Elaine Brown & Erica Plowman manage SWATT on FB, posting transport requests for rescued animals that need transporting. They work with all parties to secure, schedule and execute the transport. Upon a successful transport they create a “Celebratory Post” to honor the Flight Angels/’Transporters’ hard work & recognize the rescue organization, including photos of the rescued animals being transported. They are continuing their collaboration with DART and now have 87 approved rescue organizations, which is up from 30 in 2019. Every rescue has a story.
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Elaine Brown & Erica Plowman are flight attendants with Southwest Airlines & are the Co-Founders of Southwest Animal Transport Team. SWATT, is a group of volunteers who donate their time to rescue animals using their non-rev flight benefits. They collaborate with fosters, No-Kill shelters and rescues, pulling animals from high kill shelters to transport animals to their forever homes. SWATT works closely with other airline groups like DART (Delta Animal Rescue Transport) to move as many animals as possible.
Hey Elaine, welcome to the program. Thank you, Chris. It’s a delight to be here. Well, I’m so glad you’re here to talk to us today. So tell us a little bit about you and kind of how you got into animal rescue. Okay, it’s a great story. I am originally from Austin, Texas, and I have been involved with nonprofit all my adult life. I moved to Huntsville, Texas, which is north of Houston. It’s a small town out in the country and looked at opportunities of where I could make a difference and became involved with the animal shelter in our community and helped take it to the status of no-kill after becoming involved with a shelter and also involved with Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. Cool. And so that’s really where I started. Because of my nonprofit background. I have always had an affinity for animals, even though I’ve been afraid of big dogs. But that doesn’t keep me away from wanting to save all animals.
And now what do you do for your day job? My day job is I’m a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines. So that’s something totally different than having a career in animal rescue, is it? Totally different. However, I’ve been able to marry the two, and I’ll just jump in and tell you how I got started. Yeah, please. Okay, I was working at Southwest Airlines, as I said, a flight attendant, and as social media becomes more and more prevalent, I saw opposed about another flight attendant in Baltimore who did a transport with Delta Airlines. And Chris, in all honesty, it was a Harry-Met-Sally-Moment, for I literally said to myself, “I want to do what she’s doing. How do I do that?” So I got involved with Carol, the flight attendant, and then also the folks over at Delta Animal Rescue Team and said, “hey, how can I help? I’m in Houston.” Well, Delta does not have a base in Houston, Texas. So it was a welcomed opportunity for me to help in the Dallas/Houston area, and I started transporting animals. My first one was a senior little tyke to Las Vegas. Cool.
And then Harvey hit. Ah. It was overwhelming for the whole community. I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to fly, and I stayed home and was able to watch all the needs, if you will, in the area. And one came back again, up and around on social media, where my partner, Erica Plowman, had put together a page that said, “How can we help Harvey animals?” I think the page was titled ‘Helping Harvey Animals in the hurricane.’ Okay. So I reached out to Erica and I said, “I’m already transporting animals. This way we can help rescue and transport animals outside of the Houston area that might be affected by Harvey. But let’s also take this one step further and let’s create our own group.” I had already gone to corporate at one point to see about getting some extra help to form the group and was kind of doing it on my own when Erica popped in and we became partners and co-founded its SWATT Southwest Animal Transport Team. Very cool.
So you just started doing it yourself because you saw somebody else doing it and realize there is a need. And now you’ve really kind of form listed with Erica. Yeah, Carol was doing it with Delta, and I thought, “well, why can’t we have our own volunteer group?” Delta had been doing it at that time for about five years, so it’s gonna be seven years now. So they had already been doing this, and so they were a great role model and mentor. They helped us all along the way in giving us the documents for the application for the transport request form for the do’s and don’ts is the policies and procedures, they were able to share their already built documents with us. And so that’s when we co-created SWATT.
So now tell us a little bit about how this works. I mean, walk us through the process of how you get notified, how you’re finding people who are you’re actually transporting the animal. There’s two avenues of communication or marketing, if you will. Our mission one is Facebook, which I’ll talk about in a second, and the first really is our website: swattrescue.com. We are not an official 501(c)(3) and really don’t need to be, we’re a volunteer organization that Southwest Airlines does recognize. One reason we are not a 501(c)(3) is that we track all of our volunteer hours for the rescue organizations that we serve. And for every 40 hours that our organization serves another organization, they will receive a round trip ticket. It’s through a Ticket for Times Program that we have here in Southwest Airlines.
