Abandoned Airport Puppy Goes Viral, Gets Adopted by Caring United Pilot Family

By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer
Capt. Bill Dale (United) and Polaris, who was abandoned at San Francisco International Airport, appear on an episode of The Kelly Clarkson Show.

Despite their transient lifestyles, many ALPA members are avid pet owners. Some adopt rescue animals from shelters giving dogs, cats, and a host of other cuddly creatures a second chance at a happy home. However, one ALPA member recently adopted a rescue dog under truly unique circumstances.

Late last August, an international passenger disembarked a United Airlines flight from China at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) with a black German shepherd puppy. The pet owner didn’t have the proper documentation for the dog and abandoned him in the customs area shortly before boarding a flight to New York.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regulates the admittance of dogs into the United States from other countries, paying close attention to those from locations like China, where the likelihood of rabies is an ongoing concern. The canine quickly became the problem of SFOCS, United’s name for its local Customer Service crew, which faced two options: return the German Shepherd to China or hand him over to the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). In either case, there was a good chance the dog would be euthanized.

This probable outcome didn’t sit well with United’s SFOCS agents, who promptly contacted the airline’s Government Affairs office for guidance. United’s Government Affairs team subsequently notified the CDC, explained the dog’s predicament, and asked for clemency. In the interim, local employees set up a dog bed and other creature comforts in an airport office. They also arranged for 24-hour care for Polaris, naming him after United’s business-class service. In short order, the puppy became a local celebrity among airport regulars.

The CDC notified United that it could keep the dog. However, as a health and safety precaution, he would need to be quarantined for a four-month period. Polaris spent a large portion of that time at a quarantine facility in Los Angeles, Calif.

With the dog back at SFO, the United staff worked in conjunction with the SPCA to put him up for adoption, with one stipulation. United’s Customer Service agents insisted that only the airline’s employees could apply. Among those in line for consideration was A320 Capt. Bill Dale, who indicated that his family was looking for a dog and had a nearby house with a fenced-in backyard where Polaris could roam.

Thirty-five individuals submitted applications, with five deemed worthy to be finalists. On Dec. 15, 2022, an SFOCS agent drew from the five slips of paper placed in a dog bowl and pulled Dale’s name. The employees then hosted an adoption party for Polaris in the airline’s baggage claim area where United also announced a $5,000 donation to the San Francisco SPCA for all its help.

SPCA Chief of Rescue and Welfare Lisa Feder responded, publicly thanking United for the generous contribution. She added, “United’s Customer Service team took on quite a challenge to ensure Polaris would be safe, healthy, and find a loving home.”

Back at the party, Polaris was joined by several members from the Wag Brigade, a team of emotional support dogs assigned to the airport. At the event’s close, the German shepherd proceeded to his new home in neighboring Novato, Calif.

“Polaris is doing really well,” said Dale. “He went through quite an adjustment at first, but every week is another milestone for him. He’s now a part of our family.”

The German shepherd’s celebrity status has continued as his story has been shared by numerous news media outlets, including ABC News and The Washington Post. Accounts compare Polaris to actor Tom Hanks in his role in the movie The Terminal. In the film, Hanks plays a foreign national forced to maintain temporary residence at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

On January 30, Polaris and Dale were filmed for an upcoming episode of The Kelly Clarkson Show. The United captain remarked, “I’m glad that his story is getting out there and for all of the hard work of the San Francisco-based employees who took care of him and saved his life, because they’re the ones who made all of this possible.”

Dale and Polaris Meet Kelly Clarkson

Watch the episode with Capt. Bill Dale (United) and Polaris on The Kelly Clarkson Show, which aired on February 9.

This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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