Passenger Kicked Off American Airlines Flight After Asking Not to Be Seated Next to Large Dog

Here’s a story from my Facebook feed this morning. It comes from a woman who flies American Airlines regularly (she’s a top tier Executive Platinum member). And she’s the kind of customer American likes.

  1. She regularly buys first class tickets.

  2. If she buys an economy ticket, and it looks like her upgrade won’t clear, she buys up to first.

I think it’s fair to say she’s allergic to coach. In fact she may even qualify for an accommodation under the Air Carrier Access Act: she needs an emotional support seat up front!

However she experienced a situation that highlights one of the perverse things wrong with air travel today, and with American Airlines customer service.

She purchased a business class ticket Miami – Los Angeles on their Boeing 777-300ER with international lie flat direct aisle access seats. It’s a five and a half hour evening flight, and she wanted to ensure she flew up front.

Upon boarding, a passenger seated in the row behind her got on “with a rather large dog” who she says “tried to jump on” her.

American Boeing 777-300ER Business Class

She says she’s “allergic to animals” and asked a flight attendant for help getting re-seated. They offered her another seat in the back of the cabin, but there was a dog in the seat next to that one too so she declined.

That’s when she had an unexpected problem.

I said to a[.. flight attendant] that I hope we don’t need to make an unplanned stop to which she replied “we don’t want that to happen” I replied that I didn’t want that to happen either.

I returned to my seat and did my best to shield myself from the dog.

A few minutes later the [gate agent] came up to me and said that I had to get off the flight. I thought he was joking but when I realized that he wasn’t, I complied as I know the FAA rules concerning crew member compliance.

As I disembarked, a few of the [flight attendants] were applauding and cheering because I was being removed.

Although there were still two more Miami – Los Angeles flights last night, she didn’t get to her destination. Instead she was on a flight this morning on a narrowbody, not the lie flat seat she purchased.

There’s not a lot you can do if you have an allergy and you’re seated near an animal onboard. I offer 9 tips for planning to deal with pet allergies onboard.

It seems to me though the the crew should have handled this differently from the get go.

  1. If a dog isn’t being well-controlled in the cabin, the owner shouldn’t be allowed to fly until they demonstrate that it can be properly managed. I’m somewhat sympathetic to disability claims here, I also think that if someone is going to fly then they ought to bring an emotional support animal that fits under the seat and doesn’t try to jump on other passengers. At the same time, someone concerned about animals may misinterpret such an action.

  2. The crew should have done more to try to reseat the passenger. I think it’s fair to announce, “a passenger in business class has an allergy to dogs, is there anyone willing to trade seats with her?” Maybe there isn’t, but American could have made that effort.

I’m ultimately fine with animals on board, provided they are well-controlled and behaved and airlines need to be better at accommodating passengers with allergies too once there’s a conflict.

At the point that the crew wasn’t going to handle the situation, once the passenger mentioned the potential to divert I can understand concern. It shouldn’t have gotten there but an airline reasonably doesn’t want to risk flying with a passenger that’s contemplating needing the aircraft to stop mid-flight.

I wasn’t there and we have only the passenger’s version of the story. However applause from crew over this passenger’s removal is mortifying. It’s clear that she is sincere in her telling, she believes this is exactly what happened. Yet American advised her that she is “due no compensation” but that they “hope to see [her] on another AA flight.”

She’s clearly a good, valuable, frequent customer. She’s not a novice traveler who doesn’t understand the rules (I can separately attest to this). She let American know that she was mortified and embarrassed by a situation on their flight, not just inconvenienced. American should be bending over backwards to make this right to her because she’s made it clear that this incident is highly significant to her, an inflection point for her as a customer of the airline. Their response to her was tone deaf and has her questioning her loyalty to American.

I think there are lessons here beyond the treatment of one customer as well.

  • We’re seeing increasing conflict onboard between passengers over emotional support animals. Whether airlines like it or not they need to become better at resolving these conflicts.

  • There are many great crew out there, but largely they’re great by virtue of their own commitment and personality. Handing out big raises won’t in itself change the culture, and for the most part US airlines have allowed themselves to forget that they’re a service business.

  • Airlines have been too generous with compensation at times in the past. That was a matter of explicit policy, like United (prior to being taken over by Continental) deciding it was better to pay out vouchers to complaining customers than maintain the interiors of their aircraft. However customers who represent significant income streams need to feel like their voice is being heard, and it’s in the airline’s financial interest to make sure that happens.

