Turbulent Times For United Airlines After Dog Dies In Overhead Bin

Bob Roberts
March 15, 2018 - 7:43 am

Xinhua/Sipa USA

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CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- These are turbulent times for Chicago-based United Airlines, but an industry consultant said the airline would compound the mistake if it halted acceptance of pets in the wake of two recent incidents.

"I don't think it's going to happen," said Ken Goldstein, president of Chicago-based KJG International Consulting. "What they've got to do is tighten up some restrictions so you don't have larger animals flying, which shouldn't be."

Goldstein said the plane-riding public must be reasonable in what they ask airlines to accept, but at the same time said the airlines should rededicate themselves to good customer service.

A year after it received an international black eye for having a passenger dragged off of a plane at O'Hare, United's ability to handle animals properly has been called into question by two incidents.  United admits a dog died when a flight attendant forced it to travel in an overhead bin on a Houston-to-New York flight. And in the latest incident, a Wichita, Kan., family found that their German shepherd had been shipped to Japan while the dog intended for Japan, a Great Dane, remained in Kansas City.

WBBM Newsradio asked Goldstein if he believes United will halt acceptance of pets, or would be well advised to do so, Goldstein said he doesn't see it happening.  He said pets, much like luggage, have become a profit center for the airlines as they try to find every possible way to increase revenues.

A criminal investigation has been launched into a dog's death aboard a Houston-to-New York United Airlines flight after a flight attendant ordered the animal be placed in the plane's overhead bin.

In a statement issued late Wednesday, the Harris County, Texas, district attorney's office said its animal cruelty division is working with the county's animal cruelty task force to investigate the incident that occurred on the Monday night flight.

The statement said prosecutors won't decide if criminal charges are warranted until the investigation is completed.

United Airlines said the flight attendant who ordered the passenger to put her pet carrier in the overhead bin didn't know there was a puppy inside. However, the family and other passengers contradict the airline's account, saying the dog's barks were audible from inside the bin.

Last year, 18 animals, mostly dogs, died while being transported on United — three-fourths of all animal deaths on U.S. carriers, according to the Department of Transportation. Those figures represent animals that die in cargo holds.

It is rare that an animal dies on a plane. Even on United there was only one death for roughly every 4,500 animals transported last year.

United, which promotes its pet-shipping program called PetSafe, carries more animals than any other airline, but its animal-death rate is also the highest in the industry. Alaska Airlines, which carries only 17 percent fewer animals, had just two deaths last year.

"The overwhelming majority (of deaths), according to medical experts, were due to a pre-existing medical condition or the animal wasn't properly acclimated to its crate," said United spokesman Charles Hobart.

Hobart said the airline investigates every injury or death to an animal in its care. Pets are loaded last and taken off the plane first after landing, he said.

United's PetSafe has its skeptics.

"I think United tries to make a business out of pet transport with this program, but (airline) ramp workers are not veterinarians," said Brian Kelly, CEO of The Points Guy, a travel website that first highlighted this week's incident.

Reports filed with the government indicate that in most cases of animal death or injury last year, United took no corrective action. Some animals were deemed to have died of natural causes, others from cardiac problems or gastric dilation, a condition associated with eating too much. One dog died of heat stroke, and another animal escaped while being handed back to its owner and was hit by a vehicle.

United has suffered a string of incidents that generated bad publicity in the last year, including the death of a giant rabbit — its Iowa owners sued the airline, which they said cremated the animal to destroy evidence about the cause of death.

The issue of pets on planes has gotten attention recently after United and Delta Air Lines announced tightened restrictions on emotional-support animals, including requiring a health form filled out by a veterinarian.

If your pet must travel, experts have several recommendations:

  • The cabin is safer than the cargo hold. Pets too large to fit in an under-seat carrier must go cargo unless it's a service or emotional-support animal.
  •  Ask the airline or look up its rules about things such as carrier size, and don't force your pet into a carrier that is too small.
  • Take nonstop flights to avoid layovers, which increase the chances your pet could be mishandled or left longer in the cargo hold.
  • Avoid extremely hot or cold weather and busy periods such as holidays.
  • Make sure your pet's tags and your contact information on its carrier or crate are up to date.
  • Tape a bag with a day's worth of food to the top of the crate — just in case.
  • If your pet flies in cargo, use your own crate instead of renting one from the airline; it will help get them acclimated and minimize anxiety.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)