We Have To Talk About the Dead Dog on the United Flight. Sorry.

Posted on
Mar 14, 2018
21

(Note: the adorable little guy pictured above is not the dog from the story. I bumped into him while shopping and thought he was a weird, furry keychain dangling from a guy’s bag at first.) 

If you read the news in the last two days, you might have caught the story that is presently haunting me: a mother, traveling with her children on a United flight, paid extra to bring her French Bulldog in the cabin. After boarding, a member of the flight crew insisted she store the dog in the overhead compartment, where people put their suitcases. The dog whimpered and cried for a while, and then it stopped. When the flight landed, they found that the dog had died, likely from suffocation.

A lot of people are asking why the woman didn’t fight against the flight attendant more. This reaction is understandable, but also unfair. We’re angry that the dog died, and we’re used to feeling like flight crews don’t care about humans, much less dogs (and United has the worst track record when it comes to their treatment of animals). So we place the onus on the owner, who must have been crazy to allow that to happen.

I’m a travel writer (mostly). I’ve been on a lot of flights. I was on four last weekend alone. And I know how utterly terrifying and confusing it can be. Flying puts you in a position where you largely feel powerless. Just yesterday I wrote about how a TSA agent made me take off my sweatshirt – claiming it was a jacket – and go through security in a skimpy tanktop that I had no intention of anyone seeing. I wanted to speak up, but I also know that every time I’ve escalated a situation like that one, it hasn’t gone well for me.

I’ve noticed the similarities in comments on both my blog post and the news story about the dog. Yes, what happened was wrong, but why didn’t you stand up for yourself?

I’m not the first woman to hear this criticism, and I won’t be the last. But the assertion that we’re choosing to be victims is bullshit. No one chooses to be a victim. The truth is this: for a lot of us, speaking up makes a situation worse. Being on a plane is already a terrifying thing. If you disagree or upset flight staff, you could be accused of violating federal law. And the wording of the law is incredibly vague:

An individual on an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States who, by assaulting or intimidating a flight crew member or flight attendant of the aircraft, interferes with the performance of the duties of the member or attendant or lessens the ability of the member or attendant to perform those duties, or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be fined under title 18, imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or both. However, if a dangerous weapon is used in assaulting or intimidating the member or attendant, the individual shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life.

If you interfere with the duties or performance of a flight attendant, you can get up to 20 years in prison. There’s a good chance that you won’t be found guilty, but the wording is unclear and the risk is huge. And even if you aren’t charged with violating the law, a whole host of things could happen to you, including financial penalties, being removed from your flight, being added to the no-fly list, or (if applicable) deportation. And we don’t know what someone’s circumstances are; simply stepping off a flight because you are unhappy is the realm of the rich and the privileged.

Now, imagine: flying on a plane with your two children (one of whom is an infant) and not speaking the same language as the flight attendant. Imagine being told that even though you paid to carry your dog in the cabin, you have to put it in an overhead compartment. Some part of you has to be freaked out – you can’t fight with the flight attendant. There’s also some presumption that a trained professional who works for an airline wouldn’t advise you to do something that would kill your dog.

And remember, most airlines won’t put up with any dissent – even if you later comply. Alaska Airlines recently told me I couldn’t bring my smart bag on their flight (even though it’s not prohibited by the FAA and other airlines allow it). I fought them on the issue (which made the situation worse, I assure you) and eventually I agreed to throw out my bag. Alaska still threatened to not let me board after the bag was thrown away. I had to literally beg them to let me on.

And get this: after I ditched my bag (which they told me they were going to detonate along with unattended baggage), they put the bag on the flight after having checked it under someone else’s name.

I don’t know who Lauren (?) Williamson is, but I’m fairly certain she’s another passenger and not an Alaska employee.

I have no doubt that being a flight attendant is harrowing work. And the power dynamic between passengers and crew has been intentionally skewed, because that’s how you maintain order among 300 smushed inside a flying metal canister. But if they are going to wield that kind of power over their customers, they need to do so with empathy and understanding and mindfulness. The issue here is not why this passenger didn’t fight for her dog’s life. The issue is why an airline would endanger that dog’s life in the first place.

Leave a Comment

  • e.m. chelle

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’m about to move several thousand miles across the country with two cats, and have been spending a fair amount of time getting them comfortable with their harnesses and car travel in anticipation of our 4 days together on the road; I was telling this to a friend and she said, “Why don’t you just stick them on a plane?” But between this and the *other* United story that came out today, I’m pretty sure that’s never happening.

