Part of a relief flight after Hurricane Harvey, these kittens may be some of Southwest’s most adorable passengers.

2017 – Present

To the Rescue: The Hurricane Harvey Pet Lift

As Hurricane Harvey scythed its way across southeast Texas in August 2017, an urgent SOS went out to Southwest from, of all places, an animal shelter in California. The call came from a trusted Partner, the Helen Woodward Animal Center near San Diego.

Given the chaos unfolding along the Gulf Coast, there was little time to exchange pleasantries. It came down to this: Helen Woodward was working with a Houston-based nonprofit named Operation Pets Alive! to save the lives of dozens of orphaned pets—and it needed a Southwest plane and some volunteers to complete the mission.

Southwest was, of course, handling a litany of challenges of its own at the time. When Harvey officially made landfall on the evening of August 25, the Company did what it always does in situations like these: It snapped immediately into crisis response mode and committed to helping its Employees and Customers.

In this particular case, that meant spearheading an evacuation of more than 500 people stranded at Houston’s Hobby Airport, on August 27. As Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly said shortly thereafter, “We are a Family, and families come together in times of need.”

Southwest’s definition of “Family” is all-inclusive—from Employees, to communities, to furry friends, especially those adversely affected by major hurricanes. Helen Woodward was well aware of the airline’s concern for displaced pets, as the two good-hearted organizations had collaborated on an animal rescue just five years earlier.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Southwest had transported 60 dogs and cats from New Jersey to California. In the words of Texas Monthly, it was an effort that cemented Southwest’s status as “the most adorable airline” in the country. Helen Woodward was hoping to stage an equally joyous sequel.

This particular operation, however, would require a far more complicated and speedy rescue plan. Down on the ground, Operation Pets Alive! was struggling to absorb the continuing influx of abandoned and homeless pets brought about by the hurricane.

Space was becoming limited in the makeshift shelter it established just outside Houston. Without a coordinated pet lift, many of the previously sheltered pets would have to be euthanized. Then-Communications Lead Michelle Agnew, who fielded Helen Woodward’s call, wasn’t concerned about recruiting volunteers. Any request for help that included either the word “pet” or “rescue” would send the whole Company rushing to her aid.

Talk about precious cargo! Southwest Employees worked together to safely load all 64 animals.

The logistics required to charter a flight were, in her words, “pretty grand.” It would necessitate removing a Southwest aircraft from its schedule, mapping out and gaining approval for the flight to Texas and then on to San Diego, and manning it with a Flight Crew. Even then, there were variables related to fuel and staffing costs to consider.  

Nevertheless, if there was a resilient group of dogs and cats that needed the airline’s help, Southwest was not going to let them down. When the broad outlines for a rescue mission were presented to Southwest Leadership, their response was simple: “Go save those pets.”

It was an undeniable Team effort. Ground Operations and the Network Operations Control Team did their part, carefully calibrating issues related to weight and balance and how to safely transport the pets. Meanwhile, Network Operations Control found a swift and cost-conscious solution to the question over which plane it could use: a soon-to-be-retired Southwest 737-300 could be quickly slotted into service without causing massive flight disruptions.

When Michelle first received the call from Helen Woodward, her immediate thought had been, “We probably need a few weeks to coordinate this.” But as things turned out, Southwest banded together and was ready to roll in less than two weeks. 

On September 5, 2017, Flight #8725 departed from San Diego to Austin, complete with the necessary Crew, four representatives from Helen Woodward, a handful of Southwest volunteers and two journalists.

The carefully conceived plan, as ironed out between Southwest, Helen Woodward, and Pets Alive!, went off without a hitch. A caravan full of the weary, frightened strays made its way from Houston to Austin’s Bergstrom Airport, before the flight touched down to receive them.

The resulting scene ranked as one of the most heartwarming moments of an otherwise tragic week. One by one, as the pets were loaded onto the plane, an excited chorus of barks and contented purrs replaced the soul-crushing memories of wounded whimpers and solemn yowls. The first leg of the journey to their new forever homes had officially begun. That afternoon, 64 dogs and cats were safely flown to San Diego before being transported to Helen Woodward’s shelter. In between, some of the pets expressed their gratitude to their rescuers in all the usual ways, from licking faces to wagging tails. One particularly smitten San Diego-based Southwest Employee went so far as to adopt one of the pets as well.

Then-Communications Lead Michelle Agnew not only helped mastermind the operation, she also snuck in some puppy cuddles during the flight!

Less than six months later, in January 2018, in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastating direct hit on Puerto Rico, Southwest coordinated another pet lift, this time in conjunction with the Washington, D.C.-based Lucky Dog Animal Rescue.

Southwest came bearing tons of humanitarian supplies—some 14,000 pounds, for pets and their human friends alike, on that one flight alone—then safely transported 62 pets back to Baltimore.

When asked why Southwest had committed so much time, effort, and resources to these missions, the Company’s answer was simple: At Southwest, we lead with Heart.