So we have a website, and the website tells the story about how we got started and how we became one, if you will, and co-created SWATT. On that website, we have our policies and procedures in the do’s and don’ts for the organization and that we have an application process, and an organization that hears about us can apply for our services, we will vet them. Look at their history, look at their work load, look at their website, their Facebook presence. Once they’ve been vetted and approved, they could become part of our network and apply for our services through a transport request form.
Once that form is filled out for a particular rescue that needs transporting from departure to arrival, we post that on our employees based Facebook page, which is closed, should I say, to keep its streamlined, we will post that transport request, tell a story about the animal that needs moving and request the help of a volunteer in our membership. We call our volunteers “Flight Angels”. Okay. And once that Facebook post starts getting some activity, we then take communications behind the scenes and message with the volunteer Flight Angel. Coordinate with the rescue to look at flights and loads in order to facilitate the transport.
Okay, so there’s certain restrictions in terms of the flights you can take or how does all that work? The restrictions are that we use our own method, which means we fly Southwest Airlines routes. So the way it works is that we are an employee based volunteer organization using our non-rev benefits, and we do this on our volunteer time. So it’s done from flight attendants to pilots to mechanics, ground ops agents. All work groups are involved in this volunteer organization. When a volunteer offers to transport an animal like I said, we take it behind the scenes and start communicating and coordinating both the flight angel and the rescue.
They’ll look at loads and dates and routes because we really have to make sure that there’s enough open seats because they’re flying standby. Sure, so that’s really the biggest challenge that can happen because, you know, in any given day something can change if a storm comes through, whether if there happens to be a mechanical situation and cancellations, then those flights can fill, and sometimes we have to reroute or redirect, and maybe 4% of the time. We’ve had to cancel the mission because either the flights filled or they were so delayed that it became too much of a hardship on the flight angel and the rescue animal. We do keep that in mind to minimize the stress involved in transporting a rescue from one city to the next.
Yeah, now, do you guys only work on direct flights? Are they allowed to actually do connections and Munger trips? We focus on direct, but we also will fly what we call two-leg routes. And the reason is that Southwest is actually known more for flying two-legs, two destinations because often we have what’s called through-flights. You might go through a city in order to connect to the final destination, and often you can to stay on the plane, provided that the loads meaning that the seats are open for that standby opportunity.
Sure, weight restriction on the size of the animals that can be transported? There is and SWATT Southwest Animal Transport Team follows the pet policies of our airline. So the rescued animal, which is either a cat or a dog, has to fit in a carrier underneath the seat in front of the passenger slash Flight angel. They have to stay in the carrier. We do have a pet fee involved that handles the incidentals for having a pet on the aircraft, and we find that the weight of that rescue is really not much more than 18 pounds. Okay.
So we are transporting small animals. One thing that’s really wonderful with Southwest Airlines is that they allow, we allow, if you will, two of the same species, so we can have two cats or two dogs, provided that they’re small enough to fit inside the carrier comfortably can stand up and turn around. So two little Chihuahua’s or two puppies can be transported two for one that can help increase our success rate and our move rate.
Now practically how many transports are you guys doing a week? A month? I’m just kind of curious how many animals you are able to move? Well, that’s a good question. We have over 1,400 volunteers, and on average we can do 2 to 3 a week.
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So you guys were coordinating about 2 to 3 transports a week. Do you have designated transport coordinators? Or is it any member of the team can kind of act as a coordinator? It’s me and Erica. You and Erica the coordinators for the whole thing, huh? Yeah, Erica and I used to co-manage each and every transport and communication, and it got to the point where Chris, we were just 24/7, literally 24/7. So now we’ve been able to divide and conquer that whenever a request comes in, we go back and forth if she posts and she’ll end up managing it concept to completion from post to complete, and then I’ll take the next one and we literally go back and forth. Yeah, it sounds like a lot of work. I mean, because you’ve got to be checking the different flights and see what the loads are in those flights to try and maximize your opportunity for success. Yeah, and the other thing is that we also do a lot of—so much stuff behind the scenes. But you know what? That’s okay. That’s what volunteerism is all about. And we really want to have an orientation with every what we call newbie, whether it’s a rescue organization that’s coming into the system or a new Flight Angel that’s coming into the system just to have an orientation in case they have any questions.
