Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pet turtle causes taxiing plane to return to gate

ATLANTA – A caged, 2-inch turtle traveling with a 10-year-old girl caused a flight crew to turn a taxiing plane around, take the girl and her sisters off the flight and tell them they couldn't fly with the tiny pet.

The sisters threw the animal and cage in the trash and returned to their seats crying Tuesday after AirTran Airways employees on the jetway said they couldn't look after the turtle while their father drove to retrieve it.
Two days later, Carley Helm was reunited with the pet after it initially appeared the trash was emptied along with the reptile.

Carley was heading home to Milwaukee after visiting her father in Atlanta with sisters Annie, 13, and Rebecca, 22, when the flap unfolded. The sisters say they made it past security screeners and an AirTran gate agent before boarding with the caged pet. One flight attendant told them to stow the cage under their seat, they say.

But with the flight rolling toward its takeoff, an attendant told them the turtle wasn't allowed in the cabin. The plane returned to the gate, the girls were escorted off and airline employees told them they couldn't get back on with the pet, the girls and the airline say.

While the sisters say they were told to put the reptile in the trash, AirTran says the girls made the choice themselves, despite an offer to fly later at no extra charge.

AirTran company policy bars animals other than cats, dogs and household birds in the cabin, said spokesman Christopher White. White cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that says the reptiles have been known to carry salmonella bacteria.

Rebecca Helm said the girls were led onto the jetway and told they'd have to get rid of the baby red ear slider — named Neytiri after the princess in the movie "Avatar" — if they wanted to reboard.

"I asked, 'What do you mean get rid of it?' and they said throw it away," she said.

Rebecca Helm called their father, and he began driving back to the airport. She asked an AirTran employee to make arrangements with the father to look after the pet until he could get to the airport, but the employee refused.

"I basically had to make a really fast decision because the whole plane was being delayed," Rebecca Helm said. The bin wasn't very full and she thought the turtle could be found easily once her dad arrived, she said.
"I was very sad, and I felt bad for my littlest sister because it was her first pet and she was planning to take care of it herself," Rebecca Helm said.

White, the AirTran spokesman, said the sisters were given the option of getting back on the plane without the turtle or taking a later flight to give them time to come up with other arrangements.

The 22-year-old sister twice declined the offer to take a later flight, White said. She was told that AirTran staff couldn't look after the pet.

"We don't have the personnel or the facilities to care for people's pets," White said.

Rebecca Helm asked if throwing the pet away would allow for them to get back on the flight, White said. The gate agent did not tell the sisters what to do but said they could not get on the plane with the turtle, White said.

"At no time did any AirTran Airways crew member order or suggest that they put the turtle in the trash," he said.

Half an hour later, the sisters' father called, saying he wanted to come look through the trash for the turtle, White said. The gate agent looked in the trash can, couldn't find the turtle and assumed it had been emptied, he said.

The airline discovered Wednesday that the ramp supervisor had rescued the turtle from the trash "out of his own compassion" and given it to another crew member, who took it home for her 5-year-old son, White said.
AirTran told that crew member the original owners wanted it back, and the airline arranged for the turtle fly as cargo to Milwaukee on Thursday, White said.

The sisters' mother reported the incident to animal rights group PETA, which sent a letter to AirTran demanding an investigation and disciplinary action.

But for their part, Rebecca Helm's sisters "are very happy to have the turtle back," she said Thursday.

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