Erica Plowman, a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines and has taken her flight experience to a whole new level by co-founding SWATT (Southwest Animal Transport Team) where she and her partner Elaine Brown and over 1,100 volunteers donate their time to rescue animals. They collaborate with Fosters, no-kill shelters and rescues pulling animals from high kill shelters to transport them to their forever homes. Since September 2017, SWATT has transported more than 160 animals and that number is intended to grow.
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Erica Plowman is a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines and is one of the co-founders of Southwest Animal Transport Team, also known as SWATT, a group of volunteers who donate their off time to rescue animals. Erica’s inspiration for saving animals has always been a priority to her but her dedication really kicked in during hurricane Harvey, when there was a huge need to help rescue animals. During that time she met her present-day partner, Elaine Brown and from there they started SWATT and have been working closely with other airline groups to move as many animals as possible.
Hey, Erica, welcome to the program. Hi, thank you. So tell us a little bit about you, I mean obviously you’re a flight attendant with Southwest, but how did you get an animal rescue The main way that I got into Animal Rescue was I had a friend who lived in Seattle, Washington at the time, and I was based in Orlando, Florida and she had reached out to me needing help transporting a dog from I believe it was from Miami to Texas. And she asked me just out of the blue one day, “hey, do you think you would be able to help?” I happen to be already working on a trip, and I told her like unfortunately, I won’t be able to help this time. But there’s any other time that you need help. Please reach out to me. I would love to help you guys out in the future. I filled her the loopholes with Southwest because we do not check animals in the cargo area, so it has to be small enough to fit underneath the seat. So she got all the rules and she said, “awesome, next time we need help, we’ll let you know.”
So then a couple months passed and Hurricane Harvey hit. And she reached out to me again and said, “hey, don’t know if you know any rescues or organizations in Houston that could use the help, but my animal shelter that I’m a part of, we want to help alleviate some of those animals in the shelter. So if you guys could help transport them to Seattle, we can help. So us let us know.” And so from that. And that’s how I started the Facebook group. I just decided, “okay, like, I’ll just add some of my Facebook friends and see if anyone’s open to helping, let’s to do it.” And with Southwest, we do charge a $95 pet fee, that’s just their policy. But they were totally okay with that, you know, they said they’d helped cover it. They just wanted to help because the shelters were getting way too populated. They didn’t have enough space for all these animals. So that’s how the Facebook group was started.
And then, unfortunately, most of the shelters that we contacted in Houston they had to wait two weeks before they could start sending other shelters animals just in case people came back for their animal. Right. But actually had quite a few rescue organizations reaching out to us saying, “yes, we would like the help.” Wow. So that’s how it started. And Elaine and I got linked together from Dart. Which Dart is Delta Side Delta Animal Rescue Team, I believe it’s what it stands for. Okay. And that was probably day three of the Facebook group. Things happened fast. Oh, yeah. Elaine and I just clicked. We created a name. We created a logo, we were brainstorming, “okay. How are we gonna help?” And since then, it’s just grown. What I thought was just gonna be for maybe just a hurricane relief. Sure. You know, a one-time deal event, it ended up being something that’s been going on for over two years, and we’ve been transporting animals every month. Wow.
So this isn’t something that you really knew about? It really did, you just kind of—somebody just asked you to do it, and you did it once. Yeah. So that’s kind of how it was. I just felt like “oh, yeah. You know, we have free flight benefits on standby. And what a great way to be able to help.” I love animals. I have two cats of my own. I was raised with animals, I’m vegetarian. I love animals so much that I just going to be a vet as a kid. And I figured this is how I can give back, because with my schedule, I don’t always have time to, you know, maybe go to a rescue shelter or, you know, and help hands on in that way. But this way is another way that I can give back by transporting or help coordinating transports for rescue animals going to there forever home. Nice.