US carriers — and not just American — would be wise to listen to this woman’s story not because it’s beyond reproach (it was probably unwise to mention a potential diversion!) but because she’s a profitable customer speaking clearly about what’s important to her. And businesses ultimately make money by providing their best customers who are willing to pay the prices asked with what they actually want.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. In my experience ranking adults, children and animals, animals are by far the best behaved (and most pleasant to travel near) of the 3 groups. Adults squeak by children for 2nd place on the whole, though frankly if you eliminate children under 10 or so, adults would rank last.

  2. I really do not believe airline have any loyalty to any passenger in this day and age.
    No matter what class of travel we are all just cattle and the future of air travel and good customer service look bleak. I am no longer loyal to any one airline myself anymore.

  3. My opinion pets should not never ever be allowed in the cabin area of any commercial transportation.

    Second these emotional support animals are a crock of shit, they are the persons pets.

    A proper service animal such as blind or epileptic should not be smelly and not the size of a toaster or a house.

    Someone with severe allergies is going to die one day and then the rules will change, but it will take someone dying and being posted all over youtube.

  4. What is with the large dogs on planes this week. I was on a couple short hauls through DFW this week to places in Texas and back home to Kansas City. I saw at least half a dozen large dogs with vests on which I assume means they are service dogs. I had three large dogs on flights I was on. Weird.
    I don’t blame this lady. If I was this person I would be contacting another airline with my story to see if they will match my status and no longer fly AA. Problem is that they are likely just as bad. She went over the line with the comment but FA’s need to grown some thicker skin on this stuff. You can say that they shouldn’t have to and that they have a tough job but it’s their JOB to deal with people all day long.

  5. It is ultimately the airlines’ responsibility to protect customers from animals, but I don’t understand these animal owners either. All the animals I’ve encountered (I’m not allergic) have been well behaved and well controlled by their humans and the humans have always been aware of their responsibility to the other people around them. Every cat and dog I’ve flown near has been a sweat addition to my flight. I don’t understand why the owner of the dog would have taken such an excitable creature on board and why he or she executed such poor control over the animal.

    I’m very sorry for this woman. The airline completely mistreated her in favour of a passenger who was imposing his or her animal on other passengers by not controlling it.

  6. If you have an allergy to peanuts, you’re rights are guaranteed. Allergic to animals, then you are the one that gets kicked off the plane.

  7. “I am no longer loyal to any one airline myself anymore”: you said a mouthful. Too bad the airlines are not listening, just trying to see how many more people they can cram into coach. And unfortunately, airline service personnel, customer relations and upper management seem oblivious to this.

  8. Ironic, after campaigns against gulf airlines (even banning laptop) and lessons from Dao incident, flight attendants as the frontline to customer cheering a “kicked” bussiness class passenger. Notwithstanding cultural or social norm in the US, are they even educated? Amazing……

  9. As much as I like dogs too it’s sad that they’re more important than other human beings in these situations. If the dog truly jumped on her, it obviously isn’t a service dog. With that said, the airline should’ve kicked that owner off the plane.

  10. Up until recently when I finally achieved Executive Platinum status, I assumed that status meant something and the elite flyers were treated as something slightly more dignified than cattle. Unfortunately, as this one story among many and my personal experience indicates, there is apparently no customer service attitude being transmitted from the airline to their employees.
    At least with status in high end hotels one generally gets treated quite well. Perhaps someone in an airline could take some notes from those guys.

  11. I call BS on her story, particularly where the crew applauds. Something just doesn’t add up.

  12. I don’t want to open the whole “are corporations people” debate. But this story indicates that, in fact, it is possible for a corporate entity to become insane.

  13. For a dog to be excited is one thing but the airlines also should make sure they please pet owners and the customers. The dog has it’s right to be in the cabin but should have been on a shorter leash buckled into to the seat second it was where it needed to be. Secondly if allergic to a on board pet I hate to say this but your exposed to the dander the second you get on after the dog. It’s called take an allergy pill and suck it up.

  14. I’m not allergic to dogs, but I am very allergic to cats. Years ago, I started sneezing halfway through a ORD-LAX flight & my eyes started getting itchy. I was lucky to have an antihistamine with me and I was feeling somewhat better in an hour. Turns out there was a cat in the row ahead of me & the FA said the passenger in my seat IAD-ORD had flown with a cat. The plane hadn’t been vacuumed between flights. I wrote the airline after my flight, wondering why it wasn’t possible to note in a passenger record that they were allergic to cats – and once they had a seat assignment, not to let someone traveling with one be seated next to them. Or vice versa – if you’re traveling with a pet, you need to declare that when booking your trip. The person who books first has priority. Once you pick a seat, it shows up on the seat map as “traveling with cat or dog.”. I see it and know to pick another part of the cabin, a different flight, or pre-medicate. The reply was that it would be “too difficult” — but that was what United also said when I asked why they couldn’t throw MM Golds a bone & prioritize their records so autoupgrades cleared before other Gold. (If they can do it by fare code within FF status, why not that?).

