After puppy's awful airplane death, how pet owners can keep dogs safe on flights

United Airlines is no stranger to controversy. Just last year, the airline faced a number of public disputes regarding passengers being forcibly removed from their flights. Now the airline is being taken to task for its treatment not only of human passengers but also of pets, following two back-to-back incidents involving families traveling with dogs — one of which resulted in the dog’s death.

Following a Facebook post that went viral on Tuesday evening, news broke that a 10-month-old French bulldog named Kokito died while onboard a United flight from Houston to New York on Monday night. The dog, belonging to Catalina Robledo and her daughter Sophia Ceballos, was placed in an overhead bin of the aircraft for the nearly three-hour flight, as a result of the flight attendant’s adamant instruction. Going against United Airlines pet policy, which states that an animal’s “kennel must fit completely under the seat in front of the customer and remain there at all times,” the airline has taken full responsibility for the flight attendant’s irresponsible mistake.

“We have spoken to the family, our crew and a number of passengers who were seated nearby. We have learned that the customer did tell the flight attendant that there was a dog in the carrier,” United Airlines spokeswoman Maggie Schermin wrote in a statement to Yahoo Lifestyle. “However, our flight attendant did not hear or understand her, and did not knowingly place the dog in the overhead bin. As we stated, we take full responsibility and are deeply sorry for this tragic accident. We remain in contact with the family to express our condolences and offer support.”

But after acknowledging that their policy evidently didn’t follow through on protecting the animal approved for in-cabin flight, the airline has already made plans to institute an updated policy to make sure that something like this never happens again.

“By April we will issue bright colored bag tags to customers traveling with in-cabin pets,” Schermin added. “This visual tag will further help our flight attendants identify pets in-cabin.”

Pet owners don’t need to rely only on airlines, though. Kim Alboum, who is the shelter outreach and policy engagement director for the Humane Society of the United States, calls for pet owners to read and print out an airline’s policies before a flight.

“I felt a sense of obligation for an action item,” Alboum tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “and one of those things that I think would be very smart is if travelers are going to fly with their dogs, they probably need to print off a copy of the airline’s policies and bring them with them. And by bringing that along with them, if there’s an employee or someone there that doesn’t know the policy, they have it right there with them.”

In the case of Robledo and her dog, where the airline claims the attendant did not fully understand that the pet was in the carrier, the policy printout could have help communicate the point more effectively. Alboum wants to make it clear that pet travel rights aren’t reserved for those with service animals.

“Animals are a part of our families, and passengers want to take these animals on family trips,” Alboum says. “So this isn’t just about service animals. And as businesses continue to open up to animals with pet-friendly hotels and pet-friendly resorts, we’re going to need more means of travel for these animals. And I think all of the airlines really need to look at their policies and ensure that we’re transporting these animals in the safest and most humane way possible.”

On the Humane Society’s website, it’s clearly written that “Air travel can be risky for pets” — a fact made clear when United Airlines faced another pet problem on Wednesday when it accidentally put a dog on a flight to Japan, instead of a flight to Missouri. The German shepherd exceeded the size limit of a dog allowed in-cabin, which meant the family had to drop him off to be flown in the aircraft’s cargo hold.

“It’s a nerve-racking experience to hand an animal off to go into the cargo area of a plane,” Alboum explains. “But we really encourage folks, if you have a larger dog, consider driving. Or make sure that you really, truly understand — if there’s no other choice but fly — what the policies are and how it works.”

The organization’s No. 1 tip for pet owners that have to travel with a dog in the cargo hold: Use direct flights. The German shepherd accidentally sent to Japan was misplaced during a connection in Denver, and the airline tells Yahoo Lifestyle that it is “following up with the vendor kennel where they were kept overnight to understand what happened.”

In these times of worry and confusion, Alboum reminds people that pet owners have the right to question a situation that doesn’t feel right or comfortable.

“Our role at this point is to make sure that passengers are educated,” Alboum says. “That printing off airline policies when traveling becomes something that everybody does. Maybe this is yet another time to reexamine policies for airlines and flying with pets. And I encourage all airlines to do that.”

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