An Open Letter to American Airlines

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 made up a “rule” on the spot telling 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, totally unhelpful, said this was not an option. All of my efforts to work with the crew were summarily dismissed.

I finally 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 location I recalled the gate agent had in the terminal. 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.

These “rules” were all lies but my arguments fell on deaf ears. Again, the crew seemed determined to taunt me with their fake rules. Looking back on it I believe the crew had already decided to kick me off the flight and their behavior seemed targeted towards seeing how far they could push me and how frustrated I would become.

Again, in dismay and now feeling completely helpless, 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 he was kicking me off the flight. The pilot’s reply was, “Because I said so.” The sheer arrogance of this reply staggers me.

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.

 

30 Responses to An Open Letter to American Airlines

  1. Annie C. March 9, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

    Sue, same thing happened to Albert Rizzi. So pissed to hear it and I hope you take this to the Nth degree, they need to be sent a strong message and given severe consequences.

  2. Pam March 9, 2017 at 3:45 pm #

    A friend of mine shared your letter on Facebook. I took it upon myself to share it with another friend of mine that is an Advocate for Person’s with Disabilities & she is forwarding this letter on to her contacts at American Airlines.

  3. Patty Newbold March 9, 2017 at 4:18 pm #

    Boy, that’s not what they say on their website, Sue:
    https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/special-assistance/service-animals.jsp

    They say “Service animals are welcome on all flights. There are no additional charges for service animals traveling in the cabin.” They don’t say you’re limited to sitting in coach, only that your well-trained, clean, Seeing Eye dog can’t sit in the aisle or an emergency exit row.

    They also do not warn, “We may put you and your service animal off the flight mid-trip and book you another flight that doesn’t even leave from the airport we dump you in.”

    Shame on American Airlines! And on that ill-mannered pilot!

    Has he never been around a trained guide dog? Even I, dog-phobic as I am, had no problem with your previous guide dog — and two more — squeezing into my tiny rental car with the four of us full-grown women. They are so well-behaved and so adept at making themselves fit into small spaces. But 12″ x 17″ for your feet, your legs, and your dog when there’s a planeful of seats with under-seat space in front of them? Good grief! That’s not “welcome.”

    The FTC says, “When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence….When the FTC finds a case of fraud perpetrated on consumers, the agency files actions in federal district court for immediate and permanent orders to stop scams; prevent fraudsters from perpetrating scams in the future; freeze their assets; and get compensation for victims.”
    https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising

    • smartin March 9, 2017 at 5:20 pm #

      Thanks so much, Patty, yeah, this was such a complete violation of federal law. And American Airlines is still pretending they’ve done nothing wrong.

      • Cheryl Bloom March 9, 2017 at 8:07 pm #

        I hope you are filing a complaint with American Airlines and DOT. As the spouse of a retired airline pilot and an advocate for people with disabilities who fly, I am forwarding this to my contacts at DOT. This is absolutely beyond comprehensive. So may in flight rules have been violated I cannot even begin to list them.

        I am also a pilot and a former flight attendant. We were not trained to treat anyone the way you were treated. I am disabled now and travel with my service dog. If anyone were to ever treat me the way you were treated, you can bet your sweet a$$, they would not have a job any longer.

        Please PLEASE do not allow this to fester any longer. Please file a complaint with American Airlines and DOT.

  4. Cea Fulco March 9, 2017 at 4:42 pm #

    American airlines should take another look at their guidelines, if , in fact, this story is true. I worked as a counselor for the blind for 10 years and had I been accompanying this blind citizen, more hell would have been raised that American Airlines and a Marine battalion would have been needed to control me. This is outrageous and totally infringes on this persons rights as contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
    I hope I have misunderstood this fiasco. It this actually happened American Airlines should have charges filed against them in Federal Court!

    • smartin March 9, 2017 at 5:24 pm #

      I assure you this is exactly what happened. It happened to me and I have related the true and honest account of the events that occurred at DCA on March 1. Please let me know if you have further questions.