  15. Shouldn’t there be a protocol in place whereby someone with severe allergies can provide documentation to an airline and ask that no animals be boarded in that cabin? I have never heard of a person being severely allergic to animals but I am sure they exist. Most animal allergies can be controlled by oral antihistamines. I note that the woman said the dog “tried” to jump on her. That sounds like a judgment call. I am also suspicious about the fact that the FAs applauded. If that is the case, I suspect the woman made quote a scene onboard. Something just doesn’t add up in my mind. I also thought most airlines restricted the number of animals in any one cabin. Is that not true anymore?

  16. When did we become such a selfish nation of people? We no longer look out for anyone but ourselves. Control your animal, or better yet leave it at home. We all need to be ashamed over this story.

  17. I feel like there is more to this story. There are absolutely bad crews out there but I have a hard time imagining them clapping if the story played out exactly as told

  18. I have also noticed a greater number of dogs in the passenger compartment. I fly twice a month and this trend is growing. Pets belong in stowage not with the owners. What are the owners going to do, walk. FAA needs to regulate this practice. We did not have all this unrest when the airline we regulated. Maybe we need to return to those days.

  19. As an employee of a major airline I have to say thank you for this article. I agree with most everything said here and, while I also want to ensure our passengers worth disabilities are accommodated, we are often forced to accommodate pets over people.

    Over the years I have learned to discern what a true emotional support/service animal is as they come on, are extremely well behaved (as are their owners who typically are very concerned with the well being of other passengers) and do not make any kind of situation. Sadly we live in an age where anyone can obtain required documentation with ease and bring their family pet on with ADA protections which result in situations like this to occur. Something needs to be done to fix the system, but airlines hands are pretty tied. No matter how you handle situations like this, someone is going to be upset.

    I recently had one on a full flight from Europe to the US where the passengers sitting next to the dogs had to lift their feet off the floor for an entire 8 hours. Completely unfair in my opinion. But if we removed the passengers with dogs we would have violated ADA, and if we removed the affected passengers we would be on the 5 o’clock news. So who is truly at fault? The passengers with dogs, the affected passengers, or the airline?

    I really appreciate the objective nature of this article, though. We are all (airlines and passengers) responsible for working together to change issues like this.

  20. These airlines need to get their act together regarding dogs. If a dog bites a passenger, that airline is now in a liability position.

  21. Yes really it’s the self righteous people who bring these large dogs as fake service animals. It really is out of control. Any dog over 25lbs in the cabin that is not a bona fide service dog for someone blind etc is one of these fake service animals/companion animal. The airlines need to grow a spine and start pushing back at the lax regulations.

  22. Before the merger, there was a US Airways flight that had to make an emergency landing because a large dog pooped twice in the aisle. How much did it cost the airline to divert because a passenger was to cheap to pay for passage for their dog.

  23. Again, immediately when asked to deplane, she should have asked for the AA Complaint Resolution Officer at MIA, and asked for an immediate resolution of her discrimination complaint, including a lie-flat seat on the next flight, and other accommodation to her schedule. Allergies are a disability under the ADA if they affect basic life skills, such as breathing. My wife and I carry documentation from our allergist of her disability when we fly. BTW, whether an allergy can be controlled by medication is not determinative of whether it is a disability under the ADA.

    Now, she should file a discrimination complaint with DOT.

  24. There are dog harnesses that can be used to restrain the animal into the seat similar to the way child seats are.

  25. Come on everybody- do you really expect glorified waiters and waitresses to use critical thinking!

  26. A seeing eye dog is legit. An emotional support dog is BS!
    If you need that much support drive!

  27. I think we’re on the verge of seeing a crackdown on fake “service animals”. We’re already seeing businesses here in Colorado post signs saying they require documentation of service animal status.

    And I think we’re going to see the most support for this from people with real service animals. A friend’s son has a peanut and nut alert dog and another friend has a seizure sniffing dog and they’ve both said they’ve received negative responses to their animals thanks to bad behavior by people with bullshit support dogs.

  28. Why exactly did they kick her off? Was it because she made a perceived threat? Was she just speculating that she hopes something doesn’t happen with one of the dogs to cause an unscheduled landing? I’m on her side, but it’s a bit of an odd thing to say.

