United Airlines is apologizing for the death of a passenger’s dog that a flight attendant reportedly insisted be stowed in an overhead bin during a Monday flight from Houston to New York.
United confirmed an incident involving the dog to USA TODAY and says it’s now looking into what led up to the episode.
“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 in a statement to Today in the Sky. “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.”
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The death occurred after a passenger reportedly brought the dog on board in a TSA-compliant pet carrier. But, after taking a seat, a United flight attendant is said to have insisted that the carrier -- and dog -- had to be stowed in an overhead bin. The dog is said to have been a French bulldog.
With some conditions, United and other airlines generally allow pets to be carried onboard provided they're in carriers that can fit under the seat in front of the owner.
The latest incident came to light after Maggie Gremminger, a woman who identified herself as a passenger on flight where the dog died, took to social media with tales of the incident. The story was first picked up by travel blogs like The Points Guy and One Mile at a Time.
Gremminger said the traveler with the dog protested the attendant’s order to put the pet carrier into the overhead bin, but that the attendant persisted.
“The passenger adamantly refused but the flight attendant went on with the instruction,” Gremminger wrote via Facebook. “At the end of the flight – the dog was found dead in the carrier. I am heart broken right now.”
United spokesman Charles Hobart told The Associated Press that the flight attendant instructed 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.
It’s also unclear whether the attendant was aware that the carrier contained a live animal, though accounts from other passengers cited by Gremminger say it was communicated to the attendant that there was, according to various online accounts of the incident.
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It’s also unclear how the dog died. Though overhead storage bins are not completely sealed, air may not flow as freely there.
United told CNBC that it will pay for a necropsy of the small dog and is refunding the tickets.
The incident comes as United has been under scrutiny for animals that have died on the carrier in recent years.
In one recent high-profile incident, a giant 3-foot rabbit died while being transported in the cargo hold of a United flight from London to Chicago in April 2017.
United had 53 animals die on its flights from January 2012 through February 2017, according to the Transportation Department’s Air Travel Consumer Report. That compared with a total of 136 animals that died on all flights of airlines during the same period.
For the full year 2017, United accounted for 18 of 24 animal deaths on flights among the 17 airlines that reported to DOT. For comparison, American, Delta and Alaska each reported two deaths and none of the others had any. United also had 13 of 15 reported animals injured. United carried the most animals at 138,178, but nearly triple the average rate of incidents at 2.24 per 10,000 animals transported
However, onboard animal deaths don't necessarily mean an airline was negligent, as revealed in summaries of department investigations.
Among the four deaths on United flights in January 2017, a Jan. 28 incident involving Hope, a 9-year-old cat, was suspected as heart failure, according to the department. Rocco, a dog, died on a flight Jan. 21 from a cardiac abnormality due to congenital heart disease, according to the medical exam. Two geckos were found dead upon arriving at Raleigh-Durham airport on Jan. 12, but no medical exam was performed.
The department requires passenger airlines to report any deaths, injuries or lost animals from flights with at least 60 seats.
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