Air Travel, Avian Style

I believe I can fly“, a tune a friend sings to my African Grey keeps running through my head. I can fly and I do and I usually take Siva, my Umbrella Cockatoo with me. It sounds easy, and it is, well kind of easy, sometimes, but it didn’t all happen in one day.

This is an article about flying with a pet bird, one small enough to fit in a regulation sized carrier and placed under the seat of the passenger in front of you. The carrier must be no greater than 22″x 14″x 9”. The first thing I did upon hearing this was to compress my cockatoo and measure him. He measured squished, 17″ x 7″ x 7″, a sure fit.

Evaluation Of The Parrot For Travel

The first thing one needs to do before arranging a plane flight is to evaluate the suitability of your bird for travel. It seems somewhat disconcerting that one would have to make a decision about a bird flying, for what is a bird but a flying creature. Although you never really know what your bird’s reaction will be, it is necessary to be in tune with your bird. I will use my four birds as examples by looking at their personality traits.

Trait Blue Fronted
Amazon
Lovebird Umbrella
Cockatoo
Congo Grey
Handling good excellent excellent good
Screaming twice a day none yes no
When/Why sunrise sunset
territorial
tantrums, for
attention, frustration
Adaptability excellent excellent excellent so so
Automobile excellent mediocre but
accepting
excellent fine if not caged
Crowds accepting
doesn’t like it
shy but accepting excellent not good
Carrier excellent mediocre accepting tolerant, depends
on situation
Patience excellent excellent depends on situation okay not great

Handling is important, as you need to be able to easily transfer your bird from carrier to travel cage in strange surroundings. You may need to get into the cage in case of an emergency or delay. Uncontrollable screaming would not be acceptable on a plane. The bird must be able to adapt easily to a new and changing environment without a phobic episode. There will be a need to take a car, bus or train from the plane to your destination, so it is helpful if the bird rides well in a vehicle. There will be crowds at the airport and perhaps at your destination. People are curious about pets in carriers. The bird must be able to stay in it’s carrier throughout the flight and on public and even private transportation. The bird must be patient while in the carrier or while waiting in case of undue delays.

Looking over the chart, the cockatoo or amazon would be the most likely candidates for air travel. It isn’t only the parrot that needs to be able to tolerate the flight, but you that must be patient with the bird and willing to trouble shoot and quickly solve problems that might arise. Your activities might be possibly limited during your trip with your bird along.

Planning The Trip And Considering The Parrot

Once it has been established that the bird would adapt and do well, it is time to plan your trip with consideration for your avian companion’s mental and physical welfare. The first question to ask yourself is whether your friend would be happier at home. If the answer is no and if you will not be depriving him of quality time during your trip the next consideration is your parrot as luggage.

A Parrot As Luggage

You are allowed two pieces of carry-on luggage, and one of them is your parrot and his carrier. The other should consist of emergency provisions and things for him that you cannot do without, including the first aid kit. If you are like me and like to travel with a banjo, computer, cameras…forget it. Something has to go. I have always been referred to by my family as “all you can wear 10ข”. When flying with my feathered buddy, he becomes the priority. My second piece of carry-on is a backpack and the only non bird related items inside are my camera or video camera, tickets, and identification papers and money.

Selecting An Airline

This should be fairly easy now that I have emailed, called and checked out homepages for the larger airlines, the latter being the most unsuccessful as I dare you to find the animal requirements on most of them. The following chart shows the results of my queries.

AIRLINE YES/NO FEE COMMENTS
Alaska yes yes one pet per cabin
Horizon (Alaska) yes no no minimum it seems
Aloha email sent
America West yes $50 each way/vet ck.
American Airlines yes $50 each way/vet ck.
Continental yes $50 each way/vet ck.
2 to a cage if small
Delta yes $60
$50
$40
in cabin/one
cargo
shuttle
Kiwi Airlines yes $50 each way/vet ck.
Midwest Express no
yes

$50
cabin
baggage-each way/vet ck.
Northwest Airlines yes $50 each way/vet ck.
Reno Air yes $25
$45
cabin
baggage limit of 100# weight
Southwest Airlines no
TWA yes $50 each way/vet ck.
United Airlines yes $50 each way/vet ck.
US Air no
yes
on F28-4000
2 to a cage if small
obnoxious
will remove bird to baggage
if anyone complains.
Valujet no
Western Pacific
World Airlines
cargo airlines

There are lots of tiny airlines. Feel free to contact them yourself.