    Regarding Executive Platinum, when I first made it 5 or 6 years ago, it did get you a tad bit of extra consideration in unusual circumstances, but now it means absolutely nothing. I”m not even convinced that the EXP desk is staffed with anything more than inexperienced USAir reps. There are a few good AA reps but rarely do I get them. It’s really a joke. I recently had a flight with a medical emergency over the Pacific and had to turn around and fly back to Alaska, then on to my destination TWO days later. They refused to count the extra 5000 miles I flew as elite qualifying even though I actually flew those BUS.

  29. The dog was most likely a self-proclaimed “comfort” or “therapy” dog and is not covered by the ADA rules for public transportation. Unlike a disabled individual’s professionally trained service dog, the airline can refuse transport of a “comfort” or “therapy” dog. A service dog will never “jump up” on a person while wearing their vest. It is ingrained in a service dog’s training that once the vest is put on, they are working and as such, have a very calm and serious disposition. A “comfort” or “therapy” dog is most likely a pet and, more often than not, lacks the training to prevent them from acting like an excited dog in a public place. My wife is deaf and has a hearing service dog who goes everywhere with her, including on planes. The dog, a golden retriever, never approaches other people and once boarded lays across the floor of my wife’s row, usually at the bulkhead and remains there, with little movement, until their destination is reached. I implore both passengers and airlines to distinguish between real service dogs, protected by the ADA, and “comfort” or “therapy” dogs whose legitimacy is suspect and travel is at the approval of the airline.

  30. 1. Has anyone with animal allergies ever filed a complaint under the ADA?

    2. I’d love to see someone with PTSD from an animal attack file a complaint saying they require an emotional support animal-free cabin.

    3. I have often joked that there should be a separate cabin behind economy for children, animals, drunks, Kettles, etc. I still think it should exist, but I’m no longer joking.

    4. I’m actually surprised some animal lover hasn’t made a fiery comment containing the term “furbabies” yet.

  31. I would applause as well. I think she just didn’t want to be near a dog as opposed to being actually medically allergic to one. Dogs fly on planes all the time and never once has their been an incidence of someone suffering a medical emergency due to one.

    Another example of a snobby 1%er who thought they were better than an animal.

  32. Just a matter of time before a pair of these counterfeit service animals go at each other tooth-and-nail in the cabin at 30,000 feet. Here’s hoping no human appendages get savaged in a bloody melee out of “White Fang”.

  33. Devil’s advocate here, just want to add a little to the conversation.

    This woman claimed she was allergic to dogs. Allergies have become a major red flag across the corporate service industry landscape in the last several years. If a passenger is truly allergic and has a full blown reaction on a transcon, that will guarantee a diversion and major service delay. An allergic passenger cannot be safely seated (within acceptable risk) in the same cabin as a dog.
    Now, if the dog was visibly misbehaved, there is a documented policy concerning the removal of that animal and passenger. Similarly, if a passenger’s health is a potential safety concern, there is also a policy in place for that passenger’s removal.

    If the passenger is not allergic but is saying she is to get increased attention, this opened her up to being the greater risk on the flight, and as such her method clearly backfired. If she’s truly allergic, the airline rightly should’ve removed her for safety reasons, but I agree she should’ve been reaccommodated. If she wasn’t truly allergic, I suggest “that dog is clearly misbehaving” or even “I don’t really like dogs, do you think someone would trade seats with me?” instead of defaulting to “I’m allergic!”

    Note: I work in hotels and restaurants and, after years of making special accommodations for “allergic” customers who in truth just don’t like the thing, I may be a little bitter. I’m NOT accusing this specific passenger of lying about a medical condition to get increased attention. It is however something I see people do as a near-daily occurrence, and something that has caused major policy changes in my industry.

  34. It sounds like her comment of “I hope we don’t have to make an unplanned stop” was viewed as a threat that she might cause drama on the flight and force an unplanned stop.

  35. I cruise about every 6 months. Just came back from a Royal Caribbean Jewel of the Seas 14 day relocation cruise from San Juan to Europe. About 2000 people and 15 DOGS on board! DO THEY REALLY HAVE TO GO TO THE MEAL SERVICE WITH THE PASSENGER?! I love dogs, but this is too much. Never saw a dog on HAL or Celebrity. Is this something new or just this cruise line?

  36. The emotional support animal phenomena needs to be stopped by the airlines; the sooner the better. They are not legitimate service animals; please, airlines, put a stop to it.

  37. These so called “emotional support animals ” has gotten out of control. Pigs,cats, dogs, turkeys, it’s a zoo. How in the world did they manage to fly without their animals in the past? Well, they did and the airlines have let things get out of control. As an employee of an airline, I agree with this female passenger. She needs to find another airline who will appreciate her concerns and business, try Delta! Because American had become to big and unconcerned with their passengers and their employees!

