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Cats on a Plane!

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There are plenty of travel sites that tell you how to do things the right way — but as every traveler knows, sometimes things go wrong. In his bi-monthly travel mistake series, TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten invites you to learn from his mistakes — his many, many mistakes. 

Experts recommend that your pet fly inside the plane. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)
Despite this great photo, experts recommend that your cat fly *inside* the plane. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

For a few years, I was bi-coastal between Los Angeles and New York. Well, almost. I kept my place in LA and would find people in NYC who wanted to swap apartments for a few weeks or months at a time. It worked out great, except for one thing: I didn’t want to bring my cats for such short periods and I missed them terribly. Then I found a guy who was willing to swap for six months and let me bring my cats, Coffee and Donut, with me to his place.

Because most airlines allow only one pet in the cabin per passenger, I coordinated with my friend Jim to be on my flight with me from Burbank (BUR) to New York-JFK so both Coffee and Donut could fly together under our seats. I paid the fees, got the paperwork and some medication from the vet, borrowed a friend’s fancy carriers and just to be safe, bought two harnesses and leashes.

The travel day started uneventfully. At home, I got the cats into their carriers without a problem, but as usual, they were not thrilled to be in them. Donut meowed for most of the ride to the airport, then eventually accepted the reality of his situation and stayed quiet and calm until New York. Coffee, however, could not be comforted. From door to door –upwards of 10 hours of travel — he didn’t stop yowling. Even worse, once on the plane he thrashed about in his carrier, tossing and turning the way a guilty man dreams.

This was out of character for a cat who seemed to purr if you even looked at him, and who could sleep through an earthquake. (Fortunately, my seatmate was a friend and the flight was fairly empty.)

I was worried about Coffee, so I gave him the sedative the vet had prescribed — but it had no effect. I stuck my hand inside the carrier to pet him. Nothing. I even took him out of the carrier to hold him for a bit. Still, he just cried.

Finally, we landed and managed to arrive at the apartment where I let him out of his carrier. He had a little food, looked around his new home, jumped up on the bed, lay on my chest and fell asleep purring. This was the Coffee I knew: happy and peaceful.

Until six months later… when we had to fly back to LA.

TPG Travel Editor Melanie Wynne recently flew cross-country with her calico, Ruby — and despite appearances in this photo, Ruby did beautifully.
TPG Travel Editor Melanie Wynne recently flew cross-country with her calico, Ruby — and despite her face in this photo, Ruby came through the experience with, um, flying colors.

Though Coffee is now gone, I still travel and I still have cats. What can I — and you other cat owners out there — learn to have a better experience when flying with cats? I asked two people who know.

Francine Hicks is the Northeast Regional Director of The International Cat Association (TICA), which educates the public on feline welfare and the different breeds of cats. She also judges cat shows all around the world.

Ryan Englekirk travels regularly with his cat Wendell. Since 2009, Wendell has logged more than 200,000 miles and been turned down twice for his own frequent flier account. (He was well on his way to Gold status on United last year.)

Some cats are fascinated by flying. (Photo courtesy of Nikki Crandall-Seibert)
Some cats dream of elite status on United. Photo courtesy of Nikki Crandall-Seibert.

You obviously deal with cats that are okay with flying. How do you tell if a cat is/isn’t a good candidate to fly?

Francine: Some cats travel well and some do not. Most cats get used to the travel.

Ryan: The big thing is that you have to know your cat. Wendell is half Maine Coon and is like a “surfer” cat. Very little upsets him. He is the only cat I have ever had that actually enjoys riding in cars. He is so mellow. So, if you are going to fly with your cat frequently, you need to honestly assess whether this is best for both of you.

Some cats are more ready to travel than others. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)
Some cats are more ready to travel than others. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

But Coffee was so sweet and happy every other day of his life.

Francine: Maybe he is just being a cat — they are sometimes unpredictable. Even show cats act differently from show to show. I flew once with a cat who was quiet and resting on the way out to Vegas but a maniac on the way back. Maybe he liked day flights.

The TSA screening at the airport was fairly easy, but I’m guessing it didn’t help Coffee’s mood?

Ryan: Going through TSA screening with a cat is like traveling with an infant. It just takes more time. When you go through TSA, you will need to pull the cat out of the carrier and carry him through the metal detector. They will then swab your hands and often give you a pat down. Bring your patience with you — if you’re running late, you will be stressed, which will cause kitty to be more stressed.

Francine: Also, TSA and airline personnel are usually very excited to see your pet. They all want to see the cat.

Ryan: One time, TSA went through Wendell’s carrier and wiped it down to check for whatever they are checking — but then, they frisked him! Wendell got patted down. It was probably an excuse to pet the cat (and he certainly enjoyed the attention), but it was still pretty funny. Too bad they didn’t allow photos.

Halina enjoys the window seat. (Photo courtesy of Nikki Crandall-Seibert)
Halina enjoys the window seat. Photo courtesy of Nikki Crandall-Seibert.

Are certain airlines better for flying with cats? I flew with Coffee and Donut on JetBlue.

Ryan: I ONLY fly airlines that are pet-friendly (even if Wendell is not with me). I use United and Virgin America — though American and Southwest are also pet-friendly.

Are certain seats on the plane better for cats?

Ryan: Check configurations of the airplane. For example, if you prefer business class and if your flight has the recline/bed seats, they may not be able to accommodate pets in that class. If you choose a 737, make sure you select a window seat, otherwise kitty doesn’t fit under the seat in front of you. Certain types of aircraft actually have more room in economy. However, if you can upgrade, do upgrade.

You can’t sit in bulkheads or emergency exit seats, so make life easy and don’t choose those seats ahead of time. Middle seats often have the most room under the seat in front of them, followed by the window.

What could I have done differently to make my travels with Coffee better?

Ryan: My only suggestion would be to get the cat used to being in a carrier. It sounds as though he was freaked out being confined. I would also try pulling him out, putting him on your lap and covering him with a blanket. Be careful though, some flight attendants get snippy when you take your pet out.

Francine: Once on a nine-hour flight to New York, the stewardess allowed the cat to take the empty seat beside me. She sat like a little princess with her tray table down having her snack. Great flight!

Motzie always follows FAA regulations and buckles up. (Photo courtesy of Deborah-Ann Milette)
Motzie always follows FAA regulations and buckles up. Photo courtesy of Deborah-Ann Milette.

I tried taking him out, but he was mostly in the carrier I borrowed. Could I have improved the carrier situation?

Francine: Get the cat used to the carrier. Leave it out for the cat to go in and out of. Maybe put his/her favorite toy in the carrier. Prior to travel, line the carrier with an absorbent pad and then something nice and soft for the kitty to sleep and travel on. There are also portable litter boxes that you can have handy in case the need arises. Make sure the carrier has air circulation. A small water dish inside the carrier with a sponge full of water will help the cat get liquid if he/she desires.

What about the medication? It didn’t seem to work for Coffee (or the people around him).

Francine: You should always consult your vet for advice. Also, try the medication prior to the trip so you know how your cat would react. Some medications can have an opposite effect on cats.

Ryan: I would also check with your vet to see if there is another type of medication or try medicating him/her before you get on the airplane.

Coffee and Donut in calmer times.
Coffee and Donut in calmer times.

Have you flown with a cat? What mistakes did you make? Let us know in the comments.

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