Real Snakes, Real Planes

What you need to know before your reptile flies the friendly skies.

The Samuel L. Jackson horror flick Snakes on a Plane  has taken in more than $20 million at the box office since it opened Aug. 18. In the film, a drug dealer smuggles 300 snakes onto a plane that’s carrying a man who plans to testify against him. What’s the proper way to transport a snake on a plane?

In a box, with warning labels. According to the International Air Transport Association’s Live Animals Regulations (which have been adopted by the United States), snakes should first be wrapped in a cloth sack—if you’ve got a plain old garden snake, a pillowcase will do. That sack should then be tied off and placed inside a sturdy container that’s easy to open and close with ventilation holes small enough to prevent the critter from escaping. There also must be enough room inside for the snake to lie down naturally. The box should be labeled “LIVE ANIMAL.” Venomous snakes get a special tag that includes the reptile’s scientific name and a pictorial warning label.


Venomous snakes should, if possible, be packed in rigid plastic containers, so inspectors can look inside without opening the package. You can sometimes put more than one nonvenomous snake in the same container, depending on their sizes and habits. Any snake longer than 120 centimeters needs its own bag. Same goes for cannibalistic snakes like the black-headed python and the mussurana.

The container should also be climate-controlled. The body temperatures of snakes and other cold-blooded animals fluctuate with ambient temperatures, so containers shouldn’t get hotter than 85 degrees or colder than 45 degrees. Packaging might include heat or cold packs to maintain a moderate temperature. (Many airlines refuse to ship animals during extreme weather conditions.)

Many airlines allow dogs and cats as carry-on luggage for a fee, as long as you store them in a pet carrier. Snakes, though, aren’t allowed in the cabin. You can send your slithery friend either by cargo plane or in the luggage compartment of a passenger jet. Airlines store the box in a pressurized, temperature-controlled area of the plane.

The cost of shipping an animal depends on the size, manner of transport, and distance traveled. According to Global Animal Transport, the cost of shipping a small snake via airplane starts around $250 for air freight alone, plus any pickup and handling fees.

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Explainer thanks Jens-Thomas Rueckert and Martine Ohayon of the International Air Transport Association.