Folks, I know it might come as a surprise that I, Howard Hawks, feline extraordinaire would post about the travails of dogs. However, what happened to my three four-legged friends and their Can Openers at the hands of Air New Zealand, is a tail (and yes, I mean tail and not tale) worth repeating. Let this be a warning to anyone traveling with pets.
Additional warning: it’s a long one.
The Tail of Travail (as told by my Can Opener)
These days we’re hearing more about how airlines are working hard to make traveling with pets safer. Unfortunately, when it the time comes for actions to backstop words, two airlines—Air New Zealand and their partner at San Francisco International Airport
(SFO)—got it wrong.
My tail about flying with pets is told from the perspective of a friend picking up a Doug (friend on two) and Higgons, Molly, and Brissie (three friends on four) after a thirteen plus hour flight from Auckland, New Zealand to San Francisco. Knowing full well that Doug would arrive exhausted and stressed, having endured what probably felt like an eternity of turbulence and worry over things like “is the climate control working in the cargo,” I decided to check in with the airport as to how exactly animals arrive in the international terminal.
I started with www.flysfo.com, doing a search on various forms of flying with pets, but couldn’t find any relevant information. Next, I called the airport. They referred me to airport security, which referred me to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, who assured me the animals would proceed through like luggage — i.e., come off the plane and be waiting for their owners to retrieve them after they cleared passport control. I then called Air New Zealand to confirm that there would be nothing unusual and was given information that matched U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Armed with this information, my friend Scott and I loaded up the 1978 Nissan truck with treats and water and headed to SFO.
I’d like to say it all went smoothly from there. Sadly, it didn’t.
The first snag occurred while riding the Terminal G escalator to the international arriving passengers waiting area. We spotted the Air New Zealand plane at the gate and I was happy, until I saw three dog carriers sitting on the tarmac. The plane had landed 20 minutes earlier and my three four-legged friends were sitting on a busy tarmac in the hot sun with no human being in sight.
While Scott waited for Doug, I proceeded to information and said, “I am here to meet a passenger and three dogs and I just saw the three dogs sitting outside on the tarmac in the hot sun. I need them brought in immediately.” The response was, “Go to the Air New Zealand counter.” So I did. It was closed. I then called the toll-free number still programmed in my phone. After a few minutes on hold a customer service agent answered.
“I am at San Francisco International Airport to meet a passenger and three dogs who’ve just flown in from Auckland. The flight landed over 20 minutes ago and the three dogs are right now sitting outside on the tarmac in the hot sun. I need this taken care of immediately,” I said.
“Ma’am, you have reached Air New Zealand reservations in Auckland, what do you want us to do?”
“I want you to get those dogs off the tarmac,” I said.
“We are in Auckland, ma’am.”
“There is nobody at your desk, the dogs are on the tarmac, I need this taken care of immediately.”
“Ma’am, this is Air New Zealand reservations.”
“Look,” I said, “as I see it we have two options: One, I hang up and call airport security and have these dogs taken care of; or, two, you call someone at SFO and have them take those dogs off the tarmac immediately.”
“We’ll call right away, ma’am.”
Almost eighty minutes after deplaning, a very stressed Doug exited through the international arrivals door, sans dogs. Clutched in his hand was a piece of paper with an address: 585 McDonnell Road. We got in the truck and drove as quickly as possible to this difficult to get to from the terminal address, depositing the Doug at the door before parking.
When Scott and I entered the building, we found one person at the counter and a couple of people ahead of Doug. When our turn finally arrived, we were told to wait for the Air New Zealand person. This person turned up about five minutes later and made our Doug go through a lengthy bureaucratic process that ended with a request for cash payment. This man just flew in from another country! Still, he patiently made the cash payment, completed and signed all the requisite paperwork, and answered all the questions; after all, the faster this went, the sooner he’d be reunited with his dogs.
The whole process took a good twenty minutes, with the counter agent sauntering back and forth between the counter and the back room. When it everything was completed, she handed some papers to my friend and said, “Now you need to take these to US Customs for signature.”
“Back at the airport?” I said.
“No,” she answered, “another office.”
