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Dogged by military families, United puts pause on pet policy

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After facing a backlash from pet-owning American military families stationed in Asia, United Airlines told the Houston Chronicle Wednesday it will add a special exception to its soon-changing pet program.

The families were upset about a change to the airline’s pet policy coming next month that could have cost them hundreds – even thousands – more dollars to fly their four-legged friends home at the end of their tours of duty. The change is part of the airline’s ongoing integration with Houston’s former hometown carrier, Continental Airlines.

As part of the merger, the two airlines’ parent company has selected what it considers the best policies and programs from each airline as it creates what it calls “the new United.” On March 3, the Chicago-based airline will switch to Continental’s pet program called PetSafe.  PetSafe – which is somewhat pricier than United’s program – requires pets that are too big to be carried in the cabin with their owners be checked as cargo rather than excess luggage, as they were with United.

All cargo shipped to the U.S. from some countries in Europe and Asia, including Japan, must be inspected by a third-party vendor before it is flown out. So pets shipped as cargo also will have to clear a vendor, which charges the airline a fee sometimes as high as several thousand dollars that is passed down to the pet owner.

An online petition opposing the policy change and its effect on military personnel had collected more than 2,400 unique signatures – many accompanied by livid comments.  In an interview Tuesday, United defended its decision to implement PetSafe and said the associated fee causing the cost increase is “not our fee.” But it also acknowledged the cost increase would be avoidable if the airline checked pets as excess luggage rather than cargo.

In a statement released Wednesday to the Houston Chronicle, the airline said it had reconsidered its policy and added an exception for military personnel.  “As a result of the constructive feedback about our PetSafe Product, we more fully understand the impact of our implementation of this product on our military families,” the statement said. “We evaluated our policies and developed a special process for military families traveling on Permanent Change of Station (PCS) or Orders only. This process allows them to transport their four-legged family members using the PetSafe product without the need for a third-party freight forwarder.”

The statement said military families should contact United’s PetSafe desk for details on the special process. The number for the 24-hour PetSafe Desk is 800-575-3335 or 832-235-1541.

Article by Kiah Collier, kiah.collier@chron.com

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