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Dogs Don't Belong in the Overhead Bin

Welcome to Upright Position, SmarterTravel's new weekly series in which Features Editor Caroline Costello discusses emotional and controversial travel topics. Join the debate by leaving a comment below!

I was on an international flight when airline crew told the passenger sitting beside me to stow her dog in the overhead bin. Her shaky little companion—he looked like a Chinese crested—was in a soft-sided, airline-approved pet carrier. But an obstruction under the seat in front of her left no room for anything larger than a kid's lunch box. The carrier was on the floor between my seatmate's feet when a flight attendant spotted it. She insisted that the animal go in the overhead bin.

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My seatmate refused. An argument ensued, and the dog owner became noticeably upset. "He won't be able to breathe up there!" she said. Other passengers were staring.

The flight attendant disagreed. "We put dogs up there all the time," she said. "They're fine. They can breathe."  

In keeping with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, carry-on items must be stowed under seats or in overhead bins before the airplane door may close, allowing the plane to leave for departure; this includes pet carriers. Not all plane seats, however, have room enough underneath them for carry-on items. According to our sister site SeatGuru, a handful of seats on the plane on which we were flying, an Airbus A330-300, have limited under-seat storage because of entertainment equipment boxes. SeatGuru states, "On planes that feature a personal TV or in-flight power connections, a small metal box is often mounted underneath each seat containing the electronics for those amenities. This box can inhibit your legroom."

Restricted under-seat storage isn't a huge deal if you're carting a small duffel filled with clothes and personal items. Just put it in the overhead bin during takeoff and landing. With a furry friend, the situation can get hairy.

While the FAA issues some of the regulations pertaining to storage of carry-on items on planes, pet travel rules and guidelines are mostly administered by airlines. I couldn't find any clear airline regulations posted online that bar pets from traveling in the overhead bin. So I reached out to some carriers. A spokesperson from Southwest told me that pets "must not be placed in overhead bins," however, this rule is not stated in the airline's official pet policy. A Spirit rep said the same, but Spirit's pet policy is likewise mum on the issue.

A United spokesperson told me, "In this situation we would work with the customer to be reseated to a seat where the carrier would fit." But what if it's a full flight, as it was when my seatmate was instructed to stow her pup up top? Until airlines adjust their policies to state that animals may not travel in the overhead compartment and that passengers with pets must be assigned spaces with under-seat storage, there's no guarantee that a flight attendant won't try to put Sir Barksalot in the bin.

Living things could get hurt up there. This announcement, typically issued upon landing, is a case in point: "Please be careful when opening the overhead bin, as its contents may have shifted during flight." A small dog in a soft-sided carrier would be no match for a 50-lb. suitcase tumbling toward it.

I reached out to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for comment. The animal-rights group issued the following statement: "A living, breathing being isn't a suitcase, and to ask passengers to stow animals in the overhead bin is an outrageous suggestion tantamount to abuse. Dogs and cats belong where their guardians can see them and reassure them during the confusing and potentially distressing flight. They should never be crated and stowed away in a dark overhead bin, let alone in the cargo area, especially when turbulence can cause heavy luggage to shift and press against their cages, potentially injuring the already frightened animals. For more information, please visit PETA.org."

By refusing to comply with the flight attendant's instructions, my seatmate saved her dog from the dark, dangerous bin. The crew eventually gave up, and the pet stayed on the floor by our feet as the plane took off. My seatmate talked softly to the dog throughout the flight. The animal had heard the argument with the attendant, she told me, and was anxious because he detected distress in his owner's voice. She said she would never fly with her dog again.

Would you put your pet in the overhead bin?

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