened her carrier and saw and felt her lifeless body.  She was still warm - she had died recently.  I remember every sensory input from that awful afternoon and relive it entirely too often.  

Hattie flew on United/Lufthansa as cargo.  I do not believe the airline was at fault.  That is an important point.  But, if the airline restrictions had not been what they were, Hattie could have come as excess baggage and been unloaded at the passenger terminal, where, I truly believe, a different outcome might have been possible.  Again, I am NOT blaming the airline - I am just highlighting what can, and does, go wrong while transporting animals as cargo.  Animals that oh so easily could be processed as excess baggage.

All in all, I paid over $1,500 to transport Hattie from VA to Jeddah.  Plus another $25 to Customs before receiving her carrier.  And then another $25 for Customs to release her body to me after she died in their custody.  And then another $25 to the off-duty warehouse man to dig her a grave at the Consulate.  Those last $50 are the ones that hurt the most. 

If I absolutely have to pay thousands of dollars to get my cats back to the States, I will do so, even if it means I don't have any 'fun' money that year.  Because, after all, I am firmly middle-class on a government salary.  I would NEVER consider leaving them behind.  But having already lost one beloved pet to a cargo fiasco, you can see why I'm loathe to do it this way again.  Because all the success stories in the world can't make up for my loss.

And if United was simply making a business decision, I might even be able to live with that.  But they've made it personal by exempting military personnel and their families.  Which I support, entirely, don't get me wrong.  But what about the 12,000+ civilian Foreign Service personnel who move their entire families every two-three years to the same hardship posts as the military, all in service to our beloved country?

I don't know how I'll get back to the United States this summer when my tour ends.  If I can avoid flying United (the contract carrier), I'll do it in a heartbeat.  Even if I have to pay for the ticket out of pocket to fly a non-American carrier.  But I know that, come hell or high water, those cats will be on the plane with me.  Because Hattie's legacy deserves better than what United is offering. 

(I posted a retrospective of photos of Hattie's beautiful life here.)