I remember that the first time I did my first transport. I was a Nervous Nellie. No, I think ever since everybody remembers their first transport. I know. I remember mine, and you probably made lots of mistakes and didn’t do everything perfectly, but it was still a success. Today we have probably transported, and I’ll say through August of 2019, probably more than 140, some of the two for ones. Yeah, that’s amazing. From something that just started a couple of years ago. Three year ago. Okay. Because of Harvey, with our two year anniversary in the month of August. Very cool. So how many organizations do you work with? We have about 85 approved organizations in our system. We have had over 230 transport request forms filled out, some fulfilled. Some end up canceling. They end up getting adopted. There’s a plethora of reasons on why. Sure. One may not actually go, but today, on our records, we have screened and processed over 230 transport requests. That’s pretty impressive in just a short period of time.
Yeah, and we collaborate with Delta on a lot of these. So even though we’ve processed 230 it may be that we cross posted and they actually filled that route that transport with their people. You know they’re metal. So once again, those numbers are fluid. But we have over 85 almost 90 approved organizations. And again, we also worked with Delta and they’re approved organizations. So what happens there because of this beautiful collaboration when they have—and they have five admins work in it—so they have a lot more requests to transport animals than we do. But if it’s a Southwest route, then they’ll tag us and we’ll cross post. And many times we fill it because we have more flights to and from that city than Delta does. They really rely on us in Texas because you know they’re not based here. Right. Their headquarters is Atlanta. Our headquarters is Dallas.
So I’m just curious. Does American and United and do the other ones, do they have programs like this as well? No, not to this extent. Delta does open up their membership to have some of those employees in their system. We pretty much keep ours to Southwest employees, and that would be one of our big goals would be to be a mentor and help other interested volunteers in other airlines bring this type of program to their employees. We’ve done some coaching with some people who have had some interest with other airlines, and that’s one thing that we’d would like to see. Yeah. I don’t see it ever being one complete organization, and then you have all the different branches. That’s not really my interest. My interest is to focus on celebrating what Southwest Airlines offers us in our volunteer program. We’re the only ones out that I know of, and I think I speak correctly here. I think we’re the only ones that offer the Ticket For Time program because Southwest Airlines really encourages volunteerism within our company and they all do. But ours really do, and so there’s a reward for employees tracking their volunteer hours for the nonprofit organization that we serve, and it’s in all areas, not just animal rescue.
In 2018 we contributed more than three million hours, give or take. Wow, that’s pretty impressive. Through the nation, give or take. Yeah, that’s just amazing number when you think about company employees giving back to the communities that they serve. It’s gonna be Ronald McDonald House. It’s going to be the local schools. It’s going to be every genre in or mission on area of need in the nonprofit world we serve, I’m sure. So now if somebody works from one of the airlines and they’re listening to this. How can they get involved? Where do they begin? We have a few people in another airline that are in our system, but because they’ve really proven that they really want to help and be a part of that. So I’d like to table that question and focus it on SWATT, if that’s okay. Yeah.
We can address that in Erica’s session cause she and I are kind of in a development phase of “how do we really wanna handle that?” We actually have somebody asking to join our group now from another airline and Chris, we haven’t really opened up our membership to just anybody that says they’re with another airline. We do understand the 80 20 rule, you know, 20% of the members do 80% of the work. That’s normal. Yeah. That’s normal, but from a management standpoint, we have learned from the hiccups, if you will, from DELTA and they will call their membership if they have a, let’s say, a surplus of inactive people. So I just don’t even wanna create an inactive file. Right, right. It’s more work than you need to deal with right now. It is. It is. You know, if they really aren’t committed, and that’s fine, this isn’t for everybody. And if they have other interests in other areas of volunteerism, great. I love that.
