Southwest Passenger Complains About Emotional Support Animal, Gets Dragged Off By Law Enforcement

A Southwest Airlines passenger Tuesday evening complained to crew upon boarding her Baltimore – Los Angeles flight about an emotional support animal another passenger had on the aircraft. She claimed a severe allergy.

Now the airline has a problem, right? Two passengers claiming medical needs, and they have to adjudicate between them. They’re between Scylla and Charybdis, as it were, because the Air Carrier Access Act requires them to accommodate passengers with medical needs and there aren’t clear guidelines or safe harbors for handling emotional support animals.

Sure we know most claims are bogus, and the science is suspect even where the passenger claims aren’t. And I say this as someone that has traveled with my dog (under the seat, paying for pet in cabin, though now at 15 he’s too old to travel that way). But the airline faces liability and indeed faces liability either way.

They decided to kick the complaining woman off the flight. Here’s why:

An official from Southwest said that a customer without a medical certificate may be denied boarding if they report a life-threatening allergic reaction and cannot travel safely with an animal on board. They say after explaining the situation, the passenger refused to leave the plane, and law enforcement was forced to step in and removed her.

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. Number one is simply being moved to a seat at the other end of the aircraft.

A couple years ago I boarding a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong where a business class passenger went into the lavatory and tried out items from the amenity kit. She reported that what I assume was the Jurlique face cream was causing her skin to break out. She was removed from the flight. The last thing the airline wanted was a medical diversion. That makes sense to me.

But then the whole situation went wrong. The Southwest airlines passenger refused to leave the aircraft. Southwest escalated a customer service problem into a law enforcement problem. Law enforcement proceeded to grab the woman, yank her and push her off the flight!

During the incident a Southwest Airlines flight attendant makes an announcement telling passengers not to film the incident. Shameful.


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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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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Comments

  1. Why are people not upset at Southwest following this incident the way they were at United following its incident? After the United incident making the news, one would think that Southwest would have better sense than to call law enforcement.

  2. If the woman truly has a life-threatening allergy, I should think she would want to get off the plane ASAP. The dander from the animals would still be present even if they were removed. In an enclosed space like an airline cabin, that dander would be recirculated and her life could have been in jeopardy if she stayed on the plane after the removal of the two dogs. Once again, law enforcement saves a life (proactively).

  3. I think the United incident clearly involved excessive use of force. In the above video it appears that the passenger was given ample opportunity to get off the plane without having the officers remove her. Once law enforcement shows up, it’s over, folks. It makes no sense to argue with them at that point – they are just fulfilling a legal request by the airline.

    Southwest, however, could have handled the situation differently. Without knowing what preceded the video it’s hard to judge.

  4. Ok let’s say this was a blind man with a seeing eye dog. Still a dog right? This lady gets on plane and says the same thing. She is severely allergic. Now I am allergic to dogs. I wouldn’t say severely. I get itchy eyes and such. BUt I am very allergic to perfumes. But I still have to fly.

    This lady didn’t want to sit away from dog. She didn’t want the dog ON the plane. They tried to accommodate her. So what then. Kick off a blind man with a seeing eye dog?

  5. “Art says:
    September 27, 2017 at 11:16 am
    Her entitlement can be summed up by 3 words she uttered: “I’m a professor.”

    If she is a typical professor, then she contributed to the snowflake culture that led to ESAs in the first place — and she should learn to live with the fruit born of political correctness.”

    Art, you clearly know little about academia and your post adds little to the discussion.

  6. and……………….Southwest is apologizing. Reaching out to her. Yep, here come the lawyers and everyone will be happy with a big compensation settlement.

    Lesson: Get over on the airlines by creating drama on your next flight. $$$$$$$$-SMDH.