  38. In Australia a service dog has to attend a 6-12 month training course away from its owner at a cost of over $12,000.

    Airlines in the USA should require proof of completion of this – and a letter from both a medical specialist and the passenger’s employer listing the disability requiring a service dog to be on board.

    In the absence of both proof of training and proof of disability, both the pet and the passenger should be flown in a crate in the hold.

  39. Support animals are total Bull Shit! If you can’t fly without an animal…take the bus! Flying is not a right. It is a form of expedited travel. One day, an airline will put passengers ahead of the politically correct nonsense. As someone already noted, peanuts are now a no-no because of allergies. Sometime in the future, an airline will realize that animal induced allergies can have an adverse effect on passengers and punt the fur balls off the plane. The sooner that day comes, the better for the flying public. :p

  40. What a terrible story and anyone can just make up what they want with airlines having nothing to defend.
    Just because she has status doesn’t make it ok to make such statements anyways.

  41. NC, as an airline employee, you need some basic ADA training. Only service dogs for the disabled are protected by the ADA. “Comfort” and “therapy” dogs are not protected by the ADA and the decision to accommodate them on public transportation is up to the carrier.

    Malthus, according to the ADA laws and regulations, asking for documentation for a service dog is not permitted. A service dog is not required to wear a vest or have a special colored collar or leash. Only two questions are permitted to be asked under the ADA: “Is the animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained been trained to perform?” Although most service dog owners carry documentation, any place of public business or public transport requiring documentation is in violation of ADA regulations and could be fined or sued.

  42. I agree with Take Away that most service animals are pets. I Amin the hospitality business and I have only seen one or two that I felt were true service animals. It is not fair to those who are allergic to animals.

  43. I’ve *never* had a bad incident myself, been flying for 50 years. But between constant news of inappropriate escalations and all the stories about dealing with customs, we’ve decided to take a driving vacation this year, not flying at all. (we typically make 1-2 international trips per year and 1-2 domestic. And with so much noise about American, I’ve shifted almost all my spending from Citi AAdvantage (Executive World Elite) to Chase Sapphire Preferred. The Chase card is probably a better deal anyway, but the idea is to cast my consumer vote and decrease revenue to American. (I’m assuming they get a cut from Citi)

  44. I travel with a letter from my pulmonologist regarding my asthmatic condition. Hopefully it grants me a little more priority over an alleged comfort animal.

  45. @Arcanum says:

    “I’d love to see someone with PTSD from an animal attack file a complaint saying they require an emotional support animal-free cabin.”

    That would be pretty ironic if it was a soldier’s PTSD support dog. 🙂

    But seriously, true service dogs cost thousands of dollars or require some sort of financial aid. It would be easy for airlines to require documentation ahead of time like a bill or aid statement along with a letter from the foundation that trained it.

    I doubt most owners of “therapy” dogs (excluding PTSD dogs) could provide this kind of documentation.

  46. I had no idea my allergies were covered under the ADA. This is good to know, because I think that means when an airline refuses to reseat me (or kick the emotional support dog off the plane), they’re violating it. I have no issue with service animals, my issue is with pets people bring on, and that airlines seem to have decided the medical condition of those people (psychological need to be near their pet or some such) is more important than my medical condition, severe dog and cat allergies.

    I hope this woman gets some better treatment from American, or is able to change airlines.

  47. Another example of the media piling on with a negative story about airlines and their employees! Quit your bitching! Walk a mile in their shoes! We see endless stories of airline problems since the guy was dragged off the plane in Chicago! How many of these stories are really newsworthy?

  48. I thought most airlines had a protocol where the airline can make notes when someone with an animal allergy is flying, so that they can arrange for proper seating of those traveling with pets. Certainly there is a system for tracking the animals as most carriers have limits as to the number of dog & cats in the cabin.

    Based on these facts I’d assign 90% of the blame to the airline – they clearly did not do enough to reseat the passenger (e.g. ask for volunteers, which happens all the time) and then played the “security” card after the passenger complained. However they did find the passenger another flight in F so I’m not sure there was much more they can do if there were no more flights with lie-flat seats.

    I’d assign 10% to the passenger – this was not her first rodeo and if her allergies are that problematic then she should be calling the airline at least 24 hours before the flight to see if there are animals on board, and then again checking at the gate. Once you are on the plane it is difficult to fix anything as we’ve all seen from recent events.

    Finally I agree with Nick the fake service animals need to go. DOT needs to get tough and start requiring people to apply for licenses and impose significant penalties for the fakers, that would curb a lot of this nonsense.

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