So now you started a Facebook group. You invited some of your fellow Southwest flight attendants, right? And then how does it work now? Like, how do people get a hold of you how do the rescues find out about you? Yeah. So we have a website. It’s www.swattrescue.com. And so any rescue organization that wants an animal transported with SWATT, they have to fill out an application. And in an application, we ask a number of questions that Elaine and I have kind of gone through and picked what’s important to know and what we need to know. Mainly, we want to make sure that the pet is a legitimate, rescued animal. We don’t want to transport for breeders or anything like that. Right. We’re just trying to help the rescue worlds.
So once they have been approved, they’re able to submit a transport request form, which gives us information about that rescue animal. Whether it’s a dog or a cat, how much it weighs, if there’s any medical needs, we need know about. Some we’ve transferred in the past if, for example, they wear a diaper or if they have a disformed leg or, you know there’s some special need animals, we like to know that information just so we can tell our volunteers ahead of time, just keep note of this condition or whatnot. Also, once they submit the transport request, we will then post a to our Facebook group with our volunteers. So the Facebook Group is a closed group for Southwest employees only. And from there we post the request and the need. And that’s when volunteers start stepping up and slowly transfer all over the United States. Anywhere that Southwest flies to. We’ve transported from Puerto Rico, from Washington, to Florida, New York to California. I mean everywhere in between. Wow.
How many volunteers do you guys have now? We have just shy of 1,800 volunteers, we have 1,797. Wow, that’s pretty cool. In just two years. Yes, it’s been two years in September. Now, are these all flight attendants or is it anybody that works at Southwest? So it is anyone that works with Southwest. So we have mechanics, operation agents, customer service agents, flight attendants, pilots, people who work at headquarters, and scheduling, and then just other IT networks. Anyone a part of Southwest Airlines can be a part of the group. Yeah, that’s really cool. And it’s gonna be pretty interesting to you to see how this has grown just in two short years. Absolutely. Like I said, I didn’t imagine it to get so big so quick, especially because I was just thinking like, “oh, you know, this is how we can help for this event for a hurricane. You know, a hurricane relief. That’s awesome. That’s what we can do.” But then the needs just kept. Every month, it was something else, you know. Like I said, some shelters had to wait two weeks until they knew for sure if the animal’s family was gonna come back for them. But you know, then, after two weeks, we were getting requests and we were getting needs from other shelters and then in Dallas, and it was just kind of spreading around the West rescue worlds.
So now, once in organizations approved, then they submit a request, right? And then how does that work that comes to you and to Elaine? Yes. So the request comes to us, and once we process the request, we’ll submit it to our volunteers, and we will put the city codes that it needs to go to. So, for example, if it’s from Houston to New York, we only fly into Hobby. So it has to be a Southwest Airlines destination. So we would write Hobby to LaGuardia, and then we would post that, and generally it’s gonna be a volunteer in the Houston area then, cause they’re gonna originate there or they be in the New York area and maybe they’ll fly in to help with that request. Sometimes though we have had, you know, a Dallas volunteer. Since it’s a quick flight, they’ll be able to hop over to Houston and then complete the transport. And sometimes it just works out where someone’s heading that way anyway, like, “oh, I’m going to visit family that weekend. I’ll go ahead and do it, you know, might as well.”
Yeah, I was gonna ask if these are all direct flights or through connections. It sounds like connections will be a lot harder to handle. Yeah, we do have some connections because, like I said, we’ve transported from San Diego to Baltimore, for example, and we do have a non-stop. But sometimes that’s too long of a day for someone to be able to get back home. So maybe they’ll stop in Denver and then maybe another volunteer will start in Denver and they’ll tag team to complete the transport. Yeah, that’s really cool.
So now do you guys advertise within Southwest Company? I mean, are they aware that you exist and people do this? So the volunteer department of Southwest, they are aware that we exist and they work with us quite often. They’re the ones who are big advocates for us to be logging these hours for tickets for time. So every 40 hours donated to a rescue organization, they get a round trip ticket. That’s very cool. With Southwest Airlines that’s confirmed and we’ve had rescues, then use those tickets as a confirmed seat to do a transport themselves. Always more transports that are needed. Yes, absolutely.
