After a spate of incidents last month about animals mishandled on flights, a worldwide airline group announced Thursday the creation of a program to certify standards for the safety and welfare of traveling animals.
"As an industry, we have a duty of care to ensure that standards and best practices are in place around the world to protect the welfare of these animals," said Nick Careen, senior vice president for cargo at the International Air Transport Association, a trade group of 280 airlines.
The effort follows a series of incidents involving dogs on United Airlines. In one case, a 10-month-old French bulldog died after his container was put in an overhead bin of the passenger cabin after a miscommunication between the owner and a flight attendant.
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In two other cases, dogs in cargo were put on the wrong flights, including one sent to Japan rather than Kansas City.
The airline program focuses on the quality of cargo shipments, which are what the Transportation Department tracks for dead, injured or lost animals.
U.S. airlines transported 506,994 animals in cargo last year. United was the biggest transporter with 138,178 animals last year. United also had the most animals die aboard its planes during each of the last five years, including 18 of 24 animal deaths last year.
United changed its cabin policy to put bright-colored labels on animal containers starting this month. And the airline suspended reservations for its program for transporting animals in cargo as it studies its operation until May 1.
The international airline program is called the Center of Excellence for Independent Validators for Live Animals Logistics. The program to create benchmarks and certify best practices for transporting animals was modeled after one to ensure quality standards for temperature-sensitive health care shipments.
The certification program adds to the airline group's program of regulations for live animals, including requirements for handling and labeling, the documentation required and a comprehensive classification of the needs of thousands of species. The certification program is open to each part of the industry dealing with animals, including airlines, airports and ground handlers.
The certification program was developed with industry experts including veterinarians, animal-welfare experts and government officials. Two officials that helped create the program were from London's Heathrow Animal Reception Center and Air Canada Cargo.
Last year, 16,000 dogs and cats, 400 horses, 2,000 birds, 200,000 reptiles and 28 million fish passed through Heathrow's center, according to Robert Quest, assistant director for port health and public protection.
"Ensuring the safety and welfare of animals is our main priority," Quest said.
Tim Strauss, vice president of Air Canada Cargo, said transporting animals is complex and highly planned, whether for pets, a flock of sheep relocating overseas or zoo animals traveling for conservation efforts.
"Ensuring that animals travel in safe, healthy and humane conditions requires coordination across the supply chain," Strauss said.