NEW YORK (Reuters) – United Airlines (UAL.N) faced fresh backlash on Wednesday over a puppy that died in-flight after a cabin attendant ordered it stowed in an overhead bin, with a U.S. senator demanding an explanation for the high number of animals that have died in the carrier’s care.
Senator John Kennedy, in a letter to airline President Scott Kirby, requested information on the events that led to the Monday incident in which a dog in a carrying case died after a United flight attendant insisted that the animal’s owner, Catalina Robledo, put her French bulldog in overhead storage during the 3-1/2 hour flight from Houston to New York.
“This pattern of animal deaths and injuries is simply inexcusable,” Kennedy wrote, as he cited figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation over the high percentage of animal deaths that occurred on United flights last year.
“For many people, pets are members of the family. They should not be treated like insignificant cargo,” Kennedy wrote. “Frankly, they shouldn’t be placed in the cargo hold, much less an overhead bin.”
Of the 24 animals that died on U.S. carriers last year, 18 were on United Airlines flights, according to a Department of Transportation report.
“I was like ‘It’s a dog, it’s a dog. He can’t breathe there,’” Robledo’s 11-year-old daughter, Sophia Ceballos, said in an interview with CBS. “(The flight attendant) was like ‘it doesn’t matter.’”
The family told CBS they heard the puppy, named Kokito, barking for two hours during the flight before he went silent. The family said they were unable to check on the dog because of turbulence that forced them to stay seated.
United said that despite the puppy owner’s telling the flight attendant that there was a dog in the carrying case, the flight attendant either did not hear or did not understand that there was a pet in the bag, and “did not knowingly place the dog in the overhead bin.”
United said it had concluded its investigation into the matter.
Robledo had paid a fee of $125 for her dog to fly in the cabin, which was refunded along with the cost of airfare.
Greg Martin, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman, said the agency will “review the airline’s investigation.”
Several high-profile incidents of animal deaths and misplacements on United flights have plagued the airline over the last year, including the death of a giant rabbit on one of its flights last July and a dog that died in a plane cargo hold in August.
The airline’s animal troubles compound a public relations nightmare tracing back to last spring when a man was dragged from his seat and down the aisle of a parked United plane in order to make room for an airline employee.
United said that by next month, it would issue brightly colored bag tags to passengers traveling with in-cabin pets to help flight attendants easily identify the animals.
Reporting by Alana Wise; Additional reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler