22 MAR 208: Of course it had to happen on United Airlines! The whole subject of pets on planes has been reignited by the sad tale of Kokito, the 10-month old French bulldog that came to a tragic end last week. The poor pup died en route from Houston to New York after – for reasons yet to be determined - a flight attendant demanded that the dog (in its approved carrier) be stowed in an overhead bin. Although this may have been a first, four US State Senators have already introduced bipartisan legislation to prohibit storing live animals in overhead compartments – if passed it will be known as ‘Kokito’s Law.”  

Not content with abusing two-legged passengers by dragging them off aircraft, hitting them with strollers etc., United has also distinguished itself in recent years with its maltreatment of animals.

Last April, within days of the doctor-dragging incident, United also hit the headlines over the mysterious demise of Simon, a giant, 3-feet long Continental rabbit.

Simon‘s body was found in a kennel at Chicago O’Hare shortly after arriving from London Heathrow and just before he was to be put on a connecting flight to Kansas City. United issued a curt statement saying that Simon “… was seen moving in his crate 35 minutes after the plane landed but was later found motionless.”

Assuming that was code for “lifeless” - never lacking in ways to exacerbate matters – United employees then inexplicably decided to cremate the “motionless” Simon on the spot before any further investigations could be undertaken. The lawsuit is pending.

While still relatively rare, from 2015 through 2017 animal deaths on United are a somewhat alarming 55 percent higher than second place Delta. To put that in perspective however, for every 10,000 animals they transported United reported 1.19 fatalities. Despite these numbers United seems to be the pet owners carrier of choice as, during the same period, United carried 344,000 animals, almost 50 percent more than Delta’s 235,000.

While poor Kokito’s demise was a rare passenger cabin-based mishap, the vast majority of deaths come while, like Simon, animals are being shipped as belly cargo. Unquestionably such a dark, noisy, alien environment has to make for a highly stressful experience for any animal. As such, many deaths are put down to trauma- induced heart attacks as opposed to any mishandling or neglect on the carrier’s part.

At the same time some freeze to death when climate-control systems fail or the pressurization isn’t properly sustained. Others die of heat prostration or poor ventilation during lengthy taxiway delays. Some hurt themselves escaping from carriers, or are injured or killed when heavy items fall during extreme turbulence.

Other animals can be subjected to even stranger situations. It was back in 1994 that Tabitha, a 3-year-old, domestic shorthair cat made the headlines – not for dying on a flight but for surviving on one … or in fact several: For 12 days and some 30,000 miles to be precise!

It all began when Tabitha managed to escape from her carrier in the cargo hold of a Tower Air, Boeing 747 flight from JFK to LAX. On arrival in LAX the airline (that subsequently went bankrupt in 2000) found the empty carrier but refused to take so much as a delay to search for the missing tabby.

Instead the aircraft continued with its scheduled operations and for the next dozen days it zigzagged between LAX, JFK, Miami and San Juan PR.

At each stop along the way, as the word spread, ever-larger groups of volunteer searchers showed up to comb the 747’s vast cargo hold. They used tuna fish baited traps, bowls of milk and kitty calls but all to no avail. Then after the airline had allegedly put over 1,000 man-hours into these search parties Tabitha’s owner, one Carol Ann Timmel, cried uncle.

Mrs. Timmel filed for and got an order from a State Supreme Court in Manhattan that forced Tower Air to ground the airplane for 24 hours thereby enabling a thorough search for the little stowaway. The aircraft was dutifully parked in a remote, quiet corner of the field at JFK to allow searchers to listen for telltale meows or scratching: What happened next was worthy of a Disney movie.

You really can’t make this stuff up … nine hours into the search Mrs. Timmel herself was the one to first detect a rustling noise from under the floor of the passenger cabin. Then, as she put it at the time, “I heard a wondrous meow, and just lost it.”

Mechanics quickly extricated the hungry but otherwise unscathed animal from a 7-inch high by 60-foot long space beneath the floor. The following day with Tabitha on a seat next to her, Mrs. Timmel flew first class to Los Angeles as Tower’s guests!

Of course, not many stories ever have such fairytale endings. The Air Transport Association estimates that more than 5,000 animals are killed, injured, or lost on commercial flights each year and that’s 5,000 too many.

Ben Williamson, senior director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), states that animals should never be transported as cargo and has urged United to join JetBlue and Southwest in prohibiting companion animals from being flown as checked baggage. He went on to say, “The safest way to travel with your animal is to drive or, if you must fly, to take them with you in the passenger cabin.”

Easier said than done. But there again, statistically speaking it would seem you can improve your pet’s chances of arriving intact by 50 percent just by avoiding ‘The Friendly Skies” of you-know-whom!

Related story: Yesterday, (a day after this column was written) United made an announcement regarding pets. No Pets in cargo


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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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