Lawmakers Pass Bill Forcing Airlines|
To Transport Chicks at Bargain Fares
November 7, 2001
By DEVON SPURGEON and STEPHEN POWER
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Congress took a few moments away from fighting anthrax, terrorists
and recession last week to focus on another urgent matter: cheap
seats for chicks.
Trying to resolve a first-class mess in the world of menagerie mail,
Congress voted to give the U.S. Postal Service the power to force
airlines to carry "day-old poultry" and other "live animals" at
Under postal regulations written three generations ago, poultry
farmers long have airmailed newborn chicks to anyone who orders them.
For just $5.65, the Postal Service would arrange transport -- usually
in the cargo hold of a commercial airliner -- for a four-pound box of
chicks and then complete delivery, though hatcheries suggest
customers pick them up from the Postal Service.
The post office's only condition: The chicks had to arrive within 72
hours, which is as long as the day-old chickens can survive without
food or water.
"It was a miracle," says Doris Smith, of San Angelo, Texas, who took
advantage of a "buy 25, get-one-free" offer this summer. "They got
here completely alive and healthy, peeping up a storm."
Chicks as Cargo
But in early September, Northwest Airlines kicked the chicks out from
under its wings, arguing that too many of them failed to survive the
voyage and that the fees were too low to cover the special care
chicks require. Technically, Northwest said it no longer would
accept baby chickens as mail, only as cargo, for which it charges
three times as much.
Northwest's decision was "a kick in the teeth," says Sen. Charles
Grassley. "I still remember every spring, just like clockwork, folks
would order a box or two of these baby chickens, and they would come
in a box with little holes in them so the chicks could breathe," the
68-year-old Iowa Republican says.
Mail-order chicks are popular not only as Easter-time gifts and for
school science projects, but also among people who raise poultry for
sale and breeders who vie for prizes at county fairs. The chicks
start at about $1 apiece, though prices range widely according to
According to post-office rules established in 1924, day-old chickens,
ducks, geese, partridges, pheasants, guinea fowl, quail and turkeys
can be mailed if they aren't more than 24 hours old. They must be
shipped in a box that is properly ventilated and must be sent early
enough in the week to avoid getting stuck in a mailroom during a
Sunday or a national holiday.
Northwest, which was the only major airline serving the Midwestern
farm belt that was carrying chicks as mail, almost got out of the
business in 1995 when a couple of other airlines did. But hatcheries
and their customers complained so fiercely that the airline backed
Then came an ill-fated flight on June 11. Roughly 300 chicks died en
route to Ohio after being exposed to rain; they were discovered
during a layover in Minneapolis, where Northwest has its
headquarters. Airline employees made "valiant efforts" to save the
birds, using blankets and lamps, says Kurt Ebenhoch, a Northwest
spokesman. "It's very upsetting," he says, adding that many Northwest
employees are pet owners. The carrier said soon afterward it would
stop shipping chicks as mail in mid-August.
The airline says that although most chicks survive their trips,
between 60% and 80% on some flights died en route, often because of
excessive heat or poor packaging by hatcheries. "It was more than we
could handle," Mr. Ebenhoch says.
Nonsense, says Murray McMurray of Webster City, Iowa, who formed a
lobbying group called the Birdshippers of America to lead the charge
against the airline. The owner of the largest rare-breed hatchery in
the world, Mr. McMurray ships 100,000 chicks a week. The hatchery
employs about 75 people during its busiest season.
"Anyone who is in the live-poultry business knows that without the
welfare of that baby, you will not be in business," he says.
Mr. McMurray, whose hatchery has been in business since 1917, says
that unless Northwest's policy is reversed, his business will be
forced to close next spring. The big problem is the cost, he says.
Airlines charge 93 cents a pound to carry animals as cargo -- triple
the rate that is charged if they are classified as mail. He used to
ship chicks from the Minneapolis airport, about 200 miles from
Webster City (pop. 8,000). Now he is relying on a Texas hatchery to
send chicks to his customers under the McMurray label.
Within days after Northwest announced its plans, Mr. McMurray
organized small-town hatcheries across Iowa to protest. By early
August, the fledgling birdshippers group had sent more than 9,000
letters to Capitol Hill.
"I was getting calls from other offices saying, 'What the heck is
this? We just got 100 letters on day-old chickens,' " recalls John
Moreland, an aide in the Des Moines office of Sen. Tom Harkin, the
Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Under pressure from Mr. Grassley and other senators -- including
Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat whose wife
lobbies for Northwest -- the airline agreed in mid-August to delay
implementing its new policy until Sept. 1.
But the post office objected when the airline said it wanted $3.72
per box -- up from $1.24 per box -- to handle the baby birds. The
airline also wanted the right to refuse any animal shipment "that in
the sole opinion of the carrier cannot be transported in a safe and
humane manner," according to a Northwest memorandum.
Then, an animal-rights group joined the fray -- on the airline's
side. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lobbied the
carriers' main trade group to adopt an industrywide policy condemning
as inhumane the practice of shipping baby chickens by air.
On Sept. 1, Northwest, as it had vowed, stopped accepting air-mailed
chicks. The hatcheries and their congressional allies persisted,
though. The lobbying campaign was nearing a climax on Sept. 11; then,
for obvious reasons, the issue was pushed aside. But it didn't get
On Thursday night, the Senate passed an appropriations bill --
already approved by the House of Representatives -- with a provision
saying the Postal Service can require any airline -- except those
that "commonly and regularly refuse to accept any live animals as
cargo" -- to carry "day-old poultry and such other live animals as
postal regulations allow" at mail rates. The bill, now headed to
President Bush, adds that the Postal Service can levy a surcharge to
help airlines cover the costs of shipping live animals.
The understanding, says Mr. Moreland, Sen. Harkin's aide, is that the
Postal Service will raise rates for chicken-shipping, at least
temporarily, but keep them below the level airlines charge for animal
A Northwest spokesman says the carrier plans to comply with any law
that Congress passes on the matter.
But with all the concern about anthrax, he adds, this isn't likely to
be very high on the pecking order at the Postal Service.
Write to Devon Spurgeon at firstname.lastname@example.org and Stephen Power
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.