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A dead puppy and 'white privilege': United's terrible week

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

Once again, United Airlines (UAL) is having a tough week. The fourth-largest airline in the U.S. by passengers has had a suite of public relations snafus, largely involving animals, that are compounding the airline’s reputational damage from last year’s “Dr. Dao incident” in which a customer was violently ejected from the plane.

First, a flight attendant made a customer put their French bulldog in an overhead bin on a flight from Houston to New York, a fatal move that lead to the dog’s death Monday night. United told CNN that it assumes “full responsibility” for the “mistake” and has offered to pay the late dog’s owner for a post-mortem. It was unexplained to what end this post-mortem would serve for the owner, but the company told CNN that many animals have preexisting conditions and that a review occurs following each death.

FILE- In this March 15, 2017, photo, people stand in line at a United Airlines counter at LaGuardia Airport in New York. A dog died on a United Airlines plane after a flight attendant ordered its owner to put the animal in the plane’s overhead bin. United said Tuesday, March 13, 2018, that it took full responsibility for the incident on the Monday night flight from Houston to New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

United’s policy for animals excludes any mention of overhead bins, instead requiring animals traveling in the cabin to be in a kennel that “must fit completely under the seat in front of the customer and remain there at all times.”

A United spokesperson did not respond to Yahoo Finance’s request for comment by press time.

A lost dog and strongly worded letter from a Louisiana senator

The rough week continued on Tuesday with another dog incident. A German Shepard leaving Oregon on a United flight bound for Missouri somehow ended up in Japan. Airline officials sent the 10-year-old dog, named Irgo, back to Missouri, but not before outrage over this animal treatment spread over social media.

United’s animal foibles got the attention of Sen. John Kennedy, an animal lover and Republican from Louisiana, who sent a strongly worded letter to United’s president Scott Kirby.

I write to demand an immediate explanation for the number of animals who have died recently in United Airlines’ care,” the senator wrote.

Kennedy cited statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation that show that 75% of all animal deaths on airplanes happen on United:

“Eighteen of the 24 animals who died in major U.S. airlines’ care last year were in the care of United. Another 13 animals in United’s care suffered injuries last year,” he wrote. “For comparison, Delta and American each reported two animal deaths.”

The letter called the pattern of incidents “inexcusable.”

“For many people, pets are members of the family,” he wrote. “They should not be treated like insignificant cargo. Frankly, they shouldn’t be placed in the cargo hold much less an overhead bin.”

The dog death is perhaps the loudest incident for the airline since last year debacle with David Dao that was botched by CEO Oscar Munoz, who famously apologized for having to “re-accommodate” the doctor.

Eventually Munoz appeared in front of Congress for a grilling. To help solve the issue, the CEO said that the crews would be empowered to hand out the money required to convince customers to leave on their own, should a flight be overbooked.

Accusations of ‘white privilege’

United hit another bout of turbulence with a series of tweets from marketer and writer Frederick Joseph, who was sitting next to a woman with her shoeless feet on the tray table in front of him. Joseph, who is black, asked the woman, who is white, to move her feet. She only moved them after the airline agreed to give her compensation, which amounted to a $1,000 voucher, Joseph tweeted. Joseph got nothing, a move that struck him and others on the internet as “white privilege” in action. Joseph’s tweet received more than 5,000 retweets.

The airline later called Joseph to tell him that no compensation was actually given. Still, Joseph was miffed that the airline seemingly took the woman’s side, despite her breaking a social contract of decorum. The airline told Joseph race was not a factor.

The trio of disparate issues, which followed last week’s bad PR over a proposed bonus system via lottery, which employees rebelled against, highlights a failure on United’s part to learn from last year’s lessons, which mandated that swift visible compassion was essential, as well as appropriate compensation — past paying for a dog autopsy that may only serve the company’s interest.

There are two-and-a-half days left in the week.