In the first two weeks of March, United Airlines accidentally sent someone’s dog to Japan instead of Kansas and then killed someone else’s dog by forcing it to spend an entire flight in an overhead compartment. Following these incidents, the airline announced that it would be suspending its PetSafe program. United pledged to conduct a “thorough and systematic review of our [PetSafe] program for pets that travel in the cargo compartment to make improvements that will ensure the best possible experience for our customers and their pets.”
It’s good that the company is taking these measures, because frankly, United Airlines sucks at keeping animals safe. According to annual incident reports from the Department of Transportation, United has led all major airlines in “incidents involving the loss, injury, or death of animals during air transportation” each year since 2015. In 2015, 14 animals died and 9 were injured on United flights. The next year, those figures were reversed, with 9 deaths and 14 injuries. And in 2017, United disclosed that 13 animals were injured on their flights, while a whopping 18 died — meaning that in 2017, United was responsible for 31 of the 40 animal incidents reported to the Department of Transportation.
And if you dig into the data, it begins to seem that United knows exactly why animals are getting hurt and killed on their flights, they just haven’t decided to do anything about it until they got hit with a wave of bad press. According to the animal incident reports that United submitted to the D.O.T. for the 2016 and 2017 calendar years, 20 of the 27 animals injured on United flights hurt themselves trying to claw or chew their way out of the containers that they’re housed in during cargo transit (an additional two reports list paw or tooth injuries but don’t explicitly state their causes). Last March, a cat named Riko escaped its container before it could be loaded onto a plane and was fatally struck by a vehicle. One animal’s cause of death was attributed to anxiety, while two deaths were chalked up to heat stroke. The deaths of seven animals were blamed on heart-related issues, and three more were attributed to respiratory and lung problems. But in the vast majority of all incidents, United reported that there “no corrective action taken” to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
The U.S. Humane Society advises against against stowing a pet in an airplane’s cargo hold, warning that experience can be “dangerous and stressful” for pets. United’s self-reported data, full of pets trying to escape from their containers or mysteriously dying from heart failure, seems to corroborate this.
I reached out to United Airlines asking if the airline had picked up on any patterns in the incident reports that they were submitting to the Department of Transportation, and if so, why it took until now to address potential issues inherent to the PetSafe program that may have fueled those patterns. My inquiry, submitted over email, included a link to United’s announcement that they were suspending the PetSafe program. In response, a member of United’s media relations team wrote, “Thank you for your email. Please refer to our website for details,” and then sent me the exact same link I’d just sent over.
If nothing else, it’s good that United is finally making their planes a safer place for pets. But it sucks that it took a wash of public outrage for them to address a problem that was around for years.