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by Nick Mays

A LEADING airline which banned five breeds of dog from being carried as cargo on its services after a Pit Bull escaped from its cage in the cargo hold of a flight has hit back at criticism of its introduction of the breed ban.

Campaigners have already denounced the new policy as “Breed Specific Legislation in the private sector.”

American Airlines announced its new policy on August 7th via an internal Cargo Service Advisory Bulletin stated: "Effective Immediately, the following restrictions are in Place. American Airlines will no longer accept the following breeds of dogs:

American Pit Bull Terrier American Staffor(d)shire Terrier (sic) Bull Terrier Doberman Pinscher Rottweiler

The statement continues:

“Puppies of these breeds between 8 & 12 weeks of age may be accepted. The breed and age of the dog must be indicated on the health certificate. Crossbreeds containing one of the above breeds, when indicated on the health certificate are also prohibited."

The message was soon flashed across the Internet via the anti-BSL group DogHolocaust and led to the airline being deluged with complaints from dog owners across the world, although predominantly those based in America. It is American dog owners who would suffer most from the breed ban, as AA flights are used extensively for domestic cross-country journeys.

According to an AA spokesperson the pit bull was held in an approved airline travel container in the hold of a 757 on a domestic flight from San Diego to New York’s JFK Airport. Apparently flight personnel did not discover that the dog was free until the plane landed, and the pilot summoned the dog’s owner, who was aboard the same flight, to capture the animal. Apparently the dog had caused “some damage” to the hold, although the extent of this was not revealed, but airline staff took photographs of the damage.

Soon after this, the airline consulted insurers about the incident and queried which dogs should be banned to prevent such an incident occurring again – apparently oblivious of the fact that any breed of dog could escape under similar circumstances.

According to the spokesman, the insurers came up with a lost of breeds which were considered‘dangerous’ and the Airline introduced the ban immediately.

Two weeks ago, OUR DOGS contacted Jennifer Pemberton of American Airlines Cargo division regarding the new restrictions. Ms Pemberton said:

“American AirlinesCargo recently made a change in its Live Animal Acceptance Policy to restrict certain canine breeds which experts consider to be aggressive in nature. We regret that this may cause inconvenience to our customers who depend on American for this cargo service. The new policy was adopted for safety reasons, due to an unfortunate incident involving an aggressive breed dog. No affront is intended toward the specified restricted breeds.

”American Airlines was the first airline to develop rigid standards for the safe transportation of animals and this decision is an extension of that commitment. We have many animal lovers who work for American Airlines, as well as many employee dog owners. The objectives associated with our animal acceptance policy are to transport animals safely. We trust you understand that safety is American Airlines number one priority.”

The statement relayed by Ms Pemberton was roundly denounced by anti-BSL campaigners and dog owners across the world. One correspondent to the DogHolocaust List summed up the feelings of many, saying: “If the airline can ban ‘breeds’ of dog because of an incident with one animal, then why haven't they banned all Muslims after the terrorist attacks on 9-11? Same thing. Safety is their number one priority? Laughable!”

OUR DOGS responded to Ms Pemberton with a number of questions as to the background to their policy, which included a query as to which ‘experts’ defined the five listed breeds as ‘dangerous’ and on what scientific basis this decision was reached.

Ms Pemberton did not respond to the questions or any subsequent follow-up messages, although when finally contacted late last week by OUR DOGS, she said that she had been on sick leave and would refer our questions to Tara Baten in American Airlines’ Corporate Communications Department.

Still receiving no response, OUR DOGS made contact with Ms Baten on Monday of this week.

Ms Baten’s attitude was extremely defensive and at first she argued whether the breed ban was “arbitrary” or not. Ms Baten said: “I will look at your questions again, but I will only respond if I consider it appropriate... We get lots of enquiries from people such as you and they all have deadlines. You may consider your questions to be legitimate, but we are extremely busy. I shall respond if I consider it appropriate to do so. ”

OUR DOGS then forwarded our questions to Don Carty, head of Corporate Communications. Within a few hours, a response had been received via e-mail from Gus Whitcomb, the Managing Director of AA’s Strategic Communications department, acting as Ombudsman to the Corporate Communications section, presumably at Mr Carty’s request.

Mr Whitcomb apologised for Tara Baten’s response (or lack of response) and answered the questions to the best of his ability.

The questions appear here as asked, together with Mr Whitcombe’s response (and spellings asgiven):

1) Which "experts" identified the listed breeds as dangerous?

”Although you may think it semantics, no one listed the breeds as dangerous. Working with groups who have to make similar tough decisionssuch as the insurance industry, we banned breeds associated with aggressive behavior and any animal of any breed that exhibits aggressive behavior during the acceptance or boarding process.”

2) Were these experts in specific canine disciplines?

”I cannot answer without a definition of "specific canine discipline“

3) On what scientific basis and on what scientific evidence was this decision made?

”Please see answer #1.”

4) Is American Airlines prepared for a legal challenge to the ban?

”Absolutely. The safety of a flight - and preserving the lives of every passenger onboard that plane - provides a solid defense to any lawsuit.”

5) How can a breed specific ban be introduced based on one incident?

”Every day, hundreds of thousands of people entrust their lives to American Airlines and we take the responsibility for their safety as the most serious aspect of our jobs.

We were very fortunate that this incident did not impact the safety offlight. However, to further reduce that risk, we've made a tough decision by banning these animals. We are not out to inconvenience any group of people. Remember, we're giving up substantial revenue - the animal transportation fees and the accompanying passenger fares - by making this decision. But nothing is going to compromise our commitment to safety.

As emotional as this issue is, I trust that your readers will stop and think about what conversation we'd be having if that plane had gone down.”

OUR DOGS will continue to monitor the ongoing situation with regard to AA’s breed ban. We would be delighted to hear from any readers who may have been in contact with American Airlines on this matter, and any response they may have received from the airline.

© Nick Mays/OUR DOGS August 2002