Airline Awards

Researching airlines proved so interesting that I have decided to give awards or ratings to my favorite airlines:

  • Animal Lovers Award – America West Grade = A+
  • Good Guys – Clearly those that allow birds on board.
  • Most Confusing – Continental (who when called said they allow birds, but in email said they took small birds. However by email I was told, “We accept small birds in the cabin. I would not think a parrot would qualify.”) Grade = C-
  • Most Surprising -Valujet ( I thought they would be agreeable to anything) Grade = D-
  • Most obnoxious Rules – US Air Grade = F-

Reservations

Once you have chosen an airline you need to be sure to make your reservation well in advance, so as to be one of the lucky few permitted to bring a pet into the cabin. It’s important to decide whether you would prefer to be sitting at the window or at the aisle remembering that your carrier goes under the seat in front of you. I prefer the window so that my aisle mates don’t have to step over us during the flight. This, however can pose a problem if you and the parrot need to go to the restroom. There is always the middle seat which alleviates any need to make a decision.

The Regulation Carrier

I was able to find an approved under-the-seat carrier at a local discount pet supermarket. Siva could have easily eaten his way out of it, so I measured all of the openings on it and ordered metal reinforced cage sides which were made to order by a company that builds cages for zoos. I attached these to the inside of the carrier with nuts on the inside and bolts on the outside. It ran about $40 to cockatoo proof the carrier to avoid any in flight surprises.

Travel Cage

You will need a travel cage for when you reach your destination. There are several available. I use the Papagallo, which seems to be the same as any folding cage, except that you can get a grate with it. Mine has held up well and I was able to purchase the first ever real piece of luggage with wheels and a pull strap for it at a local department store sale. The salesman thought I was quite mad to want to purchase luggage for a parrot.

Preparation For Travel

Once you have in your possession all of the necessary equipment for travel, your next job is to prepare your bird for the trip. I would suggest a minimum of one month ahead for preparation. I began by setting up the travel cage in my studio with the dishes and toys that I would bring along for the trip. Each afternoon I let Siva play on and in the travel cage. As he began to look forward to this special time I would place him inside of the cage and increase the time as he grew more used to the new routine. I always made the time in the cage positive time, with me in full view at the beginning, but leaving him there as I did other things as time went on. This was a very easy transition for him.

The next hurdle was the carrier. He had always loved the airline carrier far better than a more suitable sized carrier we had for him. This was probably because it was his first carrier. Someone recommended an acrylic carrier and decided to order one, specifically made for his needs. It arrived, was detested by all of the birds and luckily I was allowed to return it after Siva cut himself on the inside hardware in a panic. After that experience he raced back to the cheap plastic reinforced carrier happily. The carrier was then lined with a plush towel and some favorite small hand toys were put inside. I would work at my desk, again for limited periods at first, gradually extending the time periods, with him underneath the desk with my feet in front of him. We did this everyday. I then began to take him to work with me half days once a week, with him in the same position at the desk as I worked on the computer, stopping for potty breaks when he asked. Training sessions continued daily until the flight date.

Health Certificate

A health certificate seems to be required by all airlines permitting pets on board. This needs to be issued by a veterinarian, usually within 10 days of flying. It is important to schedule a visit well ahead of time as close to departure date as possible. Usually no one asks to see the certificate, but on my worst flight ever, with one minute left to board, the certificate was requested.

Packing Parrot Paraphernalia

Packing for travel is a major job. The first thing I do is create a list of what the bird will need to take along, including food, equipment, toys, first aid kit, etc. The following items are in my backpack:

  • Dry food is pre-measured into plastic ziplock bags. I bring three days more than I need. They are then rolled, air pressed out of them, and placed into a larger ziplock bag.
  • Treats are packaged in a single ziplock bag.
  • Hot meals are pre-measured into plastic bags same as dry meals.
  • First Aid Kit
  • A Collapsible t-perch was made for me by a friend. It has two heights and fits unassembled in the backpack
  • A small jar of Peanut Butter for a quick fix and plastic knife are packed into a plastic bag.
  • Water is carried in a one pint bottle with a plastic cap that Siva has been trained to drink from.
  • Paper towels for clean up
  • Small pump Spray Bottle for showers and clean up.
  • Extra Hand toys for layover
  • Food and water dishes
  • Vitamins

As there is no guarantee that the bird will be quiet on the plane, I made an over the shoulder bag for the carrier. I carry a towel and baby blanket in the bag as well as the water bottle. The towel and blanket create a dark safe place during take off, landing and any fussing. They also serve to protect him from prying eyes on a subway, in a train station or in a restaurant. He has been present but invisible at Japanese, Italian and Thai restaurants.