  7. What are the rules on the airlines about emotional support animals? I don’t know what the rules are about that in the sky, but on the ground in the workplace, “emotional support animals” are not a real thing. SERVICE ANIMALS are the only animals that allowed in the workplace and then they must be either dogs or (believe it or not) small horses. NO OTHER ANIMALS NEED BE ALLOWED LEGALLY ANYWHERE, regardless of purpose. And yet, it seems in airports and on airplanes, airlines seem to put up with it, which seems to create crazy problems like this one. The definition of a service animal also is strict as to what it provides. “Emotional support animals” may be providing just that, but from a human resources standpoint, there’s no legal footing to be had that I know of — though, again, the caveat is I don’t know how this would be applicable to DOT-related situations. In my logical mind (which might just be the issue — I’m trying to apply logic where there can be none), all the airlines would have to do is say “no emotional support animals, only service animals” and apply the legal definition. But they don’t do this. I don’t have a problem with animals on airlines, but my point is that IF they’re creating all these headaches (animals pooping, allergies, lawsuits, etc.), is it worth it? Happy to learn something new about it, but I promise you, from a federal law/human resources standpoint, “emotional support animals” are NOT a real thing (as an aside: all those advertisements for “get your certificate for an emotional support animal” etc., are all bullsh*t, as none of them are legally recognized).

  8. I’m sorry but I sorry from PTSD among other things and the only difference in an ESA and a”working service dog” is training. My dog doesn’t have to be trained because she instinctively knows when I’m upset and naturally tries to calm me down. Working service dogs must be trained to alert for medical or to help someone physically do something. She goes to therapy with me too. So sorry it is a real thing. She was literally prescribed to me. The only paper that I need to legally carry is the one from my mental health professional that says I need her. She is a prescription she is real. National databases are not needed for that.

  9. SICK
    ACCOMODATE THE WOMAN W ALLERGIES……HEEELLLLL
    NO….THERE ARE SO MANY SEATS I FLY LOTS AND YOU COULD TRADE…..
    EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMAL IS NOT A JOKE….YOU HAVE TO HAVE DR DOCUMENTATION.

    SICK OF OBAMA LIBERALS
    MISTREET PEOPLE.

  10. I have an emotional support dog and I also have a statement from my dr. That she is with me for anxiety depression and panic attacks so yes sometimes they are a necessity she is small and gets in no ones way. I keep her sweaters on her to cut down on shedding

  11. Well, most of you need to learn the law. I am the owner of 2 emotional support dogs. A Boxer & a Dotson. After my son passed away unexpectedly & my father 6 months later, my doctors suggested I get animals. The law says that I can rent a apt without being charged a pet fee. Take my animals to any hotel and yes by law they can fly on any airlines. Before you judge u need to know what your talking about.

  12. Yes ES dogs are not considered service dogs. They are allowed in housing and airplanes but not stores or restaurants. In order to fly with your ES dog one is required to have a written letter from a Doctor stating that you need your ES dog to fly. Many of the airlines do not check . Many people fly with ” fake ” ES dogs so they don ‘t have to fly their dogs in cargo. The industry needs to get it’s act together to regulate animals flying as ES and service dogs. Anyone can buy a service dogs vest on line and say they have a service or ES dog.

  13. She just wants money and attention . It looks like she had planned this in advance after watching the video . She acts up more as she sees a phone recording her . What about dogs in the cargo hold . They are sharing the same air being circulated . I hope Southwest uses this argument against her .

  14. As a passenger with allergies what are my rights though?

    Say someone has to bring a dog on board, or in this case multiple. If I claim allergy and voluntarily leave the plane what will happen? Will I get next available flight? What if it’s full. Will I have to pay extra money because of flight change? Will I miss a connection? They need to thoroughly outline the policy. Maybe if there was a guarantee policy in place this woman would have left the plane on her own accord. I’m sorry but the airlines are at fault because they’re pitting two special needs people against each other with no clear plan.

  15. Seems people are firmly ensconced in one of two camps here about ESAs. All this talk about it’s legal so I’m going to do it got me thinking.

    Just because something is legal does it mean that the right should be exercised? I guess I’m thinking of a situation where a passenger has a life threatening medical emergency on board a flight. I believe that it would be legal for a doctor to not assist even if requested to do so by the crew. Should they exercise this right? What would society expect? I know there is not direct equivalency with the situation here it just got me thinking.

  16. The guy who filmed the incident was interviewed by local TV news when the plane completed its flight, and he thought the woman was at fault.

