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Proposed Bill Would Not Protect Puppies

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Proposed Bill Would Not Protect Puppies

March 20, 2018

United Airlines has faced a maelstrom of negative public attention after Kokito, a 10-month old French bulldog puppy, died when a flight attendant required a passenger to put him an overhead bin.

Few areas of life seem to bring people together as much as a shared love of puppies and kittens, so it is not surprising that the accident generated an outcry. However, legislation introduced in response is misguided, would not have solved the underlying problem, and might end up leaving pets and their owners worse off.

In this case, a flight attendant forced an 11-year-old passenger to put the puppy into the overhead bin, despite her protests. Language barriers might have contributed to the situation, as the girl’s mother is not a fluent English speaker. Placing live animals in overhead bins is against company policy. It is not yet clear how exactly it came about, and United Airlines can and should be held accountable for any mishandling that might have created the sad situation.

United has recently been beset by a series of incidents involving pets, from harm to routing animals to the wrong destination. People condemned the airline, with many saying they would no longer fly on United until steps were taken to address these problems.

In response, United announced that it will issue bright yellow tags to customers flying with pets, to avoid similar situations in the future.

The incident has also captured the attention of policymakers, who have rushed in to try to solve the problem. Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) has already introduced the Welfare for Our Furry Friends Act, also known as WOOFF, with Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) as co-sponsor. The bill would direct the FAA to develop regulations to prohibit airlines from putting live animals into overhead bins, with violators being subject to fines.

The overall record for pet safety on flights is strong. According to a report from the Department of Transportation, there were 40 incidents related to loss, injury, or death of animals during air transportation in 2017. With about 507,000 total trips, the incident rate per 10,000 animals transported was 0.79, lower than the rate of 0.92 in 2016. The Department does not include the number of trips for earlier years, but the total number of annual incidents has fluctuated between 40 and 63 since 2010, and 2017 had the lowest number of total incidents over that period.   

Air travel for pets overall continues to be a safe prospect, even with what appears to be a recent spate of news stories to the contrary. United did have the worst record, accounting for 31 of the 40 incidents, and an incident rate 2.24 per 10,000 animals transported, three times higher than any other airline. United clearly needs to examine its policies and reform them.  Industry-wide regulations, aside from seeking to prohibit a practice that is already not allowed by company policies, would seem to be overly broad. Out of the 17 airlines that had registered pet trips in 2017, 13 reported no incidents at all.

The potential for unintended consequences to make the current situation worse for pet owners is that some airlines may decide to no longer allow pets to be taken on flights, out of fear they could run afoul of new government regulations.  

As the DOT report shows, six airlines, including Southwest, Virgin America, and JetBlue Airways, do not transport pets. United was responsible for the most pet trips at 138,000. If more companies decide to follow Southwest’s example, travelers might have few or even no feasible options to transport their pets by flight. Some might drive, and driving has a worse accident rate than flying.

Pet owners would be better off if companies implemented their own reforms without legislation.

Not every tragic occurrence can or should be addressed with new legislation. While the intentions may be good, and no one wants to see pets harmed, it is unlikely the new bill would have prevented this accident, and the related unintended consequences could leave pets and their owners worse off.

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesHHughes.

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