Dog death on United Airlines prompts legislative proposal and policy change

The death of a French bulldog on a United Airlines flight this week has prompted a policy change by the carrier and motivated two U.S. senators to propose legislation protecting pets traveling by air.

The dog died on a 3 1/2-hour flight from Houston to New York after a flight attendant instructed the dog's owner to put the carrier holding the pet into the overhead bin because the carrier did not fit under the seat.

The death prompted an outcry from animal welfare groups, including a call from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, that the flight attendant involved in the incident be fired and charged with animal cruelty.

The district attorney's office in Harris County, Texas, which includes the Houston airport where the flight originated, said it plans to investigate the case through its animal cruelty task force.

United Airlines issued a statement, saying the flight attendant did not hear or understand when the dog owner told the flight attendant that the dog was inside the carrier. It's a claim that has been disputed by the dog's owner and other passengers who have said on social media outlets that the puppy barked for a while after it was put in the overhead compartment.

Under policy change that will begin by April, the Chicago-based carrier said it plans give passengers brightly colored bag tags to help flight attendants identify onboard luggage that contain pets.

Meanwhile, Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) filed legislation Thursday aiming to prohibit airlines from putting animals in overhead baggage compartments.The bill was dubbed the Welfare of Our Furry Friends Act.

"Too many animals have died as a result of human neglect and carelessness," Cortez Masto said in a statement.

The president of the Humane Society of the United States, Kitty Block, praised Kennedy and Cortez Masto for introducing the bill. "Pets are members of our families and should be treated with kindness and respect at all times," she said.

In 2017, 24 animals died, 15 others were injured and one was lost on commercial flights, out of nearly 507,000 animals that were transported, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

That amounts to a rate of less than one animal incident for every 10,000 animals flown. Most of the incidents - 31 of 40 - occurred on United Airlines.

The dog's death comes nearly a year after a passenger was bloodied and battered when he was dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight in Chicago for refusing to give up the seat.

United also acknowledged that, due to a mix-up on Tuesday, a German shepherd bound for Kansas City from Oregon was accidentally flown to Japan. The dog's owners were instead presented at the airport with a greyhound that was supposed to fly to the island nation.

Public relations experts say too many embarrassing incidents like the dragging scandal and the dog death can eventually drive away passengers.

Eric Rose, a crisis and reputation management expert with Englander Knabe & Allen, said United needs to create a task force or adopt new training for flight attendants to demonstrate that the airline is taking such problems seriously.

"You can't have mishap after mishap and just apologize," he said. "You have to make changes to show people you get it."

Credit: HUGO MARTIN