  5. Matt D. March 9, 2017 at 5:51 pm #

    Know your laws. This does not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the Air Carriers Access Act. Citing this always quiets down the occassional uppity untrained staff member.

    • Patty Newbold March 9, 2017 at 6:40 pm #

      Matt, that’s so good to know. Here are two quite relevant items from §382.117 of that law:

      (b) You must permit the service animal to accompany the passenger with a disability at any seat in which the passenger sits, unless the animal obstructs an aisle or other area that must remain unobstructed to facilitate an emergency evacuation.

      (c) If a service animal cannot be accommodated at the seat location of the passenger with a disability who is using the animal, you must offer the passenger the opportunity to move with the animal to another seat location, if present on the aircraft, where the animal can be accommodated.

      Busted!

      And from §382.151:

      (b) As a U.S. carrier, you must make a CRO [Complaints Resolution Official] available at each airport you serve during all times you are operating at that airport. As a foreign carrier, you must make a CRO available at each airport serving flights you operate that begin or end at a U.S. airport. You may make the CRO available in person at the airport or via telephone, at no cost to the passenger.

      c) You must make passengers with a disability aware of the availability of a CRO and how to contact the CRO in the following circumstances:

      (1) In any situation in which any person complains or raises a concern with your personnel about discrimination, accommodations, or services with respect to passengers with a disability, and your personnel do not immediately resolve the issue to the customer’s satisfaction or provide a requested accommodation, your personnel must immediately inform the passenger of the right to contact a CRO and then contact a CRO on the passenger’s behalf or provide the passenger a means to do so (e.g., a phone, a phone card plus the location and/or phone number of the CRO available at the airport). Your personnel must provide this information to the passenger in a format he or she can use.

      And…

      §382.159 How are complaints filed with DOT?
      (a) Any person believing that a carrier has violated any provision of this part may seek assistance or file an informal complaint at the Department of Transportation no later than 6 months after the date of the incident by either:

      (1) Going to the web site of the Department’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division at http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov and selecting “Air Travel Problems and Complaints,” or

      (2) Writing to Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection Division (C-75), 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE., Washington, DC 20590.

      (b) Any person believing that a carrier has violated any provision of this part may also file a formal complaint under the applicable procedures of 14 CFR part 302.

      (c) You must file a formal complaint under this part within six months of the incident on which the complaint is based in order to ensure that the Department of Transportation will investigate the matter.

      Go get ’em, Sue!

      • smartin March 11, 2017 at 11:23 am #

        Thanks, Patty, have filed three complaints through different avenues with American and one with DOT. We’ll see what happens.

        • Michelle H. March 15, 2017 at 10:26 am #

          I hope you get a resolution. A good one. I am terrified to fly with my disabled son because of how we have been treated…. And that was before his service dog. Flying is stressful enough with out extra issues with the people who should be there to help not hinder!

  6. Suzanne Wozniak March 9, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

    I am SO sorry that this happened to you, Sue. AA should be sued for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act protocol and the law!

  7. J. S. March 9, 2017 at 6:41 pm #

    Please consider contacting your Congressional Representative and Senators and have their offices look into this.

  8. Jessica Diaz March 9, 2017 at 8:19 pm #

    This disgusted me. I am not surprised though. Going home from FL at Christmas it was a nightmare. We had to give our school ID’S and got in to a huge fight when they said we had to have the health certificate. They asked what kinds of services do the dogs perform, the weights, and said they need to document every pet on the flight. Love Delta and am just going to pay for them from now on.

  9. Karen Ann Young March 9, 2017 at 9:14 pm #

    Despicable the way you were treated. I’ve shared your letter on both my personal Facebook account as well as my TSE guide dog Jingles’ and diabetic alert dog Maizie’s FB page, The Dynamic Duo of Service Dogdom. I encouraged everyone to share as well, and to tag American Airlines when they do. So sorry this happened to you!

  10. Mary Corbett March 9, 2017 at 10:20 pm #

    Would be a benefit for all to see the pants off them. Just when it looks like laws are there in place to help even the playing field for those who are challenged

  11. Anastasia March 9, 2017 at 10:58 pm #

    This is a blatant and obvious violation of any anti disability discrimination laws we have. If you have the wherewithal and opportunity to pursue it, you could end up with a large settlement.in any case, I suggest you report them through official channels and let hell rain down on them.

