Dr Sarah McCarthy was scheduled to fly from Dublin Airport along with her terrier cross, Rita, on August 3.
But less than 24 hours before her flight, the 29-year-old was told that newly-introduced baggage handling regulations meant Rita could not come with her.
Sarah is a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, about an hour’s drive from Toronto.
She took on the role in July last year after completing her PhD at Queen’s, working remotely for a year due to the pandemic.
“All that time I was constantly checking the Covid restrictions and flights, hoping I was going to be able to go in a month or two,” Sarah said. “I’d always planned to take my dog Rita with me, and started getting her documentation ready in February 2020, before the pandemic.
“My contract is for two years so technically it finishes in June 2022, but I think I’ll extend it if I have the opportunity to. I did want to spend a couple of years out here and experience life in a different country. That’s part of the reason I was taking Rita with me; it was an extended trip and I knew she’d love it here. There was really no question of leaving her behind.”
Sarah initially booked her trip for late spring, but flight cancellations and other delays meant it was early August before she had a confirmed travel date with Air Canada.
Rita, who Sarah adopted as a puppy in 2018, was booked to travel in a crate in the aircraft’s hold.
The little dog had received all her relevant health checks for the trip, and Sarah had even printed a notice for crew to let them know that Rita was on board.
The pair were all set to add some Canadian adventures to Sarah’s blog, Everybody Loves Rita, which promotes dog-friendly activities and venues.
But the day before the flight, Sarah received a call from Dublin Airport. “They had been checking the manifest and asked how I was going to get Rita on the plane,” she said.
“I told them I was going to check her in as baggage, but they said that they didn’t do that any more. The airport said that Air Canada should have been in touch with me about the change.”
On checking Dublin Airport’s website, Sarah discovered that as of July 19, 2021, the transport hub could no longer accept live animals departing through its baggage system.
It followed an upgrade of the system to comply with EU regulations on hold baggage screening.
With little time left to make alternative arrangements, Sarah was forced to leave her canine companion behind with her parents in Carrickfergus, continuing on to Canada alone.
Now, in order to join Sarah, Rita will have to travel on her own as cargo – at 1600 Euro, a significantly more expensive option.
Cargo cannot be booked through the airline directly, but instead must go through a transport agent, Sarah explained.
“Because of this new regulation and also because of the knock-on effect of Brexit, there’s a backlog of pets waiting to travel this way and a lot of the agents are not taking new bookings,” she added.
“Air Canada have offered to cover the cost of transporting Rita as cargo, but at the moment it’s been three weeks since I arrived and I’m still waiting on a travel date for Rita with the agent we’re using.
“It just seems it could have been an easily solved problem; if Rita couldn’t go through the baggage system, surely someone could have carried her to the plane.”
Meanwhile, the ongoing absence of her faithful friend has led to travel plans being put on hold. “Although I’m here for work, I’d really looked forward to travelling like I always do with Rita; if I’ve got her, I’ve always got a friend with me,” the local woman said. “I feel like I can’t really plan too far ahead in case Rita will be arriving.”
The beloved pet would also have been a welcome companion in the new dog-friendly accommodation Sarah had chosen. “At home, it was just me and Rita living alone, so it definitely feels like there’s something missing.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Dublin Airport Authority confirmed the change in rules around baggage handling is for dogs leaving Dublin, not for those arriving into the airport.
“We regret that the previous system is no longer available for passengers travelling with pets, as this decision was taken solely for the welfare of the animal,” the spokesperson added.
“DAA was required to upgrade its baggage systems to facilitate EU Standard 3 HBS (Hold Baggage Screening) compliance – a legal obligation in the European Union.
“DAA does not have any role in getting luggage to/from the aircraft; this is the responsibility of the airline or its handling agent. DAA has responsibility to ensure the baggage carried on its baggage belt infrastructure has the required security screening compliance in place.
“The new upgraded system, which involved having a new baggage belt system being built brought more complexity to the baggage system. Bags now travel longer distances with several level changes on the journey. Unfortunately this could not be avoided as the baggage upgrade took place in an area that is capacity restrained due to the layout of the buildings close by.
“The decision not to take animals through the new hold baggage screening area was not taken lightly. The journey for animals was thoroughly risk assessed in advance of the system going live and it was made first and foremost with the welfare of the animal in mind because of the numerous level changes in the new system.
“It not the case that pets can no longer be carried through Dublin Airport- they can, but pet owners will have to use a company which specialises in transporting pets.”
The new system only impacts departing pets travelling in the aircraft hold, DAA added.
Pets travelling outbound in the aircraft cabin and pets arriving on flights into Dublin Airport, either in the aircraft cabin or the aircraft hold, will continue to be accommodated through the current screening processes.
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