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Diplomats get a break on pet travel costs

Airline relents and will waive some fees for Foreign Service employees shipping their pets overseas.

United Airlines will waive some fees for Foreign Service employees shipping their pets overseas, according to a group that represents diplomats.

The airline company’s policy change comes after pressure from lawmakers and the American Foreign Service Association to reduce the cost of transporting pets for State Department employees who move abroad for their jobs. The waiver, which currently applies to military personnel, goes into effect June 1 for employees of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. It allows exempted personnel to pay less than the rest of the flying public to ship their furry friends overseas.

AFSA President Susan Johnson said she appreciated United’s decision, but added the cost of shipping pets -- which can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars -- is still too high for many government employees assigned to work in foreign countries. “It will be prohibitive for many, which will cause a crisis,” Johnson wrote by email. “Give up your animal companion and best friend, or give up your career? What a choice.”

The fee hike in transporting pets overseas resulted from the merger between United and Continental Airlines. United adopted Continental’s more expensive PetSafe shipping program, a service that involves third-party professional pet shippers. Johnson said the waiver will allow Foreign Service employees to pay a lower cargo rate fee, which will be more than the excess baggage rate but less than the full cargo rate, and will not require third-party vendors in all cases. “We hope to work with United to ensure the rates they come up with are fair and reasonable,” she said.

In February, United announced it would waive some fees associated with the new pet-shipping program for military service members. Company spokeswoman Mary Ryan told Government Executive earlier this month that United did not intend to extend the exemption to other government personnel assigned abroad. Thousands of Foreign Service personnel have written United since March complaining about the increase in transportation fees.

A diplomat who identifies herself as Sadie on the blog Sadie Abroad criticized United for its more expensive policy as a result of the PetSafe program. “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,” she wrote in a March 31 post. “So I am extremely angry with United Airlines and its new policy that penalizes FS members who bring their beloved pets with them overseas.”

Five Washington-area lawmakers including Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., sent an April 19 letter to United President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smisek urging the airline to provide Foreign Service personnel working overseas with the same benefit granted to military personnel and their families. Moran on Wednesday praised United’s decision to extend the waiver related to pet-shipping fees to Foreign Service employees. “Pets are beloved members of more than 5,000 Foreign Service families,” he said in a statement. “As with members of the military, Foreign Service officers do not often have a choice about when and where their families will move.”

United did not respond to requests for comment.

(Image via Reddogs /Shutterstock.com)

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