It would have been poor customer service, the agent said, to have asked the animal to move.
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This week, officers forcibly removed a woman from Southwest Flight 1525 after she told the airline she was allergic to dogs. Two were on her flight: Southwest Airlines Communications Senior Advisor Chris Mainz says one was an emotional support animal while the other was someone's pet. The passenger asked that the animals be removed. Instead, Southwest decided to remove her.
"We are disheartened by the way this situation unfolded," Mainz tells Tonic. "We publicly offer our apologies to this customer."
Apologies, sure. But a policy change? No. If you're allergic to dogs, cats, or any other animal on your flight and you make the mistake of telling the flight attendant, Southwest says you're the one who's got to go.
Passengers with allergies hear this a lot. I'm allergic to cats and in 2009, I flew JetBlue for my first and only time. I saw a lady at the gate who had one, so I politely asked the gate agent if the cat could either be checked or stowed as far away from my seat as possible. JetBlue refused to let me board. Never mind that I was a human who had paid for my ticket; it appeared the cat was more important. It would have been poor customer service, the agent said, to have asked the cat to move.
I tend to disagree. But what do I know? I only wanted to get a service I'd paid for and to be able to breathe.
Fortunately, JetBlue has a different policy now. According to a spokesperson from their corporate communications department, "If you have challenges with animal allergies, you can be moved and re-seated away from any animals traveling." That's good to know. If you insist on bringing your cat the next time I fly, I humbly request that you fly coach. I'd love to be "re-seated"—far away in first class.
More seriously, though, when you have a real, live person who will get sick because of an animal, why can't airlines just move it? Where do "pets over people" policies come from?
Federal law, as it turns out. According to the US Code of Federal Regulations, which is a sort of handbook for how federal government agencies operate, §382.117 says airlines "must permit a service animal to accompany a passenger with a disability." When asked how Southwest defines "service animal," Mainz did not reply.
Regulation §382.117 doesn't clearly define it either. But the federal government does outline the evidence an airline is allowed to ask for: Airlines don't have to let support animals on board unless the owner can provide documentation from a licensed medical professional that's less than a year old and on practice letterhead. This documentation must also clearly state the following:
(1) The passenger has a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—Fourth Edition (DSM IV);
(2) The passenger needs the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at the passenger's destination;
(3) The individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional, and the passenger is under his or her professional care; and
(4) The date and type of the mental health professional's license and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued.
In other words, "Fluffy doesn't like cargo hold" isn't sound legal reason to keep him on.
To be fair, checking a pet is logistically harder than it sounds. If you've ever been in the last boarding group, you might think airlines can check any carry-on, whether you want them to or not. But an animal is not a roller bag. Some require sedation before going below, and a different type of kennel is also required, says Ross Feinstein, Senior Manager of Corporate Communications at American Airlines.
"We are unable to check pets at the gate," Feinstein says. "Checking pets is a process, and one would have to have the proper carrier, etcetera." Kennels that will keep a pet safe in cargo are bigger than the kind used for carry-ons. Feinstein explains, "Customers who plan to bring their pets in the cabin may not have a carrier of that size." American does not keep spare carriers at the gate.
But as someone who has to huff a rescue inhaler when you bring Fluffy along, I have to ask: Why won't you just check him? If you have a seeing eye dog or another animal you need because of a genuine disability, I will gladly give up my clean air for you. Your right to see is just as fundamental as mine is to breathe clearly.
But 15 percent of Americans are allergic to either cats or dogs. That's more than 48 million people. If you carry on a pet because you don't want to pay the checked-luggage fee or just can't bear for you and Fluffy to be apart, you are consciously making the decision that your personal desire is greater than 48 million people's right to breathe.
Dog lovers are some of the most compassionate people I know. So when you decide how to travel with your pet, let that compassion show. Put the animal in cargo.
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