by John Buckley
If you fly with any frequency, I suspect you have at least one, and maybe more, stories about some outrage you have experienced at the hands of some airline. I always thought I had a pretty good one when I told about the night that my wife and I were left to spend the night in baggage claim when a storm in the Midwest shut down the LaGuardia Airport, but that’s a story for another day. I’ve recently had one that tops my LaGuardia story, however.
If you’re old enough, you can remember a time when no one, regardless of how mentally unstable they were, thought of bringing an animal on an airplane. Sneak on a gun or a bomb, maybe. Possibly hijack a flight, perhaps. But, regardless how looney they were, no one this side of la-la land gave a thought to taking on an animal when they flew the friendly skies.
All of that changed when Paris Hilton, the Queen of Entitlement, took her foo-foo dog on board with her. Once the precedent had been set, hundreds of other passengers followed Ms. Hilton’s example in subsequent years and trooped aboard with a menagerie of everything from peacocks to llamas that they tried to pass off as “service” or “emotional support” animals.
To be sure, the airlines were complicit in this nonsense. Finally, last fall, a number of them hired a third party to screen and approve anyone wanting to fly with any animal they claimed to be a “service animal.”
Before telling what was worse than a night in a New York City baggage claim, let’s take a minute to clarify a few basics:
- “Service animal,” which, in practice, nearly always ends up being a dog, has a specific legal definition under federal law.
- An owner can’t wave a magic wand and make their animal a service animal by simply claiming it is one.
- Neither is an animal magically transformed into a service animal by wearing a sign proclaiming it to be such. There are no shortage of web sites selling these signs and related paraphernalia to anyone who wants to pass off Fido as a service animal.
- “Emotional support” animals are not service animals and have no protection under the law.
Finally, since we’re talking about air travel, there’s one more thing that might be added to this list. Airport security is not responsible for screening for goofy animals. If the guy in line in front of you has an iguana in addition to his carry-on, TSA’s job is just to be sure the iguana doesn’t contain any drugs or explosives – nothing more.
Incidentally, if you think I’m kidding about these animals, I’m not. I’ve had airport personnel describe all of these examples – peacocks, llamas, and iguanas – as having been presented by passengers at my local airport as “service animals.”
Given this history, I was delighted when a number of airlines hired a third party last fall to screen and approve any passenger wanting to travel with a “service animal.” Finally, there was the prospect of some sanity being returned to flying with my guide dog. The theory was great; the execution left a lot to be desired.
So, in late October, I applied to the third party for permission for my dog to fly, submitted the necessary paperwork, and, within a couple of days, was notified that he “was certified to fly for the next year.” We then flew a week later with no problem.
All seemed right with the world until I tried to check in for a subsequent flight in late December and was told that I was denied permission to fly with the same dog that had been approved six weeks earlier on the very same airline flying between the same two cities. I’ll spare you the details, but I had neglected to comply with an admittedly technical requirement of the third-party vendor that was screening for service animals. Subsequently, both the attorney for the airline as well as the president of the third-party vendor willingly acknowledged that they had been at fault and that I had already complied with all legal requirements and should have been allowed to fly with my dog.
At the moment, however, my wife was allowed to fly, while I had to return home to await a booking on the next available flight, three days later, by which time my technical violation of the new rules had been straightened out.
What is the moral to the story? Well, I think there are three.
- This airline, as an institution, is notorious for doing the absolute minimum it can legally get by with to assist disabled passengers. This is generally true even when it won’t cost a penny more, as in the above example. It is known among airport employees as Clampett Air – need I say more. As the airline’s own attorney acknowledged later, “This whole thing could have been avoided if two supervisors had just asked a couple of simple questions. Your dog was obviously a legitimate service animal and already approved for travel.”
- It helps to know how to complain. It should be said that the airline representative I was dealing with at the moment realized the policy was not being appropriately applied, was doing everything she could to correct the situation, but was powerless to override the corporate bureaucracy. But her good intentions couldn’t get me on the flight.
At the end of the day, airlines are regulated by the Department of Transportation, and it is their opinion that really matters to the carrier. To the credit of the airline, once the problem was called to the attention of senior management, I was surprised at how promptly they moved heaven and earth to apologize, make recompense, and, hopefully, put policies in place to ensure that it doesn’t reoccur in the future. Time will tell.
I’d like to think they would have been good corporate citizens and done that on their own, and that may be true; however, I suspect that they learned that I had filed a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation, something I had never done before in my life, and this knowledge provided a little extra motivation. Incidentally, if you’re ever in this situation, this is the link for the Air Travel Complaint - Comment Form for the Department of Transportation.
The real villains of this story are all the people who have tried to pass off faux service dogs as legitimate service animals over the years. Laws that are consistently and flagrantly disobeyed lose public support. Not to put too fine a point on it, but people who are wholly consumed with the selfish desire to pass off Precious or Fluffy as a service animal for their personal convenience have ended up seriously interfering with the ability of people who have a legitimate need for these animals to use them as they were intended. And I doubt that anyone doing this has ever given it a passing thought. If it were up to me, every one of them would be executed at high noon in the public square, hopefully suffering a slow, painful death.