“Where?” The three of us asked in unison.
“Make a right at the light and a left when you reach the Stop Sign. The road will split into a Y.”
“Do you have street names? An address.”
She just looked at us blankly.
We took off, driving as quickly as possible, grumbling about the ridiculousness of the process and wondering what would have happened should he have been alone, without cash, and worse, without a car.
At the Y, we found two stop signs. Erring on the side of going left, we took the left Y. Then we drove around looking for Customs, finally entering into a Restricted area of the airport. A gate guard started yelling at us, but I was unwilling to move until he told me the location of the Customs Office. But, all we got out of him was, “Back there.”
We drove “back there” and saw a lot of unmarked buildings. At the Post Office we gave up, stopped, and two of us sat in the idling truck while the Doug ran in to ask directions. Luckily, a customs officer happened to be in there and gave us accurate directions to the UNMARKED Customs building.
After another few minutes, and confusion on the part of the Customs office, the Doug got the requisite signatures and we were driving way too fast back to the Air New Zealand/United Airlines cargo office.
We once again deposited the Doug at the door and parked. We expected to see him with the Higgons, Molly, and Brissie when we entered. Instead, we found him waiting at the empty cargo counter. We heard employees laughing and singing in the back and the other counter person (not the Air New Zealand agent) said, “I told them you were here.”
The agent who helped us before finally ambled up from the back. She took the signed paperwork and asked for ID. A US Passport was presented to which she said, “No, I need your ID.” Apparently, a US Passport is no longer an adequate form of ID. Doug finally said, “I have a passport or a New Zealand driver’s license.” She took the driver’s license.
By this time Doug has been in San Francisco for three hours. The three dogs have been on the tarmac, on a transport, and in a noisy cargo shed where there are trucks and forklifts moving about. Our agent hands back the paperwork and says, “You can go wait in that room over there.”
We proceed to that room “over there” and stood at the door, looking out the window, expecting the dogs to be brought up. Instead one of the workers comes to collect the paperwork from everyone waiting in the “room.” He looked at our papers and said, “You need to take a number.”
Safe to say I was ready to blow my stack at this point, but I managed to keep my next remarks at a beginning boil. “You are not seriously going to make us wait one more minute?” I said. “We are picking up live animals. Dogs who have been in crates for over eighteen hours.”
He told me to go back and speak to the counter agent. I went in back and ripped into her. Better me than Doug who would probably have been arrested for homicide, although, given the lackadaisical attitude on the part of her and her colleagues, a good lawyer could have justified it. Without blinking, she pointed me to her manager. I went over to him and ripped him a new one. Within five minutes we had the dogs. Finally.
Total time to get three dogs who were supposed to proceed through customs with their owner: three and a half hours. Doug was not bringing a Eucalyptus plant into the country. These were live animals, family members, beings who are hungry, thirsty, scared, and who don’t understand what was happening to them. And regardless of all the preparation on the part of Doug and his wife Suzi, including several advance phone calls and paying a pet travel service, of my advance sleuthing to make sure I knew exactly what to expect at the airport, nothing went as any of us were told it would.
If SFO wants to call itself a pet friendly airport, it needs to do more than install a pet relief area. They need to actually relieve pets and their owners of this ridiculous bureaucracy. And if Air New Zealand, and by extension, United Airlines, who is the Air New Zealand partner, wants to be considered “pet friendly airlines,” then they need to seriously clean up their respective acts, starting with treating pets like living beings and not oversized luggage. They need to recognize that pet owners are under tremendous stress given the uncertainty and the statistics of the number of animals who do not survive a flight; and, they need to hire competent, compassionate people who care about making the process easier instead of more difficult. Finally, the airlines needs to synch up with US Customs who seems to be perfectly fine with processing animals through with their owners.
Thankfully, we received three breathing, happy dogs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if SFO, Air New Zealand, and United Airlines have a high death rate given their appalling attitudes toward pet travel.
In sum, I hate to say it, but if you love your pets, do not fly with them to SFO and/or on either of these airlines until you have proof, not words, that they actually understand they are transporting precious life and they act accordingly.
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