So right now, because you have to understand and be able to look at the loads of that particular airline and because we watch it. I don’t have the ability to look at American Airlines. Now, me collaborating with DELTA is one thing, because we have a we have an admin over there so we can communicate back and forth, and we can watch what is happening with that particular route with that particular day, with the particular seats on that aircraft, if it’s starting to fill. Because some of the airlines don’t have those programs, we don’t have the ability to watch the loads. And so therefore we keep this pretty much to Southwest. Sure.
So what Do you see the future looking like? Where does the program go from here? Gosh, I think it’s one of those things of ‘build it and they will come.’ Our goal is to run this as a successful volunteer organization for our company and to put the word out, so we have more volunteers. I can’t even tell you, Chris how many employees we have. But we’re probably just the tip of the iceberg when you think about 1,400 employees, well I’m very proud of that. But out of 60,000 employees. So I’d like to see more volunteers.
And I’d like to build a larger network with rescue organizations and foster organizations that truly are pulling from kill shelters and saving those animals that otherwise would be euthanized. And they’re at high risk for adoption there at high risk for having a forever home. And that’s my goal. We just transported a 14 year old what we call a senior Chihuahua that’s both blind and deaf. And had we not transported to this wonderful woman in Las Vegas, there’s chances at that animal had not been pulled from a shelter, could be on that euthanasia list. And so we’re really wanting to work with those organizations that see those at risk animals and are pulling them. And then we can transport them to safety and security into a forever home.
No, it’s really cool that something that started out just you doing it has now really blossomed into something that really has got the potential to grow. Yeah, and I’ve got to give credit to Erica for her putting that page out there of “How can we help Harvey?” Of course. I’m in the Harvey area. She’s in Dallas. I was in Houston and I’m north of where Harvey hit its hardest and I wasn’t flying. So I’m like, “where can I be of service? Where can I be of service? Where can I be of service?” To a point where I can actually drive in. And when I saw her page seeking, “hey, how could we help with the animals?” I raised my hand, messaged her, and I didn’t even know her, and she didn’t know me. So it was two strangers coming together to make a difference. But you all had a common bond in wanting to help animals we didn’t think joins us all together. We did, and we had a vehicle of using our non-rev benefits and our volunteer time.
Well, I know people can contact you via the swattrescue.com. Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we wrap things up today? Well, I’m just very grateful for all our volunteers. I have to tell you that they go way beyond the call of duty, and it’s not easy. While Erica and I are behind the scenes doing so much of the coordination in the admin work, we also get out in the field ourselves. And it’s a great reminder on what it’s like to be sitting at the gate wondering whether or not you’re going to get on the airplane. We do try to work transports to where there’s plenty of open seats, but they start to fill up. So what might start with one day with 30 open seats? By the time the transport is actually on the books and you’re driving to the airport, that could change down to 10. So it could change down to et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
So I want to just really share and celebrate what are volunteers do sometimes a day in the field. Chris can be up to, if not more than 14 hours in a day. Wow. That’s a long day. It is a long day! Sometimes a volunteer can choose to go to, what I’m gonna call on arrival, the final destination of where they’re taking the rescued animal and they might choose to stay overnight. They might be commuting home. They might be going for a mini vacation, but most often they are doing this in a day. They go—are going out and back home again. And this is their focus for the entire day and sometimes sitting in a terminal, you know, a few hours with an animal. So they all seem to be whisperers, if you will. And excellent in nurturing and taking care of those rescues, making sure they’re fed, making sure they’re watered, making sure they’re calm, making sure they get to a pet relief area in a terminal. You know those little spaces where there’s that little fire hydrant. Sure. You’ve seen those. I have.
So I really—in closing, I want to thank you for this time for us, allowing us to share our mission and our passion and just really celebrate what are volunteers do. They go beyond the call of duty and on the aspect of the part of Southwest Airlines. We couldn’t do it if it wasn’t for our opportunity to use our non-rev benefits. Southwest did give us 1,050 carriers for our cause. They allow us to track our volunteer hours with that Ticket for Time Program, which is a win-win. So we do have their support. Well, this is a great program. And like you’re said Elaine, I’m so excited that you guys have so many volunteers and you continue to grow. And I really appreciate you coming on the program today to tell us about it. Well, thank you. And I look forward to staying connect with you and building this program together. That sounds great. Thanks, Elaine. All right. Thank you, Chris.
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