Puppy Dies in Overhead Bin - All On Board Are Accountable

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Warning: contents in the overhead bin may shift - or worse.

When one family of four boarded a United Airlines Flight bound from Houston to New York’s Laguardia airport last Monday night, no one would have suspected that only three would walk off alive.

But that’s exactly what happened when a flight attendant reportedly insisted that a pet carrier extending into the aisle be stuffed into the overhead compartment - with the family’s 10-month-old French Bulldog, Coquito, inside it.

During the ensuing two hours, the short-snouted Coquito could be heard barking and yelping as his oxygen supply depleted. When the barking stopped, the family’s 11-year-old daughter told CBS News that she wanted to check on their puppy “ . . . but there was a lot of turbulence and we were not allowed to stand up.” Upon opening the bin when the plane met the jetway, Coquito was discovered lifeless in his carrier.

Eyewitnesses have attested online that the passenger explained there was a dog in the bag, but the flight attendant insisted that it be placed in the overhead bin anyway. Apparently, none of these same eyewitnesses had the guts to voice opposition or to rescue Coquito from his dark doom when his cries of distress rang out. The flight attendant in question later told the airline she did not realize the pet was inside. 

What else goes inside a pet carrier? Lingerie? And since when does lingerie bark?

In a statement, United Airlines says it takes “full responsibility” and that the incident is “under investigation.” The Department of Transportation is reportedly working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that enforces the Animal Welfare Act and handles complaints about alleged animal mistreatment, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman said Thursday.

United says its policies allow for dogs, cats and some types of pet birds to travel in its planes' cabins. "A pet traveling in cabin must be carried in an approved hard-sided or soft-sided kennel," United's policy on carry-on animals reads: ”The kennel must fit completely under the seat in front of the customer and remain there at all times.”

This incident is the latest black eye for United, which has endured a string of recent public relations nightmares including a bloodied passenger being dragged off a flight last year and another dog dying in a plane's cargo hold under the care of United's PetSafe program. In yet another story casting doubt on the airline’s canine safety record this week, United accidentally flew another dog to Japan instead of its intended destination in Kansas.

Everything about this latest horrific episode is completely bewildering: how easily the family deferred to the flight attendant; the flight attendant’s dearth of deductive reasoning (or blatant callousness in the name of protocol); the passivity and/or indifference of other passengers and crew to the puppy’s pleas as its life was slowly being snuffed out.

One possible explanation for passenger’s inaction is the almost universal and abject fear people have of disturbances on commercial flights. In the wake of shoe-bombers and underwear igniters, people panic at the first signs of mid-air agitation - and they certainly don’t want to be the source of that agitation. In fact, repeatedly disobeying an airline crew member is a violation of federal law and can be met with civil penalties and criminal prosecution.

It appears to be either the threat of being slapped with a “federal offense” or sheer cowardice that deterred family, bystanders and flight crew from doing the right thing.

On United flight 1284 last Monday, the threads of reasoning, valor and common decency completely unravelled.

What should have been a “united” act for good became untied.

Coquito deserved better.