ATLANTA (BLOOMBERG) - United Airlines faces a deepening public outcry after a dog perished in an overhead bin on one of its planes, prompting a US senator to demand an explanation for the carrier's industry-high rate of animal deaths.
Eighteen of the 24 animals that died on a major US airline last year were in United's care, Louisiana Republican John Kennedy wrote in a letter to United President Scott Kirby on Wednesday (March 14).
By comparison, Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines Group Inc. each reported two deaths, Kennedy said.
The dog's death is the latest incident putting a spotlight on United Continental Holdings Inc. management's handling of public relations scandals.
Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz drew scorn for his response last April when a passenger was forcibly dragged from a plane.
Just weeks later, a giant rabbit died while in United's care.
"This pattern of animal deaths and injuries is simply inexcusable," Kennedy wrote.
"For many people, pets are members of the family. They should not be treated like insignificant cargo."
United accepted responsibility and apologised for the pet's death on Monday, saying the flight attendant wasn't aware a dog was inside the crate when the passenger was asked to store it away for the duration of a Houston-to-New York flight.
"We're not making excuses. Anytime an animal suffers an injury or dies in our care, we are devastated," spokesman Charlie Hobart said.
United's higher animal death rate can be explained in part by the higher number of animals transported on United, Hobart said.
United transported 138,178 animals last year, or more than double the number carried on Delta or American, according to the US Department of Transportation (DOT). However, Alaska Airlines carried almost 115,000 animals last year and reported just two deaths and one lost animal, the data show.
The DOT reports consider only animals carried in planes' cargo holds, Hobart said, which is the typical accommodation when an animal isn't brought into the cabin. DOT requires US carriers to report monthly on animal losses, injuries or deaths on flights.
"To prevent this from happening again, by April we will issue bright coloured bag tags to customers travelling with in-cabin pets," the company said on Wednesday.
"This visual tag will further help our flight attendants identify pets in-cabin."
United's early responses after the dragging incident last April drew widespread scorn for appearing to blame the passenger, David Dao.
Munoz initially apologised for having to "re-accommodate" passengers who were asked to leave the plane to make room for a flight crew. Hours later, he told employees that Dao had been "disruptive and belligerent."
In the wake of the scandal, United canceled Munoz's expected elevation to chairman and linked his compensation more closely to customer service.
Kirby, who was the target of Senator Kennedy's letter, joined United in August 2016 after serving as president of American Airlines. He is widely viewed as the likely successor to Munoz, who hasn't disclosed any plans to leave.
DOT is looking at the dog's death, though the inquiry stops short of a full investigation, according to an emailed statement from the agency.
While the department oversees consumer issues involving air carriers, it doesn't have specific regulations governing animal welfare.