Pet lovers across the country were horrified and angry last month after a United Airlines flight attendant placed a carrier containing a French bulldog puppy named Kokito into the overhead storage bin -- over the owner’s protests. By the end of the three-hour flight, Kokito was dead from lack of oxygen.
In this case, a language barrier complicated the situation, with the flight attendant not hearing, misunderstanding or ignoring the owner’s statement that a pet was in the bag.
United has taken responsibility for the dog’s death and refunded the passengers’ ticket costs -- including the hefty pet fee. Starting this month, it will place bright yellow tags on pet carriers to alert flight attendants to four-legged occupants.
It’s not yet known if the owners will seek additional damages, if the flight attendant will be fired or if criminal charges will be filed. In the aftermath, Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada introduced the Welfare of Our Furry Friends Act, or WOOFF, to create regulations to protect future air-traveling pets from improper stowage.
But as all pet lovers know, no amount of compensation, punishment of the perpetrator or legislation can make up for the loss of a dog’s life, especially under circumstances that should never have happened in the first place. It’s unlikely that this exact scenario will ever be repeated, but there may be other instances in which a pet’s life is put at risk during travel. What can a dog or cat owner traveling by air do to either avoid or deal with a similar situation?
▪ Be prepared. Know what size pet carrier is permitted on board. Measure yours to make sure it meets the requirements, and bring a copy of the airline’s rules with you in case of a dispute.
▪ When choosing seats, some people prefer the aisle because it’s easier to get in and out of the seat with the carrier, but there is also more risk that the service cart will run into it or people walking by will accidentally kick it. A CNBC news story reported that Kokito’s carrier was slightly protruding into the aisle, prompting the flight attendant’s demand that it be placed in the overhead space. It may be safer, more comfortable and less stressful for your pet if you are in a middle or window seat.
▪ Remain calm and polite, but advocate for your pet if a flight attendant asks you to do something that you feel endangers your animal. The Federal Aviation Administration says passengers must follow flight attendant instructions regarding proper stowage of pet carriers. Pet carriers go beneath the seat in front of you, never in the overhead compartment. Ask to speak to the purser or chief flight attendant if there is disagreement.
▪ If you see something, say something, even if it’s not your pet. It’s OK to express concern to authority when you witness something that appears unsafe. Again, ask to speak to the purser if you aren’t satisfied with the response. Whether you are an onlooker or the owner, record the incident on your smartphone or ask someone else to do so.
▪ For your pet’s safety and comfort, as well as for that of other passengers, keep him inside the carrier. This prevents accidental escapes or negative interactions with other passengers or flight attendants.
▪ Finally, some people have criticized Kokito’s owner for complying. That is wrong. We have all seen news stories of people removed, sometimes forcibly, from flights when they refused to comply with a flight attendant’s direction. Flight attendants have full authority on flights.