United Forced Passenger’s Dog into the Overhead Bin — and Killed Him

United seems to have a disproportionate number of incidents of pets dying in their care. I’ve written about why I wouldn’t trust United Airlines with my own dog.

They reportedly locked the World’s Biggest Rabbit in a freezer for hours and them cremated it without permission. A dog died while traveling United when an agent’s mistake meant that the dog traveled 20 hours longer than expected. Then they mixed up two dogs and sent each one to the wrong city. Fame doesn’t help, they lost Grammy-nominated hip hop artist Schoolboy Q’s dog.

The latest story out of United is just horrible, a flight attendant who forced a passenger to put her dog in the overhead bin. The dog died. And United says they’re totally at fault.

A woman boarded United fight UA1284 from Houston to to New York’s LaGuardia yesterday with her small dog in a carrier. And thinks went horribly wrong. A passenger who witnessed the event writes

I witnessed a United flight attendant instruct a woman to put her dog carrier with live dog in an overhead bin. The passenger adamantly pushed it, sharing verbally that her dog was in the bag. The flight attendant continued to ask the passenger to do it, and she eventually complied. By the end of the flight, the dog was dead. The woman, crying in the airplane aisle on the floor.

She adds, “I head the dog barking a little and we didn’t know it was barking a cry for help. I am so heart broken.”

So Much for United’s “Pet Safe” Pledge

This witness shares that United employees were “all shocked, concerned and trying to gather information” after the dog was found dead. United took down her information, “offered me and the other witness gentleman each $75 credit” which they refused.

I’m not sure what the $75 was for, turning them into paid witnesses? If it’s to compensate for emotional distress well, then, that seems awfully low (and in United credit, not cash as well — it wouldn’t even cover United’s pet in cabin fee for a pet that isn’t claimed to be an emotional support animal).

The crazy thing is that United has even been asked about pets in the overhead bin before and said they “would work with the customer to be reseated to a seat where the carrier would fit” rather than require a pet go in an overhead compartment. Oops.

A pet should fit underneath the seat if traveling as ‘pet in cabin’. If they do not, the passenger needs a different seat with more under seat space or they shouldn’t be permitted to travel with the pet which is larger than published allowable size (or whose carry bag is larger). If they are an emotional support animal they can sit on the passenger’s lap or stand on the floor. There should not be a reason why a pet has to go up into the overhead bin.

United agrees. They shared the following statement, taking full responsibility for the incident,

This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.

Here’s the passenger who lost her dog after the flight. Terrible.

(HT: Meagan T.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Jeff, I’m sure there’s not adequate airflow in there. I think if you could sustain life in there for the duration of a flight, some airline somewhere would have figured out a way to put passengers in there (and charge for it).

  2. @Jeff, I’d actually be worried about heavier bags shifting into/compressing the typically much softer side pet carriers.

  3. Dog was scared, breathed very hard due to fear, and likely used all the air in the bin and suffocated.

  4. If it weren’t for United’s apology, I might have thought that the flight attendant’s reported instructions to put the dog in the overhead bin are so bizarrely incompetent, insensitive and cruel that we’re not getting an accurate account of what happened. I hope you track any follow-up announcement by United, Gary, with that announcement hopefully including what disciplinary steps it has taken against the employee (though I realize the union and/or company policy might preclude this) and airline-wide guidance it is issuing to its staff to prevent anything like this from happening again.

    As doltish and inexcusable as the FA’s apparent actions were, I can’t help but wonder whether they were drive partly by the on-time departure imperative.

  5. At what point do you just start firing people at UA? I mean really this is just another asinine example of an airline redefining the “Bottom” who the hell would fly them ?

  6. This is incredibly disturbing, but what I can’t understand is why on Earth the dog owner complied. She should have insisted on getting off the plane and neighboring passengers should have intervened. I don’t encourage lawsuits very often, but I’d certainly be suing United over this.

  7. This is reprehensible. Pure Ignorance to say the least. Beginning with firing the Flight Attendant, there needs to be a public pronouncement that no animals will EVER be put in overhead again. And the airlines need to give this family a GIANT settlement. I’d be tortured for months thinking about how my poor baby suffered alone in the overhead bin. Horrific!!

  8. As a 1K, this story is so disturbing and disgusting to me that it may be the final straw in giving up on this airline entirely. I’ve endured hostile flight attendants in premium cabins on 14 hour flights, overheard United Club supervisors making homophobic comments to other employees, followed news coverage of passengers being physically removed from planes and watched as Kirby has wrecked an otherwise improving operation. But looking at this poor passenger and the grief she is needlessly enduring is just too much.

    This airline has a soul issue – it is seemingly rotting from the top down.

  9. People need to fired. The UA board needs to clean house. Fire the FA, fire Kirby, fire Oscar.

  10. Many people consider their pets to be family members…what an horrific situation for UA to kill someone’s family member. I hope that consequences and compensation are worthy of killing a family member. Sheesh…I’m glad I don’t fly UA.

  11. This flight attendant needs to be dismissed. Today. United needs to make a MASSIVE donation to the SPCA, and compensate this woman – and the amounts can not be a pittance.

    Step the **** up United. This is unconscionable.

  12. They should put the flight attendant in the overhead bin for 4 hours and see how she does. This is just appalling and shows poor training. It reflects poorly on the flight attendant but quite honestly it reflects poorly on the entire crew. I doubt it was just a single flight attendant involved if the woman complained and tried to push back. Shame on United.

