Airline deregulation put profit before the interest of passengers

By Georgie Anne Geyer

Andrews McMeel Syndication


Maybe you know about the beautiful 10-month-old French bulldog locked in an airless luggage compartment on a United Airlines flight between Houston and New York. Possibly you know that the sweet little dog – its name was Kokito and it was beloved by its family – was found dead upon arrival after barking helplessly for two hours before gradually smothering in a compartment where there is almost no air flow.

Perhaps you will be consoled, though, because you also know that United Airlines took “full responsibility” for the little dog’s demise. Putting the dog in the overhead compartment was “against the rules” and “against the values” of the airline, a United statement said. And the generous airline compensated the family for their flights and for the $125 charge for bringing a pet on board.

United’s history

What the airline did not address after the innocent puppy’s death was the strange history of United Airlines and pet “trafficking.”

In 2017, United Airlines had the highest number of animal deaths of any U.S. carrier. The Department of Transportation reports 24 animal deaths, 18 of those on United, while six died on the 16 other carriers. Animal lovers will remember a giant rabbit named Simon, a 3-year-old Abyssinian cat named Riko, and Rocco, Bella and Mambo, all dogs who died of heart failure, among others.

They might also recall how, during the same week Kokito died, United just happened to ship a German shepherd to Japan instead of Kansas City, and the owner became nearly hysterical when a Great Dane, who at least survived, emerged from the shepherd’s crate.

But let us focus on the sad story at hand.

Kokito was in the correct proscribed carrying case, and his owner had paid the correct amount for a “pet aboard.” But the flight attendant, who remains, interestingly enough, unnamed, demanded that the dog be put in the overhead bin and not under the seat, the correct place for pets.

“It’s a dog, it’s a dog, he can’t breathe up there,” the owner’s 11-year-old daughter complained, according to CBS News, “and (the flight attendant) said, ‘It doesn’t matter, it still goes up there.’”

During the 31/2-hour trip, Kokito barked and cried, but because of turbulence and because his owner, Catalina Robledo, also had a baby in her lap, she was unable to go to him – and she might have assumed that United Airlines knew what it was doing.

Dead pet

When she found Kokito dead at the flight’s end, Ms. Robledo sat on the floor of the plane and sobbed, “Kokito, Kokito, wake up!”

“My heart broke with theirs as I realized he was gone,” a fellow passenger posted with a photo of the dog. And the owner’s daughter, Sophia Ceballos, said, “My mom was crying, she was just screaming, she was looking at him ... He was a really special dog.”

Bloomberg News reported that United CEO Oscar Munoz apologized by complaining that United had “such definitive, specific, concrete, rigid rules that (employees) are not allowed to show a little caring and compassion.” But this is balderdash, and meant disgustingly to mislead.

In Kokito’s case, it is clear the attendant was going against the airline’s rules by not putting the dog under the passenger seat. She was showing too much of only one thing – a lack of caring and compassion.

United representatives piously spoke about people not understanding “the values” United holds dear. But it has been all too clear since the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 that the values United Airlines (as well as many of the others) holds dear are making mountains of money, incredibly high salaries for their officers and profits for their shareholders.

‘Golden Age’

Before deregulation, we had what was popularly known as the “Golden Age” of airline travel. Airlines were regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board and it was that federal regulation that ensured fair competition and thus good service. Eventually, after 1978, only four major airlines were left, which meant they could do what they wanted – miniaturize seats, drag a doctor and his family off a plane, as United did last year, and be utterly thoughtless about the transportation of pets. And they have.

Former United CEO Jeff Smisek once even suggested serving broken cashews instead of whole ones to save money – and in first class international! The passengers? Let them eat nuts – broken ones.

There’s a moral and a maxim here: Competition also means civility, and you have to regulate in order to have decent competition.

Don’t bother with those absurd, self-serving “apologies.” Instead, let’s re-regulate the airlines, as is occasionally talked about, and make flying at least a survivable experience.

If anyone thought Kokito’s death was “unlike” the airlines, they could not have been more wrong. It is not that United treats people like dogs, it is that United treats dogs just like it treats people.

Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years.

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