It's been a year already? Monday marks 12 months since a United Airlines passenger was bloodied and dragged off a flight. It's an ongoing nightmare for the carrier, but it's also rivaled now as a PR catastrophe by the recent stories about United Airlines and dogs.
You'll remember these: the death of a passenger's dog in an overhead bin, and the dogs that were shipped thousands of miles away from their intended destinations--and finally the news that last year, dogs who flew on United were far more likely to wind up dead than on other airlines.
Obviously, these are all tragic events, and lawmakers raced to the front of the line to propose new legislation in response. But, new information now suggests another side to the data that's driving a lot of the reaction.
Writing in The Washington Post, Martine Powers confirms that yes, United did have a disproportionate share of tragic dog deaths aboard its planes over the past few years, but adds an explanation for at least some of the deaths that nobody is really considering.
No, it's not that United is uncaring or incompetent. Instead, it's that until it suspended its PetSafe pet transport program in the wake of all of the controversy, United was actually the only major U.S. airline that would allow passengers to transport certain kinds of high risk dogs in cargo.
These are brachycephalic dogs, the technical name for short-nosed breeds like boxers, pugs, terriers, whose compact airways can lead to breathing problems, especially while flying. Also: French bulldogs like Kikito, the dog that was killed when it was forced to ride in an overhead bin.
Importantly, we're talking about bans on cargo holds, not carrying pets in the cabin. But it's in cargo that most tragedies happen, and United was the only airline letting passengers ship dogs this way.
As Powers crunched the numbers, she found that 41 of the 85 animals that died on planes between 2015 and 2017 were on United--but also that about 40 percent of the unfortunate dogs were brachycephalic. It also appears that United simply carries more dogs to begin with.
In fact, United spokesperson Charles Hobart told me that United had been allowing short-nosed breeds aboard precisely because no other airline would do so--especially because military families who wanted to bring their dogs to overseas assignments, or who might adopt a dog overseas and want to bring it home, had no other option.
Now, all that is on hold until May, as United reviews its pet travel policies.
"We flew more than 3,000 military pets last year, so we understood that when we suspended this service we were often the only option for a lot of members," Hobart said. "It's another reason we were flying those brachycephalic, higher risk dogs [to begin with]."
Obviously nothing takes away from the tragedy and loss that families feel when they lose a pet. But I've also been wary of the immediate response to try to legislate as a result of these unfortunate issues.
And as someone who often writes about airlines, I'd like to know about these kind of data points, and be sure to revisit stories when they later emerge. Of course, maybe in the speed with which stories move today, we simply missed it.
"I've been having this conversation for quite some time," Hobart told me. "We've been talking about [the fact that United allowed higher-risk dogs] since the start of our PetSafe program."