Help! My Dog Was Rejected by the Airline Because of a Carrier Rule That Doesn't Exist.

The gate agent said the canine's carrier wasn't big enough, even though the pet had flown on the same route before. Our columnist tries to figure out what the rules for pets on planes actually are.

Help! My Dog Was Rejected by the Airline Because of a Carrier Rule That Doesn't Exist.

Dear Tripped Up

We had flown with our dog Bella, a 13-year old Coton de Tulear, nine times on the exact same route (Seattle-Houston) and in the same carrier, soft-sided, of the correct dimensions, on the United airline. On trip number 10, however, the Seattle counter agent informed us that Bella could not fly because her back touched the sides and top of the carrier as she turned. The supervisor agreed with the decision. We bought one-way tickets at Delta and flew without incident the next day. I was surprised that an airline could arbitrarily enforce rules that were not listed on their website. Can you investigate this matter and compensate us for the extra cost we paid for a late-night flight? Jacki, Seattle

Dear Jacki

It's not just you who has complained to me about the mysterious "no touching" rule. This unwritten rule, which is gaining traction among airline check-in agents, appears to be a part of the oral tradition. Betsy from Paradise Valley in Arizona wrote to me with a similar story about American Airlines. Her family's Havanese dogs were initially refused boarding for not being able to'stand up fully without their heads touching the top crate'. The airline finally gave in after being shown proof that the dogs were allowed to fly the previous day. Betsy said her family had not flown with their dogs ever since.

BringFido's pet travel website, which allows users to review airlines, revealed several incidents of 'no-touching' that led to the dreaded "one bone" rating (out of five).

In recent years, traveling with pets has become more difficult. Emotional support animals have been banned, and fewer airlines will allow pets to fly in the cargo hold. Even the small dogs, cats, birds, and other pets who are allowed to fly inside the cabin must adhere to very strict rules, which vary from airline to airline. Although the U.S. Government is concerned with what animals enter the country, it has not interfered in domestic pet travel. Instead, the airlines are allowed to establish their own guidelines, as long as they fit under the seat directly in front of passengers.

Spirit allows domestic birds and has a weight limit of 40 pounds. This raises some interesting questions about pet tom turkeys that I do not have time to address.

The language used to describe how to determine if a pet will fit into its carrier is similar, perhaps because both the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an international trade organization, and the government have addressed the issue. The federal regulations require that animals have "enough room to turn around normally while standing, sit and stand erect and lie in a normal position." IATA's guidelines follow the same principles.

I called both United and American for Betsy and received two different responses.

United demands that pets have the ability to "stand up and turn while inside." What that actually means can be interpreted in different ways. Erin Jankowski wrote me an email saying that a pet had to be able turn around and stand up without tipping the carrier over.

I sent your full complaint to you. The response was direct, but short on details. She replied that the agent had made the right decision in this case based on company guidelines. She said that the refund for your original flight cost was received within a few days, but didn't address why Bella was allowed to fly on previous flights.

American Airlines took a different view of Betsy's Havanese and the Havanese in her family. Andrea Koos wrote in an email that it was permissible for a pet's tail, ears, or fur to touch the interior of a kennel. According to the information provided, they can fly with their pets.

I wrote to other major American airlines, but only Delta (JetBlue, Alaska, Frontier) responded, citing a "no-touching" rule. While airline employees have the discretion to decide whether a container will fit under a seat and is humane, pets on most airlines shouldn't be denied boarding because their fur has touched the carrier.

But depending on the amount of contact -- and especially if there is a bulge-- that could be enough to reject an animal. Sheila Goffe is a vice-president of the American Kennel Club. She noted that in theory, dogs with erect earlobes that add two inches to their height, and are pressed against the top edge of the container, could be rejected. She said, 'It is funny to think about it, but there are gray areas which could cause a problem.'

Erin Ballinger is the destination editor at BringFido. She says: "Travelers will always be at the airline's discretion." You may want to reconsider your travel plans if it's close whether or not your pet will have enough space.

Dr. Nelva Bryant, founder of When Pets Fly said that the'very obvious solution' in borderline cases would be to send your pet as cargo so you don't risk being denied. Many dog owners are apprehensive about putting their pets in the cargo hold. Many airlines, including Delta and United, have banned flying animals as cargo for the time being.

A cat is another option, though I don't think most dog owners would choose this. Cats are not immune from problems. I learned this when Frederick, a Los Angeles resident, wrote me to tell me that his domestic shorthair cat named Lola was refused boarding by Delta last December, despite the fact that she fit in a standard carrier.

Pets, just like humans, are susceptible to being bumped.

The airlines allow a certain number of pets on each plane, and in some cases even within each cabin (service animals are excluded from the limits). They strongly recommend booking ahead. Delta, along with several other airlines has a 'first come, first served' policy that is posted for those without reservations. Frederick and Lola had a confirmed reservation. So why were they bumped to a later flight and forced to do so? Delta could have overbooked the flight with pets.

Morgan Durant is a spokesperson for Delta. He says that this was not the case. He wrote that if they arrived two hours prior to departure, those who called before the departure date would be served first.

Frederick claimed that he had arrived two hours before the scheduled time but waited for two more hours in a line he called 'hideously long'. I assume that Delta gave Lola's place to the person in front of them who was bringing a dog, cat or parakeet. It was not his fault. Mr. Durant said that Delta apologized and offered Frederick a "goodwill gesture" for their error.

Frederick claimed that the only upgrade he received was Comfort Plus four and a quarter hours later. And only after he asked. He said it wasn't good enough. I tend to agree. When someone travels with a pet, you cannot just give them a treat.