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So now you mentioned some size and weight restrictions, and that for these particular types of animals. How does that all work? So the size restriction, as long as an animal, a rescued animal can fit underneath the seat comfortably, and we also can do, for an example two puppies together in one carrier and then two kittens together in one carrier. So as long as you’re the same breed, there could be two per carrier. But they still have to fit comfortably. Elaine and I have messed around with the weight. There’s not necessarily a max weight, but with our volunteers, we recommend that we only do 18 pounds and under because we’re having to carry that carrier to terminal running around, you know, trying to catch flights. It does add up, you know, holding all your bags, one holding a dog or cat that weighs close to 20 pounds. I can totally imagine, but I mean, it’s still it’s smaller, you know, as you said, it’s puppies, it’s kittens and smaller dogs. But still, that fits a whole bunch of them that need to be rescued. Absolutely, pretty much any cat and then dogs. We’ve done a lot of big dog but puppies, a golden retriever puppy or a German shepherd puppy because they are able to be transported still until they reach about, probably depending on the dog. You know, four or five months once they really start getting big.
Now you guys must get a lot of questions and attention when you’re doing this as well, don’t you? Yes, we do. And it’s fun. We try and have the volunteers tell the story as well for that animal. We also have Southwest donated 1,100 Southwest airline animal carriers for us. Oh cool. They’re a later model. They don’t sell them anymore. So pretty much we have those carriers and we want them to be kind of a statement piece for when you know another employee sees it. They’re like, “oh, I like that carrier” and like, ‘oh, can I see your dog?” And then we kind of explain, this is a rescue pet. I’m taking it home, you know, it just got adopted. So I’m just volunteering my day to help out. Yes.
You must be taking lots of pictures and videos and just really helping to promote animal rescue, in general. Yes, And so how a transport works as well is we do everything on Facebook. So once we find a volunteer for the transport request, then we start a Facebook group, and in that Facebook group will be, Elaine and I, since we’re the admins and we help monitor and we have the volunteer, the rescue, the foster, sometimes, if they’re not with the rescue, then the person dropping off the animal and the new adopting family or the person picking up. So there’s a lot of parties sometimes and all. It takes a village, we say, with just completing one transport. Sometimes you know, we have six or seven people a part of this group message just to make it happen. Whether someone’s dropping off, someone’s picking up, someone’s dropping off the night before, you know, just getting everything in place to make sure the transport goes smoothly. Yeah.
So how many transports do you guys coordinate on a weekly basis, monthly basis? I would say, on average, we do about well, twelve a month. Wow. It had a little more, and it’s also very depending on the season. So I think just after, you know, two years, maybe after a couple months after Christmas, it gets pretty busy when people realized like, you know, there’s just a lot more movement in the shelter I feel like is also more movement for us. So depending on the time we get more requests. But it’s pretty easy to manage. With Elaine and I both doing it full time.
I was going to say I mean, this is not your full time job, right? You’re still a full time flight attendant and you’re doing this on the side? Yes. So we do, do it on the side. But it’s all ours. You know, we’ll wake up Transport Day. We require 90 minutes to get to the airport prior to departure. So that means Elaine and I are also waking up. You know, if it’s a 4 a.m. drop off, I may be on the West Coast and it’s an East Coast 4 A.M. So I’ll be waking up at 1 a.m. To make sure that the hand off’s been complete and the transport is going smoothly. So her and I, we switch off with that to try and, like, alleviate some of that and be able to sleep in a little bit for one of us. But yes, all hours of the day. Wow, it sounds like it’s a full time job, right? In addition, everything that you’re already doing? Yeah.