  17. Ok reality is the only legal place other than your own property you can bring your ESA is public transportation. Hotels, restaurants, retail, etc are governed by the ADA which is very specific in regards to Service Animals only. Now most of these businesses are so afraid of the backlash from ESA community that they turn a blind eye. It is too difficult to tell the real service animal from these ESA’s. ESA’s are only hurting the real individuals who desperately depend on their SA’s due to no training for the ESA’s it is making businesses wary of even the real service animals. So sure go to your pathetic excuse for a doctor who makes it so you can take your annoying untrained dogs wherever you want to; but please stop pretending that you are doing this for any other reason than to be able to bring your pet wherever you want and get away with not paying pet fees. And to those duped into actually believing all these ESA crap sorry. I love animals and yes petting and playing with them are comforting I agree; but that does not make them a servicable necessity.

  18. Another reason not to fly Southwest.
    I think there are lots of folks who stretch the limit on “emotional support” animals. A seeing eye dog is one thing, but otherwise there are many adults who might want to consider traveling with a teddy bear or taking a xanax. Personally, I would not want to spend 6 hours in a tiny coach seat next to a dog, unless it is under the seat in front of the passenger.

  19. ’emotional support animals’ are not service animals and there is no law that requires an airline to accomodate them. In many cities, it is illegal to bring pets’ including pets for emotional support, into restaurants, although of course service animals are allowed. This is for good reason: service animals (like seeing eye dogs) are highly trained and therefore impeccably behaved, and assist their owners with basic functions – such as helping them cross the street. They also will have certification, and wear a little uniform so everyone can see what kind of service animal it is and let it do its thing to help its owner.
    Emotional Support animals on the other hand, may (perhaps — the science is murky) make their owners feel better, but do not have to be trained in any way. You can print a certificate online. It has become the fashionable way to avoid paying pet fees.
    It is completely unacceptable for an animal that is not a service dog (like a seeing-eye dog etc) to be around in the cabin. I have seen so many people with their fake “emotional support” animals on flights, and those claims are obviously bogus. They just want their little poodle with them on their lap, and it then comes over to me and starts licking me. Revolting!
    So, the airline could and should throw the person making false medical claims about their animal just to avoid paying the pet fees, off the plane. If it was a service animal on the other hand, it would have had its little uniform – service animals are a regulated thing. In that case, a tough decision would have to be made, about who gets to fly, and it would probably be correct to remove the person with the allergy.

    One way to make people lie about emotional support animals: get rid of all pet fees on flights and hand out free pet bags to passengers at check-in… But of course airlines wouldn’t want to do that and lose the revenue.

  20. @augias “One way to make people lie about emotional support animals: get rid of all pet fees on flights and hand out free pet bags to passengers at check-in…”

    That is totally the wrong way around.

    @augius ” But of course airlines wouldn’t want to do that and lose the revenue.” Someone has to cover the cover the full cost of carrying every pound of weight. Currently, the airlines (within the law) charge the person bringing that weight on board. Can you find anyone disagreeing with that principle? It also has the beneficial effect of incentivising the very person best able to control the weight brought on, to do so.

  21. I don’t see anyone weighing obese pax in at the boarding gate. Surely weight is not the issue here.
    Woman was entitled “professor” (don’t get me wrong, my spouse is a professor and would NEVER use that status to game a situation).
    I love Southwest and fly them more than any other airline. They made the right call, as the woman complaining had no documentation, asked THEM for an epi pen – (really?! you’re deathly allergic and you don’t carry one ALWAYS?!) and clearly escalated the situation for attention. The comfort animal thing may be out of control, but until there are clearer rules and policies about what to do with those who object, I see no alternative to calling law enforcement if a passenger refuses to follow crew instructions. Are the cabin crew supposed to muscle her off the plane?
    Southwest is not the one acting shamefully here.

  22. The Air Carrier Access Act needs revised. Whoever thought untrained ESAs in the enclosed passenger cabin at 30,000 feet was a good idea was misled.
    They interfere with flight and passenger safety. Licensure is a must at this point to separate those with a genuine disability and the frauds.

    Disclosure: My asthma is triggered by an allergy to canine dander. I simply need to breathe. Yes, I have a letter from my allergist. I have been too polite for too long and it has been detrimental to my health.

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