More than 500,000 pets flew safely as cargo on U.S. flights in 2017, but 24 died in the air, according to U.S. government data. Eighteen of those 24 were on United Airlines flights.
The statistic, issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation, has sparked renewed interest following the death of a dog Monday night in a United passenger cabin after a flight attendant mistakenly ordered its carrier stuffed into an overhead bin. The French bulldog puppy died on a nighttime flight from Houston to New York.
The U.S. Department of Transportation figures on pet deaths cover only animals flying as cargo, not in passenger cabins. The 2017 report shows United Airlines flew the most pets of any airline in 2017 through its PetSafe cargo program – 138,178 of the 506,994 pets flown as cargo that year. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines each reported two animal deaths in cargo holds in 2017.
United Airlines also had the highest number of pet deaths in 2015 and 2016, according to The Huffington Post.
So an incident such as Monday’s won’t be covered in the government statistics.
Regarding Monday’s incident, the airline told The Associated Press that the attendant didn’t realize a dog was inside the pet carrier, but passengers reported the bulldog barked for more than 30 minutes inside the bin before falling silent. When the owners opened the bin after the flight, the dog had died.
United Airlines told ABC News in a statement that it assumed “full responsiblity” for the dog’s death, calling it a “tragic accident” that violated airline policies. Pet carriers in passenger cabins are supposed to be stowed under the seat in front of the passenger, never in overhead bins, the airline said.
The Harris County, Texas, district attorney’s office told The Associated Press on Wednesday that its animal cruelty division has opened an investigation into the incident.
On Thursday, U.S. Senators John Kennedy, R-La., and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., introduced the Welfare of Our Furry Friends Act, or WOOFF Act, to prohibit airlines from storing animals in overhead compartments, reported The New York Times.
The speedy response by politicians to the bulldog puppy’s death drew unfavorable comparisons from people seeking stricter gun laws in the wake of a Feb. 14 shooting spree that killed 17 at a Parkland, Fla. high school, however.
Also, United Airlines announced Thursday it will issue special tags for pet carriers brought into passenger cabins as carry-on luggage to prevent future confusion.
“To prevent this from happening again, by April we will issue bright colored bag tags to customers traveling with in-cabin pets,” United said in a statement.
Charlie Hobart, a United spokesman, told The Huffington Post that medical experts attribute most of the deaths in United cargo holds to factors beyond the airline’s control, such as pre-existing medical conditions.
“Any time there’s a death or an incident, United does a thorough review,” Hobart said. “We reach out to the customer, offer our support and condolences, and we work to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”