An Open Letter to American Airlines:
I’ve always enjoyed adventure and new experiences and have, thus, flown many times with my five Seeing Eye dogs. Over more than thirty years I’ve developed a system that works quite well in terms of ensuring both I and my dog are safe, comfortable, and out of the way during a flight. I’ve also learned to advocate for my needs and decline unwanted and misguided offers of help.
When my husband, Jim, and I checked in at the gate of American Airlines flight 327 departing Reagan National, DCA, on March 1, 2017 bound for Dallas they gave us bulkhead row seats. Some bulkhead row seats do have more leg room than regular seats but not all. Visually, at least to some people, it looks like there’s more room but this is not true in all cases. This particular airplane was one in which there was very little room in the bulkhead row. There were about twelve inches between the front of the seats and the bulkhead wall. It wasn’t enough room for a dog and three adult humans.
In dismay I tried to get my dog out of the way so the rest of the passengers could board the flight. Taking off his harness I spun him around and tried to back him into the row. In the process I fell and injured my hip on the armrest of the seat. Frustrated, and now in pain, I waited for a lull in the passenger traffic, trailed the overhead bins with my hand, and walked forward to where the crew stood. I asked to be reseated and they told me regulations required me to be seated in the bulkhead row. I reiterated there wasn’t enough room and asked if I could temporarily sit in the row behind the bulkhead row just to get my dog out of the way so the other passengers could board. The crew said this was not an option.
I asked what it would take for me to be reseated in a regular row in which I could tuck my dog out of the way, under the seat in front of me. The crew told me I would have to go back in the terminal and ask the gate agent to reseat me.
Again, trailing the overhead bin with one hand, I returned to the bulkhead row and harnessed my dog. I made my way back up the jetway and crossed to the approximate location where I recalled the gate agent was located. When I asked to be reseated I was told it was a “rule” I had to sit in the bulkhead row. I asked if there were any seats available in first class and was told it was “against the rules” for a dog to be seated in the first class cabin.
Again, in dismay and now feeling completely helpless and out of options, I directed my dog back down the jetway and reboarded the plane. On my way through the first class cabin a man offered me his seat and, after telling my husband of the offer I gratefully sat down.
I had been sitting quietly in first class for about ten minutes when a man approached and asked me to come into the jetway with him. I asked him why and he stated he didn’t want to have a personal conversation in a public place. I harnessed my dog and directed him to the door of the plane. Before exiting I asked the man who he was. He told me he was a supervisor so I gave the forward command and exited the flight.
The supervisor told me I had to leave the flight and, upon asking why he informed me the crew had decided I was a threat to the safety of the flight.
He then went on to inform me that American Airlines knew all about the rules for emotional support animals.
At this point I interrupted him and asked why we were talking about emotional support animals,told him I was blind, and that my dog was a guide dog. I reboarded the flight and sat down.
Five minutes later another man approached and told me I had to leave the flight. I informed him the only way I was leaving the plane was if he physically removed me. For five minutes this man stood beside my seat, bullying me into leaving the plane. I gave up, stood, and harnessed my dog. Then the full import of getting kicked off the plane hit me and I began to cry. American Airlines was casting me into a strange world I could not see. I was going to be stuck without any help, without my dog’s food and supplies, totally alone.
Of course Jim left the flight with me and on the way out the door he asked the pilot why his wife had to leave the flight. The pilot’s reply was, “Because I said so.”
My husband and I both left the plane and the supervisor took over. He escorted us to a service desk where we were rebooked on United to complete our trip to San Diego. Unfortunately this flight left from a different airport and it required an $80 cab fare to get to the other airport.
I spent the entire time we were in San Diego terrified about the trip home. If American Airlines could kick me off a flight on the way out what would they do on the way home? Then the nightmares began. Although terrified during the entire thirteen hour trip back to Maine I did my best to remain calm on the outside. We did make it home safely.
And now the fallout has begun.
I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so violated, traumatized, and terrified. Most unfortunately I must travel for my job and American Airlines has the only direct flight to the DC area. I was with my husband during the whole sorry business on March 1 but what happens when I’m alone next time?
Has our culture devolved into one in which it is perceived as perfectly all right to bully and attempt to shame our most vulnerable citizens? Have we become a culture in which it is acceptable to violate Federal law with impunity? Shame on you, American Airlines.