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Southwest and AirTran: No pet “reservations” on shared itineraries

10/18/13 Thanks to reader Rebecca for nudging me (see the comments below) to update this post. Since I wrote it, Southwest and AirTran have snuggled into a cozier embrace and now you can bring a pet on a “shared itinerary” (that is, travel plans that include flight legs on Southwest and AirTran planes). However, you can only make advanced reservations for your in-cabin pet on non-shared, AirTran-only itineraries. If you fly entirely on AirTran flights, “Advanced reservations must be made by calling AirTran Airways at 1-800-AIR-TRAN (1-800-247-8726), and the Pet Fare payment will be required at that time.” Southwest’s pet page is currently poorly written, and speaks only about shared itineraries, but I am confident that its usual first-come-first-served policy still applies to Southwest-only itineraries.

If you are traveling with a pet, be sure that your itinerary includes only flights on one carrier or the other (and if you plan to travel on AirTran only, book your travel through AirTran, not Southwest). This issue arose many months ago, shortly after the merger between Southwest and AirTran started taking practical effect. I held off posting about it, partly because my to-do list has taken on a life of its own, but largely because I thought the problem wouldn’t last long. That appears not to be the case.

So why is this an issue? Haven’t the airlines, well, merged? Yes, but complete integration takes time. AirTran’s website explains that “Though AirTran Airways is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Southwest Airlines, the two are still operating as separate carriers.” They apparently anticipate being fully integrated by the end of 2014. In the meantime, you will be be allowed to travel with a pet on “shared itineraries,” i.e., either (1) a travel plan that includes both Southwest and AirTran flights, or (2) a travel plan consisting of AirTran-only flights that you’ve booked through Southwest’s site.

In neither of those cases will you be allowed to add a pet to your reservation, per Southwest’s website:

“Shared itineraries or AirTran-only itineraries booked through Southwest channels cannot be purchased for Pets, Unaccompanied Minors, or Groups. Please note that you cannot add a pet to a shared itinerary over the phone, nor can you add a pet to a shared itinerary upon arrival at the airport. Pets are not permitted to travel on shared itineraries.”

Earlier this year, a Dog Jaunt reader found herself in trouble when she purchased an itinerary on-line that included both Southwest and AirTran flights — when she called to add her pet to her reservations, she learned she couldn’t. She managed to get herself an all-Southwest booking, but I’ve no doubt her blood pressure suffered.

The two entities have similar pet policies in some respects (neither accepts checked pets, and both charge a $75 fee). They also both regard a pet carrier as a replacement for either your carry-on or your personal item, which is a big benefit to people who prefer not to check luggage. One difference is that Southwest tells travelers what space is available under their seats, while AirTran specifies a maximum carrier size. Another is that AirTran permits only one pet per traveler, and Southwest will let up to two pets share a carrier.

An important difference to note between Southwest and AirTran is that despite a preamble that suggests otherwise (“Reservations for small cats and dogs can only be booked by calling Southwest Airlines at 1-800-I-FLY-SWA”), Southwest does not in fact reserve a spot on the plane for your pet: The very next sentence reads “Pets will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis until capacity is reached.” AirTran, by contrast, will reserve your pet a spot: “As limited space is available, advanced reservations must be made.” [10/18/13 As I’ve tried to indicate with my strike-throughs, Southwest has edited its pet policy to remove the misleading “reservations” language — now they’re quite clear that “Pets will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis until capacity is reached.”]

We travel a great deal on Southwest, and to date their policy has not caused us trouble — five pets per flight are allowed, and we have not yet been in a situation where six pets showed up. It does take one worry off your mind, however, to know that your pet has an in-cabin space waiting for her; we appreciate the airlines that accept reservations for in-cabin pets, and I hope that Southwest adopts AirTran’s policy when the integration process is complete.

4 comments

  • Gery O.

    Alfie and I travel exclusively on SouthWest, now that AirTran no longer serves Seattle (real bummer, we used to love the overnight flights to Baltimore)…
    Whenever I make a reservation (online) I call, and ask to add Alfie to the itinerary, which has never been a problem, and with all our travels never noticed even once more than one or two other travelers with pets….
    So, does this mean that the fact that I’m making a call to add Alfie to the itinerary is a waste of time? What happens if more than 5 people with pets show up? who gets priority, the person who booked their travel the earliest, or as with the seating, the one who either paid the extra money to get an automatic check-in and Group A seating? If we do get “bumped” will they try to accommodate us on the next available flight?

    On a recent Southwest flight into Seattle, after landing the flight attended proceeded to sing the following song over the PA system (to the tune “Patty whack”) “We love you, you love us, we are faster than the bus” seems apropos…

  • Hi, Gery — I don’t have good answers for you, alas. I suspect it is a waste of time, but I still do it. And I suspect that if six dogs wanted to get onto a flight, they’d take them in the order their owners checked in with the ticketing agent on the day of travel — but I don’t know that for sure. It hasn’t happened to us yet, and it hadn’t happened to any of the Southwest reps I talked to way back when. And I have NO idea about the bumping — my suspicion is that we’d be SOL. But yes, I stick with Southwest because their seats fit my tall husband and their under-seat spaces fit my dog, they go where I want to go, and their flight crews make me smile….

  • Rebecca Maldonado

    Southwest Airlines and Air Tran finally got far enough in their merger to allow pets in-cabin on flights with segments with each airline. From the AirTran website as of 9/20/13: “Pets are now allowed on flights that include a Southwest Airlines segment.”. AirTran also increased their pet carrier dimensions. ” The pet carrier is limited to maximum dimensions of 8.5” high x 18.5” long x 13.5” wide.”

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