As some of you may have heard, United Airlines has changed their rules so that flying with your pet is now MUCH more expensive. Basically, their new policies on pet travel restrict options, raise costs and pose enormous practical problems for the safe and timely transfer of pets at transit points where a change of plane and carrier is required. As in, just about every PCS any FS family will ever make. AFSA said the likely difference to Foreign Service families would be instead of paying around $250-$400 per pet, families would have to pay as much as $1,000 and $4,000 per pet.
United has, kindly, granted a waiver to members of the military traveling on permanent change of station orders. Although all the specifics are not clear, it appears that the main elements of the waiver are (1) optional use of professional pet shipper; (2) waiving of $40 fuel and security charges; (3) flat rate* for cargo under United’s PetSafe program; and (4) United will assume responsibility for the transfer of pets to the connecting airline. Without the waiver, the traveler has to somehow accomplish this on his or her own, coping with getting to a cargo terminal, collecting a crated pet, take it to the connecting airline and do all this within the transit time allowed. (*the flat rate for cargo appears to be much higher than the rate for accompanied excess baggage.)
So AFSA started a letter writing campaign, and 3,000 people, including me, wrote in asking that the waiver also be extended to members of the Foreign Service too. Because we are serving too. We are PCSing too. We are on government orders too.
And the response they got back? Well, all of us individuals got the standard "Thanks for writing. Your letter is very important to us. We'll look into it." But their real response to AFSA was from United's Senior Manager for Marketing, Customer Service and Business Systems. He said that United developed the waiver for the military "in recognition of the commitment made by members of our military and the family members (including the four-legged ones) who share in their sacrifice" and intends to limit this "special process" to military families only.
I guess that we don't make a special commitment. We and our families don't sacrifice. We don't serve.
The Fly America rule passed by Congress requires that if the government is paying for the ticket, the passenger must fly on an American carrier. This means that most of our tickets are either on an American flight or an American codeshare flight. And when you are on a codeshare flight, you fly by the rules of the codeshare company, not the company actually running the flight. I learned this trying to get my parrot on the United codeshare flight with Scandinavian Airlines. Scandinavian allows parrots. United does not. So if I got a ticket through United, I could not bring my parrot.
What I learned in all of that is that most of our codeshare flights are with United. And that means following United's rules. But what I also learned was that while Fly America means if the government pays for my ticket, I have to fly on an American airline if available, it doesn't mean I have to let the government pay for my ticket. I can buy my own. And at an additional up to $4000 per per moving cost, it is cheaper for me to buy on a foreign carrier to get myself and my pets home than to let the government buy the ticket for me. And because it is a moving expense for my job, I can take it off my taxes. So it isn't even saving the taxpayer money for me to buy my own ticket.
So unless United changes its policy to include the other people who are serving this country and PCSing on government orders, I will be buying my own ticket. And I will certainly avoid buying tickets on United for my vacations if I have to jump through these hoops in order to PCS. In order to serve.
And that is why I won't be flying United. And I hope you won't either.