A bulldog’s death in the overhead bin of a United Airlines flight served as a reminder that the airline that carried the most animals last year also has had the most die in each of the last five years.
United is investigating the Monday death, which happened after a flight attendant ordered a passenger to place the dog’s kennel in an overhead bin. United’s own policy calls for an animal kennel in the cabin to always be placed beneath a seat near its owner.
“If reports are true that a United Airlines flight attendant insisted that this dog’s guardian put him in the overhead bin, then he or she should be fired and charged with cruelty to animals for this dog’s horrific, terrifying death,” said Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president of the advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Digimind, which monitors corporate reputations on social media, found negative sentiment for United spiked 140% from Monday to Tuesday because of the incident, according to Mohammed El Haddar, CEO for the Americas.
“This latest incident could be another massive blow to United’s reputation unless upper management takes control of the storm on social in an effective way,” El Haddar said. “In this instance, United will need to do more than just apologize — they will need to provide solutions and reassure their wide customer base, and to do so intelligently.”
Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, said United’s response to the dog’s death seemed to follow a pattern that included reaction to when a passenger was dragged off a full flight in Chicago in April 2017.
“United’s statement sounds cold and distant after a cruel and heartless act where they became an admitted puppy executioner,” he said. “It’s consistent with United’s clueless image management.”
The company should be offering meaningful compensation and showing compassion for the loss, Schiffer said.
“Everyone has had puppies,” he said. “To imagine if this happened to your own dog is unspeakable.”
United spokesman Charles Hobart said the flight attendant told the dog’s owner to put the pet carrier in the overhead bin because the bag was partly obstructing the aisle. It is unclear why the carrier was not placed under a seat, he said.
The airline refunded the tickets for the dog’s owner and her two children, and the fee they paid to bring the pet with them, Hobart said.
“This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin,” United spokeswoman Maggie Schmerin said. “We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.”
More about animals dying on flights:
United Airlines accounted for a third of animal deaths on U.S. flights in last 5 years
United transported the most animals last year, with 138,178 out of 506,994 aboard 17 airlines, according to Transportation Department statistics.
A number of airlines don’t transport animals: Allegiant, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and Virgin America.
But as United has transported more animals, it has also reported the most animal deaths for each of the last five years, according to the department’s Air Travel Consumer Report.
The airline accounted for 18 of the 24 deaths last year; nine of 26 in 2016; 14 of 35 in 2015; five of 17 in 2014 and nine of 21 in 2013, according to the annual reports.
The average number of animal deaths for every 10,000 transported has declined during the last three years from 1.18 to 0.79, according to the reports. United’s rate has fluctuated during that period from 2.37 in 2015 to 2.11 in 2016 to 2.24 last year.
United’s policy allows for cats, dogs, rabbits and household birds other than cockatoos for a $125 fee, so long as the owner has a hard or soft-sided kennel.
“The kennel must fit completely under the seat in front of the customer and remain there at all times,” the policy states.
Reports to the Transportation Department about the 2017 deaths aboard United flights reveal the variety of incidents and uncertainty about what caused each animal’s death.
The incidents ranged from two geckos that died on a January flight to Raleigh-Durham airport in North Carolina and one of four conure birds that died on a December flight to Los Angeles. Those causes were unknown.
United said it would review its policies after a 3-year-old Abyssinian dog named Riko escaped from his container and was struck by a vehicle on a flight from Denver to Vancouver in March.
A medical exam attributed the death of an 8-week-old Devon Rex kitten named Tabby to suspected anxiety, which restricted its oxygen flow, before arriving in Chicago in October.
Other deaths included:
♦A 9-year-old cat named Hope from suspected heart failure arriving at Denver in January.
♦An 11-year-old pug named Domi, whose owner declined a medical exam, arriving in Brazil in April.
♦A 12-year-old Labrador retriever named Tank, whose cause of death couldn’t be confirmed, on a flight from India to Newark in July.
♦An 11-year-old cat named Oliver, whose necropsy attributed the cause as heart failure, on a flight from Guam to Denver after a connection in Honolulu in July.