Animals at the airport – why so many?

Airports are going to the dogs – and to the pigs.

More than 30 airports around the country now have regular programs that bring certified pet therapy dogs and their handlers into the terminals to mingle with passengers and help ease the stress of traveling.

And during 2016, some airport pet therapy teams broadened their membership beyond dogs.

Last summer, when passengers were encountering excessively long lines at security checkpoints at many airports around the country, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport began welcoming miniature therapy horses and their handlers to visit several times a month.

And as the winter holiday travel season went into high gear, two airports announced that pigs were joining their pet therapy teams.

LiLou, a Juliana-breed pig, joined San Francisco International Airport’s Wag Brigade.

And a pot-bellied pig named Bacon Bits is now part of Albany International Airport’s Canine Ambassador program.

More animals in the air

Of course, not all the animals you see in airport terminals these days are just there to be petted.

According to the American Pet Products Association, there are around 77 million pet dogs and 85 million pet cats in the United States — and a growing number of their owners take them along when they travel by air.

And when they fly as carry-on passengers in the cabin, those pets need to have tickets.

On Alaska Airlines and JetBlue, the domestic fee for a pet in the cabin is $100 each way. On American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, its $125 each way. Frontier Airlines charges $75 each way, and on Southwest the fee is $95 each way.

In some cases, more than one small pet can travel in a pet carrier (and avoid an extra fee), but some airlines will tack on an extra fee if there’s a stopover of more than four hours.

Emotional support animals

The costs to take a pet on a plane can add up, which may be part of the reason an increasing number of passengers are claiming that their animals aren’t just pets but official service or “emotional support” animals which, by law, get to fly for free.

Like Frontier Airlines, which had an issue earlier this year with a passenger’s emotional support marmoset, each airline website lists very specific conditions under which they will accept service animals or therapeutic/emotional support animals on their plane.

An official identification card and/or a written statement from a mental health professional is usually required, but many websites make it easy for pet owners to acquire ‘fake’ documentation — for a fee.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a duck or a mini horse, as long as a passenger has the correct paperwork, they’re allowed to fly with an emotional support animal and nobody can say anything about it,” said veteran flight attendant Heather Poole, author of Cruising Attitude.

Poole says it’s not a flight attendant’s job to determine which passengers are flying with true support animals or which ones have simply secured paperwork to avoid paying a fee for their pet to fly, but “I can spot a fake emotional support animal a mile away,” said Poole. “It’s usually growling or barking at other support animals. That, or it’s dressed nicer than its owner.”

2017 may bring changes — or at least some clarification — in how airlines and passengers define service or emotional support animals.

While noting that its ACCESS Advisory Committee was unable to reach agreement on updated rules regarding service animals, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently said it intends to draft its own rules.

“The guide dog and animal training groups all agree this is a problem, so does the community,” said Eric Lipp of the Open Doors Organization. “One solution floated is to have a national registry and certification for service animals so they are given ID. The DOT could also fine a passenger and make big news. That would help, but who wants to do that?”

(A slightly different version of my story about animals in airports and on airplanes first appeared on NBC News Travel.)

Now there’s a pig on duty at SFO Airport


An increasing number of airports now have teams of therapy dogs on duty in the terminals to help ease the stress of travel.

Back in May, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport added a miniature therapy horse to the mix.

Now comes LiLou the pig – who joins the Wag Brigade at San Francisco International Airport on Monday.


LiLou is the first pig to be certified in the SF SPCA’s Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) program and was a perfect fit for SFO, which was determined to expand the type of animals in the Wag Brigade.

LiLou is sure to be quite the hit. In addition to be being a pig at the airport – she does tricks.

According to the stat-card Wag Brigade handlers will be distributing for LiLou in the airport, she can wave, greet you with her snout, play the piano and give a bow after her performance. She will also be twirling and standing up on her back hooves to entertain travelers.


SFO’s Wag Brigade team has at least one dog on duty every day of the week, with up to 3 dogs at a time working their 2-hour shifts.  LiLou doesn’t have a regulars slot in the schedule just yet, but airport officials say the Juliana Pig will be on site at least once a month.


Dogs, miniature horse, a pig. Which animal do you think will show up next in an airport pet therapy program?

(All photos courtesy of SFO Airport)

Cyber Monday flight deals


Don’t put away that credit card just yet. Virgin America (and other airlines) are still rolling out Cyber Monday airfare deals.

Virgin America’s Cyber Monday deal is good for you – and for dogs:

The carrier’s #TinyDogsTinyFares will offer up to 30 percent off fares nationwide. Use code: TINYFARES.

In addition to giving you the discount, Virgin America is also donating $10 per ticket booked on during the sale to San Francisco Animal Care and Control (SF ACC), the ASPCA and Animal Haven.

On Cyber Monday, Virgin America is also making another “Operation Chihuahua” airlift and flying 24 Chihuahuas from San Francisco to New York so they can be adopted. Seems that there’s an overpopulation of Chihuahuas in California shelters and lots of people seeking to adopt small dogs on the east coast.

Travel Tidbits from MIA, LAS & LAX

If you’re going to be stuck at the airport, every amenity counts.

Here are a few new amenities that may come in handy, including a yoga room at Miami International Airport, a cool new floor mosaic at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and indoor pet relief areas at Los Angeles International Airport


This week Los Angeles International Airport celebrated the opening of seven post-security, indoor animal-relief stations, which join an existing one in the Tom Bradley International Terminal.

LAX officials say this brings the total number of service-animal/pet relief stations at LAX to 11 – more than any other U.S. airport.