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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

After tragic death of puppy in airplane’s overhead bin, House passes bill to ensure it never happens again

Update 10/3/2018: Today the Senate passed legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by a vote of 93-6. The bill includes the same language that was approved by the House last week—prohibiting the storage of live animals in overhead compartments of airplanes and authorizing civil penalties for violators. Thank you to Senators John Kennedy, R-La, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., along with Reps. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., for spearheading this critical language. The bill now goes to the president’s desk for a signature, so please join us in urging him to sign it quickly!

On March 12th, a family lost their beloved 10-month old French bulldog, Kokito, after being forced to stow him in the overhead compartment during a three-and-a-half hour United Airlines flight from Houston to New York. Kokito had been a birthday gift for 11-year-old Sophia Ceballos. Her mom, Catalina Robledo—who had paid the $200 fee to bring Kokito aboard with the family, including a newborn baby—protested when the flight attendant insisted that she put Kokito (in his carrier) in the compartment. Sophie recounted to CBS News how her mom had told the flight attendant, “‘It’s a dog, it’s a dog.’ He can’t breathe up there.’ And she said, ‘It doesn’t matter, it still goes up there.’” As the family sat in their seats, worrying, “they heard Kokito barking for two hours, then he stopped.” They wanted to check on him but couldn’t. “We tried, but there was a lot of turbulence. And we weren’t allowed to stand up,’ Sophie said.” When they landed, the heartbroken family and fellow passengers discovered that Kokito was dead.

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Short-nosed breeds like pugs and bulldogs are particularly vulnerable in such situations, as they often have difficulty breathing and cooling their bodies efficiently. But no live animal should be stowed this way. As reported by CBS News: “Retired airline captain Denny Kelly says the pitch-black overhead bin is dangerous for any live animal. ‘There is no circulation at all in there. They’re scared, their heart rate goes up and they use more oxygen. And there’s not enough oxygen in the first place, that just makes it worse.’”

United issued an apology and took responsibility for the tragedy, refunding the family’s tickets and $200 fee—which Sophia told NBC News wasn’t really the point. “She said they’re not after money as she recalled how her dog enjoyed running around and doing flips in the park. ‘We don’t want the same thing to happen (to other pet owners). If flight attendants tell you to put your pet (in an overhead compartment), don’t do it.” United announced that putting animals in an overhead compartment was already against company policy, and instituted a new system of issuing brightly colored tags to make animal carriers stand out for airline personnel. 

Thankfully, a bipartisan group of federal legislators decided not to leave it to chance, company policy, or mere common sense. They swiftly joined forces to ensure that no other beloved pet ever suffers the fate that Kokito did. On March 15th, Senators John Kennedy, R-La., and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., introduced the Welfare of Our Furry Friends (WOOFF) Act, S. 2556, and Representatives Dan Donovan, R-N.Y., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., introduced the Planes Ensuring Total Safety (PETS) Act, H.R. 5315. Both bills directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to issue regulations within a year to prohibit the storage of live animals in overhead compartments of airplanes and to establish civil fines for violators. Sens. Kennedy and Cortez Masto then got WOOFF incorporated into the Senate’s FAA reauthorization bill (S. 1405).

Last Friday, House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on a final FAA reauthorization package (H.R. 302), which includes an even stronger provision—making it immediately unlawful for anyone to place a live animal in an overhead storage compartment of an aircraft and authorizing the Administrator to impose a civil penalty for each violation.

The House has just passed this FAA bill by a vote of 398 to 23. It now heads to the Senate, which we hope will quickly follow suit and send it to the president’s desk for signature into law. We shouldn’t need a law to prevent such an obviously dangerous and cruel practice. But Kokito’s tragic story reminds us we can’t always count on common sense and basic compassion to protect animals. So we’re grateful to Sens. Kennedy and Cortez Masto and Reps. Donovan and Cohen for making sure that our beloved companions will be safer when they fly with us.

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