Dog Dies After United Airlines Flight Attendant Makes Him Ride In Overhead Bin

It's the latest tragedy on board what's become the most dangerous airline for pets to fly.

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United Airlines has come under intense criticism this week after a 10-month-old puppy died on a flight from Houston to New York City when an attendant reportedly forced him to ride in the plane's unventilated overhead compartment and ignored the objections of his owner.

According to ABC News, Catalina Robledo boarded Flight 1284 on Monday night with her infant son, 11-year-old daughter, and a French bulldog puppy named Kokito. The dog was riding in a TSA-approved soft-sided animal carrier, which Robledo placed on the floor as the family settled into their row.

That's when a flight attendant appeared and told them that the carrier was too obstrusive and would have to be placed in the overhead bin. Robledo is Colombian and doesn't speak English fluently, so her daughter Sophia tried to interpret and explain that there was a dog inside. The flight attendant was unmoved; she eventually helped Robledo place the puppy in the compartment and shut the door.

Sitting behind the family was June Lara, who posted her own account of the incident on Facebook. (WARNING: Her post includes a picture of the deceased dog.) She wrote that she was horrified as the flight attendant forced the dog into the unventilated compartment, and that the puppy "fill[ed] our flight with his cries." Several other passengers confirmed hearing the dog barking, but Robledo told Telemundo that she was carrying her baby and unable to get up to check on Kokito. The flight was also plagued by severe turbulence.

Eventually, Kokito stopped crying. By the time the plane finally landed in New York and taxied to the gate, he had been in the overhead bin for almost four hours. When Robledo was finally able to get up and check on the puppy, which was a birthday present for 11-year-old Sophia, she realized he wasn't moving or breathing.

"She took him out, and he was dead," Sophia told ABC News through tears. "She's like, 'He died, died!' And he didn't wake up ... she hit his chest so he could breathe, but he wouldn't move."

Another passenger named Maggie Gremminger shared her account of the mother's tragic discovery with the air travel blog One Mile at a Time. 

"The woman was crying in the airplane aisle on the floor. A fellow passenger offered to hold the newborn while the mother was crying on the floor aisle with the dog," she wrote. "It was this out of body experience of grief."

Making matters worse, the flight attendant involved reportedly approached the family in tears and claimed that she had no idea that there was a dog in the bag—an oversight that both Gremminger and the family say would have been impossible.

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"In the end, she says she didn't know it was a dog, but she actually touched the bag and felt him there. She's basically lying to us now," Sophia said to ABC News. "She said, ‘Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know it was a dog. I thought it was just a normal bag.’ But we told her it was a dog. She was lying!"

In an updated statement to NBC News, United Airlines said it was taking "full responsibility" for the French bulldog's death and pledged an investigation.

"We have learned that the customer did tell the flight attendant that there was a dog in the carrier. However, our flight attendant did not hear or understand her, and did not knowingly place the dog in the overhead bin," the statement reads. "As we stated, we take full responsibility and are deeply sorry for this tragic accident."

The airline also reportedly plans to start issuing brightly-colored "PET" tags for animal carriers so the flight crew will always know when a pet is inside. A spokesman also told the Associated Press that the airline refunded the price of Robledo's tickets and offered to pay for the dog's necropsy.

Still, there are so many questions about the lapses in policy and communication that allowed this tragedy to occur. Flight attendants have a demanding and often thankless job, but multiple witnesses say the family clearly expressed that there was a dog inside the carrier. The carrier's see-through mesh walls also would have made it hard to miss Kokito inside as she helped Robledo place him in the overhead bin.

And all the preventative measures in the world are no comfort to Robledo and her family, who are still in shock over his sudden and entirely preventable demise.

"It makes me feel sad. I just really miss him," Sophia told ABC News. "He was a member of our family. He was like my brother to me. He was special. He was really smart and really sweet too."

Amidst a tidal wave of outrage, critics are now pointing to United Airlines' comparatively dismal record of animal safety. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 18 of the 24 animals that died last year while in the care of the nation's airlines were being transported by United. That works out to a death rate of 2.24 for every 10,000 pets—by far the highest in the industry.

And Kokito wasn't the only dog to suffer at the hands of United this week. On Tuesday, a family moving from Oregon to Kansas tried to independently fly their 10-year-old German Shepherd named Irgo to their new home. But when Kara Swindle showed up at a United cargo facility to pick up her beloved dog, she found a Great Dane in his place. United employees determined that the dogs had been accidentally switched between connecting flights in Denver, and that Irgo was likely on his way to the Great Dane's original destination: Japan.

"They had no idea where the dog was," Swindle told CNN. "I burst into tears instantly because this has just all been a whirlwind. They didn't know until 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday when the plane landed in Japan."

Irgo was reportedly suffering from an ear infection and the airport snafu meant that he would be going without his medication for days. United apologized for the mix up, got Irgo checked out by a vet, and planned to fly the German Shepherd in first class with a human escort on Wednesday night—though the journey from Naruto, Japan to Wichita will take an additional day.

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