Diplomats demand pet parity

Letter-writing campaign targets United Airlines after it offered military members a break on transporting pets.

A grass-roots movement within the American Foreign Service Association is pressing United Airlines to give U.S. diplomatic families the same reduced prices for transporting family pets as the carrier extended last month to military families moving to permanent new assignments.

Some 3,000 members of the 16,000-strong diplomats union have written to the airline since March, when it rolled out a pet-shipping program called PetSafe, which worked well domestically for Continental Airlines before it merged with United. The program features temperature-controlled compartments and a 24-7 help desk. It also comes with a higher price tag, however, especially if pets travel as cargo. What had been a $283 rate for most pets went up to $1,440 to $3,869, depending on the size of the animal, according to a Stars and Stripes article.

This placed an added financial burden on many U.S. military families because countries in the European Union and Asia often require that pets travel via a third-party forwarder.

After hearing from military families in late February, United decided it would help by classifying pets as luggage and thereby avoiding the more-expensive third-party requirement. “We have a strong relationship with the military and it was not our intention to put a financial burden on them,” United spokeswoman Mary Ryan told Government Executive. “But the exception for military families is a ‘one-off.’ ”

That hasn’t stopped diplomats from sending United President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smesik a barrage of emails demanding that the waiver be extended to all U.S. government civilians traveling to and from assignments on official change of station orders. The Foreign Service group also has written to Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy asking for support, and Foreign Service families have taken to YouTube with videos showing off their cute cats and loyal dogs with the message: “Their families serve their country with integrity and dedication in the diplomatic corps. They move on government orders in order to serve their country, just like the military. They deeply love their country, just like the military. They are asking that United Airlines include them in the exemption they've given the military from the prohibitively expensive new pet policies.”

Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, told Government Executive that affected military members “are concentrated in a small number of spots,” often in Germany or Japan, and are not in combat zones. Diplomats are sent to remote areas worldwide and face more obstacles, she said. “Every diplomat in Beijing or Moscow relies on United Airlines cargo and uses a professional pet shipper,” she said.

Johnson’s letter to United reiterated the important overseas contributions of civilian government employees, alongside the military, as well as the importance of their pets. “Foreign Service pets are critically important to their families as anyone who knows the joy, love and stability the companionship of a pet can bring to their life can appreciate,” the letter stated. “While moving from country to county (and frequently to hardship posts), pets help manage stress and maintain continuity for their FS owners, while their friends are left behind, kids leave their schoolmates and a new culture and language must be learned at the next post.”

The union also is making its case on business grounds, reminding United that diplomats are a “big customer base” and they play a key role in facilitating the international airline industry’s access to foreign airports, working with foreign governments and providing emergency aid in case of accidents.

Johnson estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the Foreign Service members, who are “seasoned, sophisticated repeat travelers,” have pets. Without proper shipping procedures, “A pet can be left in terminals or storage warehouses that are not air conditioned or heated, where clerks are not trained in paperwork, and some have missed flights or died,” she said. “It’s a logistical nightmare.”

“It’s a family issue, and therefore a women’s issue,” she added, noting that 70 percent of the email writers are women.

The group’s letter to Kennedy urged the department to “seek identical exceptions for Foreign Service personnel traveling on official transfer orders. The additional hardship is an unnecessary and costly burden that the department can be instrumental in avoiding.”

A partial, intragovernmental solution appears to be in place affecting the Airline City Pair program under which many government officials fly on United and other carriers for discounted rates on specific routes. A State spokesman told Government Executive that Kennedy on March 28 “approved a change in policy that will allow official State Department travelers to abstain from using the City Pair carrier when space on a scheduled contract flight, including confirmed space for pet(s) as checked baggage, is not available in time to accomplish the purpose of the travel. This change has been made to provide official State Department travelers options when the contract airline cannot accept their pet as accompanied baggage, without increasing the official travel cost to the U.S. government. The General Services Administration approved this modification exception language which emulates the exemption used for relocating Department of Defense employees.”

Johnson called that new option a “step in the right direction,” but noted alternatives to the City Pair carrier aren’t always available. A Pentagon spokesman said Defense had no position on the issue. The ability to ship pets inexpensively when families are transferred, however, appears equally important to service members. It is the subject of a long set of Air Mobility Command procedures that spell out criteria and charges. And in February the Pentagon launched a new Patriot Express chartered service for service members and families being transferred; its low pet-shipping rates are not expected to be affected by United’s actions.

United spokeswoman Ryan said the carrier’s pet-shipping rates seem high because they include the third-party fee for the freight forwarder. United’s own pet fees are competitive, she said. The emailed letters from the Foreign Service Association, she added, “are not being ignored, but we have no intention of extending” the waiver beyond the military.

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