    Because, yes, absolutely: “There’s also some presumption that a trained professional who works for an airline wouldn’t advise you to do something that would kill your dog.” I’d like to think I’m a well-seasoned traveler and…I wouldn’t have openly fought this. I didn’t even realize those compartments were so air-restricted until this happened! And I would feel (fairly or not) just immensely guilty about that forever.

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  • The flight attendant in question needs to be charged with animal cruelty, there is zero excuse for what she did.

  • Merry Morud

    …you totally took your smart bag back, right?

    • Everywhereist

      I spent a long time staring at it – it was clearly mine, but it had a tag with someone else’s name. I eventually did, but I think Alaska Airlines messed up bigtime on this.

      • River

        Thank you SO MUCH for this post. We fly Alaska by preference since we live just across the Sound. We will definitely reconsider after this!

  • AngryWarthogBreath

    I’m going to go hug my dog now.

  • Harlemesque

    Yes, and, not mentioned is the fact that the airlines charged an exorbitant $175 fee which allows pet owners to put their dog under a chair like any other baggage. First, pets aren’t baggage! Second, why do they charge for animals to fly *under a seat* when that space is allocated to me anyway? Also, why do kids get to ride free as a ‘lap child,’ when we know they will kick and scream a great deal of the flight, disturbing the full-fare passenger in front of them? My do is no less precious to me than someone else’s human baby. I know I would have gotten off the flight rather than put my poor pup in a sealed container all alone, but I wasn’t in that woman’s shoes. United is a disgrace. They have a history of violence. Murder of a dog? That’s too much. Never again. I will never, ever fly United again.

  • Lesley Porcelli

    Thank you for this. Good for you. Victim blaming has become sadly a huge part of our culture. Remember the family who’s kid got eaten by an alligator in Florida? It’s horrible

  • Lesley Porcelli

    whoops, *whose* kid

  • Preach! You said it all so perfectly can’t believe that happened to you on an Alaska Airlines flight. That’s pretty awful.

  • I recently started doing pet transports, and didn’t under stand why people pay so much for small pets to be transported by ground when they could just ride in the cabine. Now I know.

  • Everywhereist

    My understanding is that numerous people – including the daughter of the woman who owned the dog – told the flight attendant that there was an animal in the bag.

  • Preach! You said it all so perfectly can’t believe that happened to you on an Alaska Airlines flight. That’s pretty awful.

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  • why do kids get to ride free as a ‘lap child,’ when we know they will kick and scream a great deal of the flight, disturbing the full-fare passenger in front of them? My do is no less precious to me than someone else’s human baby. I know I would have gotten off the flight rather than put my poor pup in a sealed container all alone, but I wasn’t in that woman’s shoes. United is a disgrace. Agen Tangkasnet Indonesia They have a history of violence. Murder of a dog? That’s too much. Never again. I will never, ever fly United again

  • She Roams Solo

    I do wonder what the hell happened to customer service on airlines. Not being allowed to board flights should be compensated with pay back and extra because of time and hassle.

  • River

    It was United that threatened to throw me off my flight because I insisted – at the order of my home dialysis program – that my portable dialysis machine NOT be stowed with checked baggage, and should instead be placed in the plane’s closet. I had gotten it through screening, including special TSA extra screening to determine it didn’t have any gunpowder residue on it, and through boarding without complications. I had brought it on board with me, as directed by my clinic. I insisted it stay in the cabin, in the closet, exactly as directed by my program, and I refused to have it thrown in with the checked baggage, as directed by my program. The flight attendant demanded that it was going in with the checked baggage no matter what I said. I attempted to contact my clinic and was waiting for the program director to get on the phone, which I had on speakerphone, and at that point the attendant started threatening to throw me bodily off the plane, in those exact words, for defending my dialysis machine that was keeping me alive.

    At that point, the senior flight attendant on board offered to put it with the strollers and wheelchairs, which are in a protected area all their own and are supposedly treated much more carefully than checked baggage. That was acceptable to the clinical long as I checked it out before exiting the gate on my arrival, so I okayed that. I did indeed take it to the nearest electric outlet at the arrival gate, phone my clinic, plug my machine in, run diagnostics, set it up, and start a cycle, to the increasing alarm of United employees at the gate. They told me I could not do that until I had exited the gate and legally entered the airport, which would have eliminated their liability had anything gone amiss. It’s why I held my ground and made certain that *everything* worked. I did everything but hook myself up to it.

    But I have never forgotten how United Airlines treated a woman traveling alone with a dialysis machine.

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