  13. Wherever Scott Kirby goes, customer service hits rock bottom. He is one of the worst leaders in aviation history when it comes to customer service. It sickens me that people like him are high up in leadership positions. United has been poisoned for so long by bad leaders , i do not know who could ever fix it. There is no need to, the industry allows this kind of behavior with only small temporary set backs. At the end of the day, the planes will be full and the investors will have $$ and that is ALL these people care about. Doing the bare minimum to achieve the above. No one sitting in the upper offices of United give a crap about a dead dog, probably not even about a dead person. they care only about how those will impact them and their bottom line.

  14. Not to excuse United, but perhaps the passenger should not have brought the dog as a carry-on? Travel is very stressful for animals and should be avoided if at all possible. It is one thing if you are moving long distance and don’t have other options. But not a great idea to bring the animal on vacation or for your own phony “emotional support”. I’m guessing this wasn’t an ESA, as it would not have provided much support overhead…
    It is pretty difficult to terminate union employees. I don’t know what the procedure is when the animal doesn’t fit under the seat but the overhead does not sound right. But failure to follow procedure is not always a ground for termination.

  15. This is why people fake ESAs. Also, fire Scott Kirby (replace fire with another four letter word that starts with F).

  16. Obviously an accident, probably a good idea at the time. But this is what happens when people take pets on planes. Maybe there should be a plane for comfort pets & passengers, one for screaming babies & parents & one plane for quiet passengers who just want to enjoy the flight.

  17. @Boraxo

    Huh? UA permits pets to fly in the passenger cabin. Whether or not *you* think it is a good idea for others to take theirs with them is not terribly relevant. (Some pets travel better than others.)

    Failure to follow procedure is not always grounds for termination, true, but there are times when it very much is.

  18. That’s a long flight. Was the dog taken out and checked on mid flight? Water? Toilet?

    I’ve never flown with an animal, so I’m not familiar with what’s normal. But if the flight crew didn’t know the policy or worse knowingly disobeyed it, there are serious issues here.

  19. This would not have been a “comfort pet” or an “emotional support animal”…. This likely would have been a pet in a carrier, for which the passenger paid a fee. Pets have been allowed on board planes in a carrier under the seat for decades. This isn’t a new thing.

  20. United should consider advertising that their employees are affiliated with whatever the name of their affiliated union is – the attendant’s union policies are equally culpable as the corporate parent, yet don’t seem to receive any of the public’s ire.

    Very sad to hear about the dog.

  21. @afterbank – I was just thinking that things would get ugly when the animal urinates or defecates – I am sure the reaction would not be good when the bin starts to drip on aisle seat passengers.

  22. This is totally fucked up. A United flight attendant murdered a dog. Wow…..

    It’s also the reason why people go the ESA route. I don’t mind paying for an extra seat for my dog, or even a row. However, I am not trusting United with a dog in the “hold” or whatever bin they try to stash it in. This whole incident is wrong on so many levels…..

  23. I travel with my dogs in cabin because there breed is only allowed in cabin. I worry about them in the carrier under the seat and not getting enough air. The under seat is getting smaller and smaller. At this rate the only pet that will fit is a hamster. Ridiculous because it is over 100 dollars each way to travel with a pet. I would never let my dogs go in overhead storage. Shame on the flight attendant for making them.

  24. I know this sounds cold but I have ZERO sympathy for this woman. Yes, it’s an outrage that United ever even asked her to put the dog in the overhead compartment and that should be handled accordingly, but there is nowhere in the world so damn important to get to – with my dog – that you could get me to put my dog in the overhead bin, PERIOD. I would get off the plane, it’s that simple. The dog stays home, or the dog flys safely, those are the ONLY options, ever, period. The flight attendant might have instructed her to do it but there’s no way in hell she could MAKE her do it. The airline is guilty as sin of being an utterly disgusting company, but the dog owner is just as guilty. My only simpathy is for the poor dog, who suffocated to death slowly, alone and in terror for HOURS. The flight attendant AND the owner should go to jail for animal torture.

  25. The flight attendant was an idiot and criminal charges should be filed against her. However, the owner is a total fool. I would never stick my dog in an overhead bin. Would you stick your dog in the trunk of your car? I would try to reason with the attendant, then get the captain involved and if that didn’t work I would raise hell and be kicked off the plane. If they deny service they have to refund. I would then book a flight on another airline.

  26. I think we can all agree that this was probably not the dog’s fault. The failure in judgement was elsewhere. The dog was a puppy, maybe a new dog owner who hadn’t flown with a pet before and didn’t know how to fit their carrier under the seat. And the flight attendant didn’t help did they?

    If you love your pet you may want to do whatever you can to avoid taking them on a plane. How many of the valuable show dogs do you think are being transported on commercial airlines to Big Dog shows? None I’d say they are being driven there, for good reason by people who know how to train and care for dogs. If you love your animal leave them home, or with family or friends, pay to have them cared for by a facility that is a pro at it. Not a united flight attendant.
    It is the pet owners judgement to put their dog at risk, the dog’s deserve better care by their owners.

  27. Not the owners fault. In general, people who do not fly a lot just hear the horror stores. Arrests, people dragged off planes, people told to get off due to small confrontations with flight crew. The passenger is in a mental state of mind where they might be upset but know they must listen and obey flight crew orders and she also may have thought (although foolishly) that passengers are asked all the time to put their pets in overhead bins and complied. The relationship between crew and passengers is almost like police (still civilians) and civilians. Many actually view them as authority figures. I put zero blame on the passenger. She was following crew orders, as stupid as they may have been. Would I have done it… nope! I would have left with my dog… but I still don’t blame the passenger.

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