Transporting a beloved family pet on a flight can be a fraught experience at the best of times. The emotional connection between pet and owner makes for an uncomfortable fit with the restrictions and requirements of commercial aviation; few pet owners agree to have their dog or cat loaded into the cargo hold of a plane without a pang of anxiety and guilt.
A spate of recent incidents involving animal welfare on passenger flights has brought into sharp focus the consequences if the worst-case scenario should occur. In the US, United Airlines has become a focal point for complaints about the airline industry’s treatment of animals in its care. Around 75% of animal deaths on US commercial flights in 2017 took place on United’s watch, sparking anger and even calls for a boycott of the airline.
The most recent incident to outrage the public was the death of a French bulldog puppy after a flight attendant requested that its owner store the dog in an overhead locker rather than under the seat in front, as is standard. Animal fatalities in recent years, as well as other incidents including pets being shipped to the wrong destinations, have brought attention to the need for airlines and airports to crack down on preventable animal mistreatment.
The actual numbers of pet deaths on commercial flights in the US is relatively low; of more than half a million animals that flew with American carriers in 2017, there were 24 deaths in transit. There are also mitigating factors for United’s terrible reputation with pet owners, as until recently, it was the only major US airline willing to transport snub-nosed breeds such as bulldogs and boxers, whose narrower airways make them more vulnerable to breathing problems. In the wake of the French bulldog’s death, United has announced that it will no longer accept short-nosed dog and cat breeds.
While the raw risk involved in transporting a pet by air is low, the social media age has amplified the public relations shockwaves that these incidents set off, prompting airlines to bolster their response. In April, airline trade group the International Air Transport Association (IATA) launched a new global certification programme to improve the safety of animals travelling by air.
As well as improving animal welfare standards at airlines and airports, digital technology has the potential to de-stress the animal transport experience for pet owners. Global IT services company Unisys has identified the opportunity, launching the Digi-Pet system for airlines in February. Digi-Pet incorporates smart sensors attached to a pet’s kennel or carry case, which measure metrics such as oxygen levels, temperature, vibration and light and automatically alert the airline and pet owner via an app if any issues need to be addressed. Here, Unisys’s senior industry director of freight solutions Venkatesh Pazhyanur discusses Digi-Pet’s benefits and limitations.
Chris Lo: There have been a number of high-profile animal welfare incidents coming from airlines in recent years. Do you think this has been a blind spot for the aviation industry, historically?
Venkatesh Pazhyanur: In terms of the number of incidents, I don’t know if it has increased a lot, but obviously we get more visibility of these because of it being made known through social media circles. So it has probably brought visibility to a problem that perhaps was not so well known before.
CL: From the perspective of the airport, is it a complex undertaking to make sure pets are safe and comfortable during the hours before they are loaded into the cargo hold?
VP: Very much so. We have seen some progress in this; we’ve got pet care centres in major airports right next to airline acceptance counters, and also to cater for them during transit time. So airports do play a big role in the comfortable transport of pets.
CL: Have the airlines that you’ve spoken to been receptive to new ideas to help tackle these issues?
VP: Yes. We’ve got a lot of excitement in the market for two reasons. One is that the idea of a whole solution for pet transport is exciting. But it also opens up the idea of personalised service, which could be applied to other products as well, like vegetables and pharmaceuticals, where the business interaction between the subscriber of the service and the airline needs to be personalised across all products. Digi-Pet is one of the initiatives moving towards that end.
CL: When did the idea for Digi-Pet come about, and what issues with pet transport were you specifically looking to address with it?
VP: We were looking for specific cases where things like machine learning, IoT and device enhancement could bring value to the freight business. At that time, one of our senior leaders had to be transporting pets. He had mentioned that it was a big problem for him. That incubated the idea, and as we started exploring it further, in Digi-Pet we found a use case where some of these technologies can be put together and make pet transport easier.
CL: How does Digi-Pet work?
VP: So there are a few metrics that we track. First of all, Digi-Pet starts with making the business interaction between the pet owners and the airlines easier. There is a personalised app that they can use to book their pets [on to a flight]; they can take a photo of their pet, and then machine learning kicks in and recognises the breed, and makes sure that only those flights where that breed can be carried are presented to the pet owner. We found a lot of problems with the breed recognition, and machine learning does add value there.
At the time of the booking, the pet owner can subscribe to additional services, like temperature, humidity, GPS location, and others, like subscribing for some special food or services during the transport process. So the booking interaction becomes personalised and easy.
So once the booking is done and the pet is handed over to the airline, based on the subscription of these extra services, we have appropriate devices attached to the kennel by the airline agent. After that, the pet owner goes away and from that point, the same personalised app can be used by the pet owner to track these vitals throughout the transport process.
CL: What action could airline staff take if Digi-Pet issued an alarm about dangerous conditions for a pet while in the air?
VP: The ones that are in the air during transport, actions are limited. You can’t do much. On land, proper care can be taken. The policies of transmission in the air are being relaxed at a very fast pace. Some time back we had no WiFi on flights and now we do. We’ve got messaging, and some airlines are going to be announcing phone services during flights. So we do see transmission during flights being made available soon. So at that point in time, perhaps some actions can be taken.
But it is mainly the fact that it is tracking the pet completely, and there are more sensibilities attached to it, and the visibility of these metrics. On the ground, of course, we’ve had cases where the kennel is left outside for some time and the temperatures are too hot. This gives immediate access to that information and proactive notification for collective actions to be initiated.
CL: IATA recently launched a certification programme for transporting live animals by air. What kinds of animal welfare policies and staff training do airlines need to get the best results from a system like Digi-Pet?
VP: To strengthen those training procedures and address all aspects of pet transport is why the CEIV [Center of Excellence for Independent Validators] for Live Animals programme has been initiated by IATA. We are in close contact with it. Certain pets are more sensitive to temperatures, for example, and there are regulations in terms of their health when a pet gets transported from region A to region B.
The specific needs at origin, during transit, and at the destination – there are certain aspects of care that need to be given. What the CEIV programme is expected to do is to bring all these aspects together, and to get the right training programmes in place, and process monitoring in place, to make sure these pets are transported safely. And it’s not just pets – in some regions, horses or live chicks are transported, so it’s the whole gamut of live animals.