In the suitcase I pack the cage wrapped in bubble wrap to avoid breakage, a cage cover, additional toys for when I must leave him, attachments for the food dishes, cuttle bone, wood blocks, extra towels for the carrier and newspaper for the first day.

What To Expect

You need to prepare ahead for any possible problem. I found myself unable to sleep the night before departure worrying about what I might have forgotten. It is possible that there will be those on your flight that are terrified of parrots as disease carriers, allergens or who are simply phobic about birds. I found that a smile and an explanation, that the parrot has a paid ticket and every right to be on the plane, the same as you do, can help if not the problem, then your own state of mind.

On a flight originating in New York at La Guardia, due to traffic I arrived with one minute to spare after three hours in a traffic jam, had inadvertently packed the backpack and water in the trunk, and had to jam a hungry thirsty angry cockatoo into the carrier, cover him and board a plane with the cockatoo screaming as if he was being murdered. To quiet him down, I kept talking to what appeared to others to be my bag, saying, “It’s okay” over and over. I was reported by other passengers as being an insane woman talking to her bag. They wanted me and when they found out I had a parrot, him as well, off of the plane. Finally there was nothing for the crew to do but ignore them. I was given free drinks and the bird was fed and watered without removal from the carrier. I kept a smile and a positive attitude, though I was beside myself from this spoiled angry bunch of approximately ten passengers.

In a recent flight on America West I ran into two problems. I was given a seat without a seat in front of me, making it impossible to place Siva under the seat. At check in I found that the two carry-ons had been reduced to one without advance notice. Luckily it was not enforced. Check, check and double check.

Getting To The Plane

You need to arrive at the airport at least an hour before departure to deal with any hassles from ignorant counter people who don’t know that a bird can indeed ride on the aircraft. The health certificate must be available at a moment’s notice. If you are like me, you need to plan for a potty stop for the parrot before boarding the plane. Siva loves airport toilets. It is possible that at the x-ray machine someone will want to remove the parrot from the carrier to inspect it for explosives. At this point apart from visualizing an exploding parrot, it is best to warn them of the possibility of receiving a nasty bite, and offer to remove the bird yourself. They usually will acquiesce.

At a destination, the agenda is first to find a place for the bird to relieve himself. If a bathroom is not easily available, I search out a garbage can. If I have a wait between planes I take the bird out and offer him water and peanut butter or any treat that he will enjoy with minimal mess to the airport. At the final destination, I make sure I have the bird in the carrier, covered from the elements before heading outside. Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to get to the airport for your trip home. Remember my three hour delay in a traffic jam.

Warning, Feeling Out, The Hosts

Make sure that your hosts know what they are in for and have a secondary plan. People who do not live with parrots, may have a glorified and unrealistic view of them, but the bubble can burst when one invades their magnificent home. Siva was to stay in my sister’s kitchen where most of the action is. It was agreed that I was to leave him when I needed to be in Manhattan for the day and he would be fine. I came home to find that he had thrown a fit mid-day and had been covered with his large dark cover all day and into the evening. I did not bother to address the situation, just simply took his cage with me to my room and placed it on a trunk at the foot of my bed in the attic near a bright sunny window overlooking the farm. It would be better to have him alone upstairs when I would be gone free to do as he pleased, uncovered, than to be in the midst of everything under a dark cover missing out on the action. My family was relieved to see the end of him in my absence. I had the t-perch for when I was home, so he could be included in most activities. Before making dates with old friends, I mentioned that I was traveling with Siva, and the date was made if he was welcome. If not, they could come to my sister’s to visit.

Reflecting On The Trip. Next Time?

If I were to return to New York, I would bring Siva. I would leave for the airport to return home five hours ahead of schedule, or find a driver who knew a good route. Siva did very well and yes, he may continue to travel. If it is to be a short trip or a work trip and my husband is willing and Siva is doing well, I would leave him at home. Each trip deserves to be evaluated for what is best for the parrot and his person.