Let me start this by saying that not ALL airlines are troublesome about flying with a service dog. When I flew on United, they could not have been more polite, and they were very helpful.
Continental was quite the opposite.
We flew cross country to visit my parents. This was my first flight with a service dog, so I’ll admit I was a little nervous. After all, Hudson highly disliked and feared trains; how would he react to something even bigger and noisier?
I was expecting some trouble with Hudson. I was not expecting trouble with the airline – after all, they are a major corporation in a field that regularly handles service animals. I thought they would be well educated on the rights of a service dog handler. My mistake.
Things started going wrong the day before our flight. I called Continental and told them that because of my disability, I required a seat in a bulkhead row, and needed one for my care assistant as well. I was told that they weren’t available, but under section 382.38 (A) (3-4), the airline is required to have such seats available to PWDs. ABs in those seats are to be moved if necessary. So, strike one.
When we arrived at the airport and went to check in, Hudson was wearing his harness – a large, bulky leather harness that bears some resemblance to a horse’s saddle, with a handle sticking up from it and patches on it that clearly lable him as a service dog. According to the law, this should have been enough evidence that he was a service dog. Instead, I was also asked for an identification card, and when I showed that, I was further asked for a letter from my doctor! Now, in the case of an emotional support dog, the airline does have a right to ask for a letter from the person’s doctor. HOWEVER, in the case of a dog who assists with a physical disability, the airline does not have any right to any medical information. The Air Carrier Access Act requires that personnel be trained to be able to “distinguish among the differing abilities of individuals with a disability.” Now, to me that sounds like they should be watching for signs of what the person’s disability is. A large supportive harness like that and a girl leaning on it most of the time suggests a physical disability, no?
Anyhow, I informed her that she had no right to such a letter, and she called over her supervisor who agreed that such letters were only needed in the case of emotional support dogs.
We went to our gate, and then I realized that I really ought to take Hudson somewhere to do his business before the flight. I had forgotten when we checked in. So I asked the gate agent if there was somewhere that I could take my service dog for that purpose. The gate agent told me I had to go back out to the entrance of the airport, let my dog do his business, and come back through security. This, too, may have been incorrect, though I did not know it at the time. The resources I’m seeing online seem to contradict each other on whether or not I had a right to a relief area nearer to the terminal.
A minor nuisance – Continental boards its frequent flyers before PWDs! The reason to board us the very first is that we often are slower and more awkward at getting our things put away and ourselves set up for the flight. Some of us need more space to maneuver. About 1/4 of the passengers were already on the flight when we got on. Quite counter to the purpose of having us on first!
So then we got on the plane. After the service cart went through, I went to the galley to ask if I could get some more to eat. I was starving. She gave me a sandwich, and went looking for the other item I asked for. When she came to my seat to give it to me, she informed me that my service dog had to remain at my seat if/when I got up and moved through the aisle. Um, NO. WRONG. An emotional support dog would have to, but I have a right to have a dog who is supposed to physically assist me with me at all times. It is for my safety, after all. To be completely honest, I was too shocked and upset to fight with her right then.
We get off the plane to make our connection in Houston. As we rushed across the airport to get on our second plane, we were stopped by the gate agent and once again asked for a letter from my doctor! When I explained that I did not have one and they had no right to ask for one, the gate agent called her superior and asked if they needed a letter for an emotional support dog. Now, why she decided Hudson was an emotional support dog, I do not know. She certainly didn’t ask me! Nor did she pay attention to the fact that my boyfriend was lugging all of both of our carry on luggage, and I was leaning on the dog. I of course corrected her, and her superior once again agreed with me, so we were let on to our flight.
Now, if only ONE of these incidents had occurred, I would have brushed it off as ‘shit happens’. However, this cluster of things happening feels far too much like a problem with the corporate culture to me.
So I called to complain about the treatment. I was told by the customer service person that it was their standard operating procedure to ask for a doctor’s note. She said that because they had not, in the end, prevented me from boarding, they did not believe there was a breech in service. So sorry that I was upset by the whole thing, of course.
I do so hate when people tell me that they did nothing wrong and are sorry I was offended. No. Placation tends to make me furious. Which is to say, the chat with customer service is the point at which I ended up really mad.
The flight back was much better. We were on a different airline, United, which was ever so much better. Hudson’s harness was accepted as enough proof that he is a service dog, which is as it should be. They told us when we checked in that we ought to have told them we have a service dog…because we would have automatically been put in seats that have more room, like bulkheads, and they would be more ready to assist us. We were asked if there was anything they could do to make our flight better. The gate agent even changed our seats on the second flight to the bulkhead row! If it doesn’t have too much effect on the price of my flight, I will definitely choose to fly United from here on out!
As for Continental, well…I am considering filing a complaint with the proper authorities, and will do so if I am dissatisfied with their internal management of my complaint.