More animals died on United Airlines in 2017 than any other airline, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s February 2018 Air Travel Consumer Report, which details everything from flight delays and mishandled baggage to disability and discrimination complaints. There were four airlines with reported deaths, and on United Airlines there were 12 more animal deaths than the three others combined.
The numbers in this report reflect last year’s animal fatalities, injuries, and losses — and it doesn’t just pertain to dogs, but any animal flown, including cats and birds. The animals were either pets owned by U.S. families or animals being shipped on commercial flights (i.e. from a breeder). Here’s a look at the numbers:
- Total number of animals flown last year according to the DOT: 506,994
- Total number of animal incidents (loss, injury, death): 40
- Total number of animal deaths: 24
- Total number of animal injuries: 15
- Total number of animal losses: 1
- Total number of animals flown by United Airlines last year according to the DOT: 138,178
- Total number of animal incidents on United (loss, injury, death): 31
- Total number of animal deaths on United: 18
- Total number of animal injuries on United: 13
- Total number of animal losses on United: 0
- Total number of animals flown by American Airlines last year according to the DOT: 34,628
- Total number of animal incidents (loss, injury, death) on American: 3
- Total number of animal deaths on American: 2
- Total number of animal injuries on American: 1
- Total number of animal losses on American: 0
Delta Air Lines:
- Total number of animals flown by Delta Air Lines last year according to the DOT: 57,479
- Total number of animal incidents (loss, injury, death) on Delta: 3
- Total number of animal deaths on Delta: 2
- Total number of animal injuries on Delta: 1
- Total number of animal losses on Delta: 0
- Total number of animals flown by Alaska Airlines last year according to the DOT: 114,974
- Total number of animal incidents (loss, injury, death) on Alaska: 3
- Total number of animal deaths on Alaska: 2
- Total number of animal injuries on Alaska: 0
- Total number of animal losses on Alaska: 1
Why are United Airlines’ totals higher than the three other airlines with pet-related-issues?
By the numbers, United flew more animals in 2017 than any other airline: 23,204 more than the next highest total number of pets flown (Alaska Airlines). And according to United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart, the airline flies risky breeds that others, including Alaska, American, and Delta, won’t allow onboard. (Some airlines won’t fly pets in cargo at all, according to the DOT report, including Spirit, Virgin American, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airlines.)
“But you’ll notice that some of those animals — in fact a lot of them that died last year — were what is called brachycephalic breeds,” Hobart told TIME. “These are dogs that essentially have a very short nose — short muzzles. Most other carriers don’t fly those breeds.” Dog breeds that are brachycephalic, include Pugs, Boxers, Boston Terrier, Shih Tzu, and Pekingese. Some cats are also considered brachycephalic, including Persian, Burmese and Exotic Shorthairs.
These animals have a tougher time flying due to “smaller openings to their noses and elongated soft palates on the roofs of their mouths, which make breathing more difficult for them, veterinarians said,” according to a 2011 New York Times piece that detailed why these types of pets were being banned from airlines. Extreme heat and travel can also make it harder for these snub-nosed animals to breath.
Hobart contends that often United Airlines is the only option for these owners to fly with their pets, and he cited that roughly 3,000 military families used United Airlines’ PetSafe program for flying their pets in the cargo hold in 2017.
A detailed incident report of United Airlines’ pet deaths and injuries in 2017 (which the DOT report links to) shows that a slight majority of the dogs that died on a United flight were in fact brachycephalic breeds; there were also several other dogs, three felines, along with one bird and two geckos that died.
An in-depth analysis from the Washington Post found that from 2015 to 2017, 40% of dog deaths on United Airlines were high-risk breeds. Of the 85 pet deaths from 2015 to 2017, 41 were on United Airlines: 16 were high-risk breeds, 16 were other breeds, 5 were cats and the rest were other animals.
Still, there’s room for improvement.
The Humane Society of the United States’ acting President and CEO Kitty Block thinks that United Airlines needs to do a better job of handling those high-risk breeds.
“The fact is that while there is some risk with traveling with a brachycephalic breed on a plane, traveling with them in the cabin can be done safely if the right measures are taken by both the owner and the airline,” Block told the Post. “And that is what we’re asking for — that airlines take steps to reduce the risk of flying with pets, regardless of breed, as much as possible.”
Hobart, too, said that safely carrying pets is a priority for the airline, stating that United suspended its PetSafe program (with exceptions for military families, and those who made reservations prior to March 20) to do a “top to bottom review” of the policies by May 1. Certain pets will still be able to fly in the cabin.
“If you take away the brachycephalic breeds, if you take away the animals with preexisting conditions, that number would be incredibly low, and I would also state that when you look at the total number of animals flown, 140,000 [note: it’s 138,178], it’s still an astronomically low number of animals that suffer some sort of incident,” Hobart said of the report. “However, it’s high enough to concern us, suspend the service, and find ways to do it better. And it’s certainly a concern for our customers, and that’s who we’re looking out for when we do this.”
There is a debate over wether brachycephalic breeds should even be allowed to fly in cargo at all, the Times noted back in 2011. Between June 2005 and June 2011, 189 animals died in flight, and 98 of those were brachycephalic, according to the Times, which led to some airline bans. (The Times also notes that if dog owners want to fly these breeds, they can opt to use a pet airline like Pet Airways, which does charter flights and can cost a pretty penny.)
The Humane Society expressly says on its website not to ship brachycephalic animals in cargo.
Some airlines let certain pets fly in the cabin area, which the Humane Society recommends (but is lobbying against pets being held in an overhead bin). “Most airlines will allow you to take a cat or small dog in the cabin for an additional fee,” the organization explains on its website. “But you must call the airline well in advance; there are limits to the number of animals allowed in the cabin. If you are transporting a dog, make sure they meet the size requirements.” Airlines may charge a fee for bringing a pet into the cabin.