  12. William March 10, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    You should all post this to Twitter and tag @AmericanAir and Sue @swmartin. Here’s a shortened link to this post you can use as well: http://bit.ly/2m7VMq5.

  13. Janis Ian March 10, 2017 at 12:42 pm #

    You know, when Crandall headed American it was one of the more forward-thinking airlines out there – and one of the more service oriented. Not so much now. This is disgusting.
    I hope you do sue, and take it as far as you can go. If nothing else, complaints to your local representatives and anyone at American, in writing, by fax, and by email. (Faxes are, imho, hardest to ignore.)
    My then-partner (now wife) and I went through a truly stupid AA thing years ago. We were members of the Admiral’s Club as a “family”. One day, we were told that in order to re-up, we’d have to prove we were married. This was well before gay marriage was legal anywhere.
    I tried to re-up at the club and by phone, and I was told the same thing.
    So… I asked my friend Simon Renshaw if he would take his assistant, Karen, and try to join. Bang. No proof required. Not even a discussion.
    I then sent the entire chain of events to Crandall, my local Admiral’s Club, and my attorneys. I copied everyone I could think of that would be remotely relevant.
    The “rule” disappeared.
    Voices count.

  14. Mary R. March 10, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

    https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/special-assistance/special-assistance.jsp#extraspace this is the link to America airlines special-needs policy doesn’t account for rude attitude and is very vague if you ask me I shared your story on Twitter and hope that this gets around barley so that something in the future can be done and most of all they OU an apology and then some I cannot believe their attitude

    • Cheryl Bloom March 11, 2017 at 10:04 am #

      Hi Mary
      American Airlines policy for service animals and disabled passengers who fly with service animals on board their planes is quite clear. It’s outlined in the Air Carrier Access Act, American Airlines contract of carriage, their online website, company policy, the flight attendants FAA manual as well as the pilots training guidelines and the rules and regulations that all,ground crew, inflight and crew must abide by.

      Yes I am a disability advocate for service dog handlers well versed in the ACAA as well as a former flight attendant. My husband is also a recently retired airline pilot. I have seen too many non-compliance issues with American Airlines lately. It seems to be a culture issue now within the company. It’s too bad. It’s going to bite them in the provervial butt financially.

      Bad press is not better than no press.

  15. Gigi March 10, 2017 at 4:15 pm #

    What a horrible, horrible experience Sue! I am so sorry this happened to you, Jim and your dog.

  16. Paul Ahkolik March 10, 2017 at 6:43 pm #

    Sue, I’m truly sorry that you had such a negative experience with your guide dog. I was under the apprarently mistaken impression that my colleagues and fellow Texans at American Airlines knew better.

    Paul in Corpus Christi.
    United RNO Quickly contractor, Delta RNO DASH contractor, retired.

  17. Shaf Patel March 10, 2017 at 6:47 pm #

    I’ve shared this, and will continue to share it. We are and will hold American Airlines accountable for violating the law and discriminating against a blind passenger who uses a guide dog.

  18. Lisa de Vincent March 10, 2017 at 9:53 pm #

    Sue I have one word -SUE! Go to CNN w/a lawyer only this way can you make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone ever again & Im sure all airlines will pay attention. This is so wrong. I don’t know how those people sleep at night.

  19. Kathy March 10, 2017 at 10:33 pm #

    Wow, you’ve convinced me never to fly with my Seeing Eye dog on American Airlines. That’s awful what happened to you, Sue. I agree about reporting them in whatever way you can. Another thought would be to engage the media on how you were treated. It would be a more highly visible way to share your plight and maybe get some sort of response from the airlines, but it also would put you out there in the public eye in a big way, so not sure how you’d feel about that. I think if it happened to me, I’d be marching myself to a lawyer who advocates for people with disabilities.