So what’s next for you guys? Where do you see this going? So Elaine and I, we have a few plans were hoping, for me, something that’s very important is the service dog industry. And we’ve had a few inquiries with a few service organizations to help transport their dogs to puppy training and then, once they’ve been certified, then transport them from puppy training to their new owners. And the service dogs would be for children with epilepsy. Seeing eye dogs, veterans with PTSD, seizure alert dogs, for example, deserve you of them. And so we’re hoping eventually we can get approval from Southwest to be able to transport with SWATT those dogs. Because for me, I also see there’s a really big need, and especially with being in the airline industry, you can kind of see there’s a lot of issues with, like the emotional support animals and then fake service animals. Sure. So it’s hard to get approval for this because the airline industry is kind of still trying to figure out all that. You know, you hear on the news sometimes about children getting bit by a service dog. Then they realize it isn’t a real service dog and whatnot. So we’re hoping that we can get approval once everything has been kind of figured out to help transport puppies to their training and then from training once they’re certified to their new owners.
So how big do you see this getting? I mean, how many employers are there in Southwest? I believe, like over 60,000 employees with Southwest. Somewhere along there, there’s a lot, and I can see SWATT to continue to grow for the years to come. I mean, already this year we have exceeded our transports from last year. I believe this year we’re around 150 already, and last year I believe we did a 139. So we still have a few more months of the year. And we still have, you know, transport requests that are active right now. So I can see a growing on the future. And the main way we get activity is just word of mouth. So with our volunteers, that’s how people find us. It’s just other flight attendants, or other pilots, or other people talking about us within the company. Then we get more adds on Facebook to join the group, and then same in the rescue world. We have an Instagram page. It’s called @swattrescue and then also our website. And it’s just word of mouth referral. Or, you know, “I saw on a Facebook group that you guys transported.” Or “my friend, she told me to apply with you guys.” And so it’s all word of mouth right now. That’s really cool to see how this has just grown from something that you didn’t really even know what you were doing, right the first time. You’re like, o“h, sure, I can help out.” Yeah, absolutely.
So, what have you learned about yourself throughout this process? Definitely. I have learned a lot from Elaine. I know she was already in the rescue world prior. Working with her I mean, we were complete strangers. We had never met each other before forming the group and making a name and a logo. And, you know, we were both so passionate about it. I have learned a lot from her and just the teamwork it takes between the two of us to make this all work out perfectly. It’s insane.
Is there any particular stories that come to mind when you think of over the last couple of years that really seed in you. Why you do this? Yeah. I would actually say one of the first transports and how Elaine and I met each other. It ended up being kind of a sporadic, random event where somebody had reached out to us and they needed two dogs transported to Denton, Texas. But the dogs were in the Houston area. Well, Elaine lives near the Houston area, and I lived near the Dallas area, which isn’t far from Denton. And they needed to get to Denton to be flown with Pilots N Paws. And so, between her and I, we had just started SWATT and she said, “you know, I’m available. I can take the dog to Corsicana.” And then I was gonna meet her. In Corsicana, pick up the two puppies and then drive them to Denton, and it happened to be the halfway point. It happened to be the first time I ever met Elaine. We had been working this group together, never meeting each other. And then we happened just to be pulled together with the transport last minute. Like we can do this and we’re gonna meet each other, also. It was pretty fun.
No, that’s great. And the fact that, like you said you were working together, but you’ve never really met. You just had a common love for animals. Yeah, and that’s how the whole group is, you know. Most of the volunteers, like I said, we have just shy of 1,800 but the company is so big and they’re all over the United States. So I’ve never met a lot of them. But we just have all the same passion and with our job, we’re able to provide free transport for an animal in need. And that’s just how we can help. Someday I picture a SWATT meeting of some kind where all of the volunteers come together in a convention—sort of an area. Yeah, absolutely. And just celebrate the work that you guys are doing.
Well, this has been really great to talk to you, Erica. I mean, is there anything else you wanna mention before wrap things up? You, too. Thank you. At the moment, I can’t think of anything, But if you are a rescue or an organization and you need help with the transport, please don’t hesitate to ask and apply with our services. We’re always looking to help more organizations out who are also in the rescue world. Why don’t you mention the website again so people know where they can go. Yeah, it’s www.swattrescue.com. Well, thank you so much for coming on, Erica. It was great to talk to you. Yeah, you too. Thank you.
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