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Foreign Service Officers peeved over new United pet policy

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The union that represents Foreign Service Officers naturally does its best to be diplomatic, but the strain is evident in a standoff with United Airlines over a recently adopted pet transportation policy.

The new policy, which follows United’s merger with Continental Airlines, requires most pets to be shipped as cargo, instead of permitting them to travel with their owners as baggage.

The fur, at least, has been flying ever since.

“Many of our members are greatly distressed by this development because of the sharply increased costs involved,” Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, wrote in a letter last month to United CEO Jeff Smisek. In addition, Johnson said, some countries are “simply not equipped to deal with pets as cargo.”

The change could increase the cost of shipping a 14-pound cat from $250 to $1,200, Johnson added in a follow-up interview. United has already exempted military service members traveling on “change of station” orders from the pet policy. Now, AFSA is seeking the same waiver for federal civilian employees flying to and from permanent assignments abroad, Johnson said. An AFSA “call to action” generated almost 3,000 emailed letters to United; some past and current Foreign Service Officers have also set up a Facebook page titled “Fabulous Foreign Service Pets.”

So far, however, United isn’t budging. While the airline respects the work that Foreign Service Officers do, it has no plans to make other exceptions for them, spokeswoman Mary Ryan said. On its web site, United touts the new policy’s benefits, such as confirmed booking before departure and a 24-hour live animal help desk.

As one of the world’s largest carriers, United can be hard to avoid, although the State Department last month sought to give employees more options for discretion when pet transportation comes into play.

For Rachel Schneller, a Foreign Service Officer now stationed in Washington, the thought of heading to a posting in France this summer without her two cats is, well, unthinkable.

“They’re irreplaceable, they’re priceless,” Schneller said of Oscar and Tivka, rescued from a garbage can in Macedonia a decade ago. “In theory, I could try to find homes for them, but it would break my heart.”

For Sadie Dworak, a Foreign Service Officer currently stationed in Saudi Arabia, the perils were poignantly illustrated two years ago when she shipped her shih tzu, Hattie, as cargo from Frankfurt, Germany to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

After 20 hours in a stifling terminal, Dworak said in a phone interview, Hattie was dead.

Dworak has since gotten two cats. When her Saudi assignment ends this summer, she said the United policy could mean shipping cost of more than  $2,500, compared to about $600 under the old policy. While the State Department provides some help with“miscellaneous” moving costs, that assistance probably won’t cover even half the bill, Dworak said.

“Should we have to pay those costs every single time when we’re serving our country?,” she asked.


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