  20. Shannon March 11, 2017 at 4:53 pm #

    I’m hearing American Airlines is the most unfriendliest airline to fly on not just for people with disabilities and/or their service dogs.

    Everybody seems to be getting into a hoopla about ESAs which is ruining the ability for legitimate service dog teams access (let alone the fakes; not all ESAs are fakes either, but ESAs aren’t held to a whole lot of standards like service dog teams are). If anybody wants to point out that a guide dog is an ESA they’re really jaded and really stupid.

    Hopefully next year I will start flying with my service dog to mitigate my disability, she is currently in training so she won’t see any flying time just yet and I’ll join the ranks of advocating for service dog rights on the airlines as well.

  21. Sarah Thomas March 12, 2017 at 1:23 pm #

    This is terrible. Another reason not to fly AA. The last time I flew them was over 15 years ago. I was traveling with small children and the flight attendants were rude and unhelpful. Sad to hear that they haven’t changed in all that time. I hope you are able to get some redress.

  22. Wendy Hoechstetter March 15, 2017 at 6:05 pm #

    OMG, this is beyond horrible! I am so sorry you were subjected to this dreadful treatment, and are dealing with the obvious PTSD aftermath.

    They were terrible to me last month, also, and I thought they were going to also kick me off the plane, although thankfully that did not happen. I think that was the first time I flew AA with Sprite, and OMG, I have *never* encountered so much grief! They were demanding his ID/certification/etc., and after reminding them that there was no such thing *and* that they weren’t allowed to require it, I just boarded the plane. I preboard because of pain and difficulty walking whether or not Sprite is with me, but especially when he is.

    That particular day, due to unfamiliarity with the airport parking garage, I’d gotten stuck walking through the garage and a significant chunk of the airport before I was able to find the wheelchair people, and I was in particular agony by the time I got to the gate, just in the nick of time.

    While I was in the process of starting to get settled at my seat, one of the gate agents came on board and said she wanted to talk to me, beckoned me off the plane – and disappeared back up the jetway before I could even make it to the exit, all the way back to the desk, but not before really giving me the bum’s rush. I got up to the desk, and neither she nor the other agent were even willing to talk to me, and tried to shove me off to a corner behind the desk.

    Eventually, a customer service agent showed up, agreed with me, and escorted me back onto the plane – but now we were well into the boarding process, so I had to stand and wait in line, after already waiting standing for a good while for the CSR. And people were now already seated in my row, and I had the window seat, so I had to inconvenience them as well. I was so upset and in so much pain I could hardly see straight.

    That particular plane also had the smallest bulkhead foot area I’ve ever seen. Thankfully Sprite chose that flight to ball himself up tightly for the first time ever, and my seatmates didn’t mind him intruding into their footspace when he did finally decide to unfold.

    To top it all off, in the process of being rushed off the plane, I lost the elastic band that holds my collapsible cane together when I’m not using it. That’s not the end of the world, but it is definitely annoying.

    Even before this, they subjected me to an intrusive interview by phone about my dog when I notified them that I would be traveling with him so that I could get a bulkhead seat, which is my preference. Most of the way through that, they were OK, but finished off by telling me to bring his certification/whatever they called it. I had this discussion with them *then* about why that doesn’t exist and they aren’t allowed to require it, and they blew me off. And this crap *still* happened at the gate.

    Even that interview is likely illegal, because they sure don’t subject passengers who are not traveling with assistive devices to it.

    Thanks for the reminder that I still need to write to them and raise hell. That trip was so hard on me physically that it took me a while to recover and it just completely slipped my mind.

    • Shannon March 16, 2017 at 10:56 pm #

      I know AA has a CSR (well every airline does)

      But what I can’t seem to understand is WHY employees are NOT trained or given a handbook to tell them what to do about people with SDs?! It could go a lot smoother if they did! Why isn’t this part of their standard protocols training?!

      I’m going through a certification program to become an ADA coordinator, I’m surprised airlines don’t have these! I haven’t had the luxury of access issues (if you call it a luxury, its not; I’m just saying I’ve been fortunate) but my dog is an SDiT so we haven’t covered everything yet!

      AA needs to get their act together!

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