It has been widely reported in the world’s media that a United Airlines employee insisted that a dog, travelling in an approved carrier, be stowed in an overhead locker where it subsequently died.
Federal standards for the transportation of animals are set by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the US Department of Agriculture, which are based on the US Animal Welfare Act (7 USC § 2131). Specific regulations exist to cater for species requirements. The US Department of Transportation has required airlines to report losses, injuries and deaths of companion animals in transit both on internal and external flights operated by a US carrier since May 2015 and makes statistic public. In 2017, United Airlines transported 138,178 animals and reported 18 deaths and 13 injuries to animals in its care. Furthermore, Title 14, Section 234.13 of the Code of Federal Regulations
requires the US Department of Transportation to “work with air carriers to improve the training of employees with respect to the air transport of animals and the notification of passengers of the conditions under which the air transport of animals is conducted”. Two notices were issued to carriers at the beginning and end of 2015 to remind them of their obligations.
Between May 2005 and December 2017, 274 dogs, 54 cats, 7 birds, 3 chinchillas, 5 guinea pigs, 3 rabbits, 2 geckos, 1 monkey, 1 rat, 1 ferret, 1 snake, 1 pig and 3 unidentified animals have died when in the care of US airlines. A further 190 dogs and 16 cats were injured and 39 cats, 13 dogs and 2 birds went missing. 3 of the lost dogs and 1 of the lost cats were reported to have been recovered subsequently. 1 of the lost cats and 5 of the injured dogs subsequently died and 1 of the injured dogs was euthanised.
There is considerable variation in the carriers who take animals and in the numbers transported, but Delta Airlines has a similar poor record with 84 deaths, 33 injuries and 15 losses in the same period. American Airlines reported 57 deaths, 11 injuries and 5 losses, Continental Airlines 49 deaths, 16 injuries and 4 losses and Alaska Airlines 43 deaths, 67 injuries and 5 losses. The remaining 16 carriers reported an average of 30 deaths ranging from (none to 16), 30 injuries ranging from (none to 7) and 19 losses ranging from (none to 5).
The USDA has sanctioned various air carriers for violations of the Animal Welfare Act which include:
Allowing animals to suffer from hyperthermia and hypothermia causing injury and death
Accepting inadequate encloses for transportation causing injuries and loss
Causing death by inadequate ventilation
Causing injury and death by inadequate supervision including causing injury and death by dehydration and starvation
Causing death by crushing an enclosure and death by poor loading techniques and improper handling.
Staff placed a dog’s enclosure on an elevated baggage claim conveyor belt
32 out of 106 dogs and 2 cats died and 52 other animals were injured when all but one dog were being shipped by dealers due to inadequate ventilation
50 dogs in a shipment of 81 died and 31 were injured due to inadequate ventilation. 6 of the 31 were later euthanised.
There were also frequent violations of the requirement to carry adequate documentation regarding animal care, specifically food and water, and of requirements to check that enclosures were adequate before permitting transportation.
Statistically of course, the number is extremely small, but each one represents an animal for which airline staff had a duty of care and of course, an animal to which a human was strongly attached enough to pay a not inconsiderable sum for its travel expecting that it would be safe.
In the case of the dog that died on the latest United Airlines flight, the airline has accepted responsibility and acknowledged that the flight attendant was not following accepted protocol. It beggars belief however, that the member of staff did not take further advice having realised that this was not a suitable way for a living animal to travel. In addition, all concerned, including the owner, ignored the dog’s distressed cries. Given that it has been reported to have been a French bulldog puppy, it would in all likelihood have had compromised breathing and poor ability to regulate body temperature.
In many ways, this is a direct consequence of designating dogs as “toy” types and “teacup dogs” and treating them no differently to accessories to be bred, bought, sold and handled as if they were handbags and shoes.