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United's new pet-travel rule set to give soldiers sticker shock

A new United Airlines fee set to take effect next month would dramatically increase the cost of shipping a pet home from Japan and surrounding areas to the United States -- to as much as $3,900 for large animals -- and may especially affect members of the military transferred under orders.

The rule will reclassify pets as cargo, rather than as excess checked baggage. Many military personnel are placed on commercial flights with United because of government contracts with the carrier, but personnel must pay any fee to ship a pet.

The news about the fee increase sparked scores of comments on social media sites this week, including on the airline’s Facebook page. One man who identified himself as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps posted “(I) just would like to take the time to inform you that with your new outrageous charges on your pet policy…and having two dogs and being stationed in Okinawa, Japan…I will never again ride United (and) I will try with all of my might to purchase tickets from your rival airlines. I hope and pray every military family and those who support us will follow my lead.”

One woman wrote on the Facebook page that the airline’s “decision to do away with checking pets as accompanied baggage on United flights internationally is adversely affecting hundreds of thousands of Americans stationed overseas working for the military, State Department and DOD (Department of Defense).”

Some comments expressed fears that military families would be unable to afford to take beloved pets home with them or that pets might be abandoned altogether.

United Airlines spokeswoman Mary Ryan said the change in how pets are classified for flying comes as a result of the adoption of Continental Airlines’ “PetSafe” program, which she called the best in the business. The two airlines recently merged, and have become the largest carrier in the world. Ryan said that the fees by United to ship pets remains competitive, but that Japanese fees on cargo shipping has increased the total cost.

“Japanese law dictates that with cargo, you have to pay a third-party freight forwarder fee,” Ryan said. “That is a Japanese law…that is adding to the cost of shipping animals.” 

For an animal from zero to nine pounds, United's fee is $259, while for an animal 10 to 50 pounds, the fee is $309, she said, rates that were part of the Continental airline pet program. The increase in shipping costs comes purely from the Japanese fee for cargo shipping, she said.

“What I would say is our transportation rates are competitive,” Ryan said. “It’s the best pet travel program in the industry.”

A spokeswoman with the Humane Society of the United States in Washington D.C. called on the airline to carefully consider the new fees.

“All that we would say is that we support that families and pets stay together and would hope that United Airlines would be sensitive to the needs and concerns of servicemen and woman whose pets are valued members of their families,” said Inga Fricke, director of sheltering and pet care issues for organization.

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