Little Neytiri caused a big uproar recently on an AirTran Airways flight from Atlanta to Milwaukee when his 10-year-old owner took him out of his cage and cuddled him on the taxiway.
After spying Carley Helm holding her two-inch turtle, the crew ordered the plane to return to the gate, where Helm and her sisters were told they must dispose of their pet if they wanted to reboard the flight.
They put him on top of a trash bin, hoping their father would retrieve him. He couldn't find him, but an airline administrator did and after several stressful days the reptile was reunited with his tween owner.
The moral of the story: If you want to travel with a pet, it's important to research a carrier's policy regarding animals in the cabin before booking your trip.
Since Helm made it through security without Transportation Security Administration screeners discovering the turtle, no one on board would have known he was there if she hadn't taken him out.
AirTran said company policy doesn't allow animals other than dogs, cats and household birds in the cabin and that reptiles are expressly prohibited because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they have been known to carry salmonella bacteria.
There are only several federal rules that airlines must comply with when allowing passengers to carry animals on board, including that the carrier must fit under the seat in front of the owner and the animal must stay in the cage for the duration of the flight.
Airlines add their own requirements on top of these provisions. For example, the rule against reptiles in the cabin is nearly universal, said Hatfield. Most airlines charge fees for pets to ride on board and owners are required to procure a reservation for their furry friends -- as most carriers have a limit on how many animals are allowed in the cabin per flight.
To find specific pet carry-on policies, visit www.pettravel.com, where operators offer a pull down box with connections to most of the world's airlines.
About 90% of the world's airlines allow small dogs and cats in the cabin if they fit in a carrier with dimensions approved by the International Air Transport Assn., Hatfield said. Almost all carriers will accept most animals as checked baggage, as long as the weight of the pet and the carrier don't exceed 75 pounds, on average, he added.
But airline policies toward pets in the cabin do differ in some cases. Frontier Airlines allows rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters on board on flights within the United States. United Airlines, on the other hand, only allows these animals to fly in the cargo hold.
Some airlines restrict which animals can fly on board according to the airplane's destination or its make and model. American Airlines does not allow carry-on pets on flights to Hawaii and Central and South America. Continental Airlines doesn't allow pets in the Business First cabin of its Boeing 757, 767 or 777 because of the small amount of storage space under the seat.
Other carriers, such as Delta Airlines, have restrictions on what animals can fly as checked baggage -- particularly pug or snub nosed dogs and cats that don't do well in extreme temperatures -- and disallow pets in the cargo hold to some destinations in the winter.
How carriers enforce certain policies regarding pets on board is bound to be subjective in some cases, with Southwest Airlines listing a requirement on its web site that carry-on animals must be "harmless, not disruptive, odorless and require no attention during the flight." Rare indeed is the pet who fits this bill, even in the best of circumstances.