Federal officials are investigating United Airlines’ animal transportation practices after a 10-month-old French bulldog died Monday while he was stowed in the overhead compartment of a flight from Houston to New York.
According to the dog’s family and other witnesses on the plane, a flight attendant demanded that the pet’s owners place the carrier inside the overhead bin for the duration of the flight. Although United apologized for the incident and took full responsibility Tuesday, the company said in a statement Wednesday that the flight attendant was not aware that the dog carrier had a dog inside.
“DOT is looking into the circumstances surrounding the recent death of a pet onboard a United Airlines flight and is in contact with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that enforces the Animal Welfare Act and handles complaints about alleged animal mistreatment,” a Department of Transportation spokeswoman said Thursday.
Other government officials are also looking into the circumstances of the dog’s death, and about general practices of pet transportation on United Airlines.
The district attorney’s office in Harris County, Tex. — where the flight originated — said in a statement Wednesday that its animal cruelty division is conducting an investigation into potential criminal wrongdoing.
Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) wrote a letter to United’s president Wednesday, demanding “an immediate explanation for the number of animals who have died recently in United Airlines’ care.”
He cited recent statistics from DOT, which indicated that United Airlines has more than its share of animal deaths on planes. Of the 24 reported deaths of animals that were in the process of being transported on major U.S. air carriers last year, 18 occurred on United. The airline carried about 27 percent of the total number of animals transported by air in the United States last year, according to the Transportation Department.
“This pattern of animal deaths and injuries is simply inexcusable,” Kennedy wrote in his letter. “For many people, pets are members of the family. They should not be treated like insignificant cargo. Frankly, they shouldn’t be placed in the cargo hold much less an overhead bin.”
Kennedy and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) also filed a bill Thursday that would ban airlines from keeping animals inside overhead bins.
According to United’s most recent statement on the puppy’s death, the flight attendant who ordered that the dog carrier be stowed in the overhead bin did not “hear or understand” that there was a dog inside.
“We have spoken to the family, our crew and a number of passengers who were seated nearby,” United’s statement said. “We have learned that the customer did tell the flight attendant that there was a dog in the carrier. However, our flight attendant did not hear or understand her, and did not knowingly place the dog in the overhead bin.”
“As we stated, we take full responsibility and are deeply sorry for this tragic accident,” the statement continued. “We remain in contact with the family to express our condolences and offer support.”
One permanent change has been made so far: United will start putting special tags on luggage containing live animals.
“To prevent this from happening again, by April we will issue bright colored bag tags to customers traveling with in-cabin pets,” the statement said. “This visual tag will further help our flight attendants identify pets in-cabin.”
In an interview with ABC13 in Houston, Sophia Ceballos, a young member of the French bulldog’s family, said she and her family told the flight attendant repeatedly that there was a dog inside the carrier.
“She said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was a dog. I thought it was a normal bag.’ But we told her it was a dog, she’s lying,” Ceballos told the TV news station.
“While we were flying, the dog started barking and barking and there was no flight attendants coming. We couldn’t stand up because there was a lot of turbulence so we weren’t allowed to,” Ceballos said.
The girl described the moments after her mother realized that the dog had died.
“She’s like, ‘He died, he died. Kokito, Kokito.’ And he didn’t wake up. She hit his chest so he could breathe, but he couldn’t breathe,” Ceballos said.