Woman Dragged Shrieking Off United Express Plane… and All She’d Have Needed Was a Fake Doctor’s Note

This video is mocking, but I think it’s really sad. Via Matthew a woman allegedly “wouldn’t put her growling dog in its carrier, got belligerent with the flight attendant” and so the United Express plane returned to the gate. Cops removed her from the flight, and she put up a flight. You can hear shrieks. The man traveling with her takes some time to decide whether to follow her off the plane.

Police come onboard to remove her and she went crazy, hurling profanities and initially refusing to get up from her seat until she received a full refund from United for her ticket.

She proceeds to call the cop a “louse” for touching her dog and warns she is going to sue “the country” for the incident.

The thing is, all she probably needed was a letter from her doctor that this was an emotional support animal, given her reaction to the situation that might not even have been far from the truth.

We have a really strange bifurcated system now where you have to pay ~ $150 each way to take a pet on board and they have to remain in a carrier throughout the flight. But call that same pet an emotional support ‘service animal’ and they can come out of the carrier and don’t cost anything.

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 prohibits airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities, and thus they must make reasonable accommodations for them which allow them to fly — like having access to their emotional support animals. While in theory they don’t have to allow any animal that would be disruptive to the flight, there’s legal risk in a flight attendant or even captain making that decision on the spot.

If the facts prior to the start of the video are as alleged the airline would probably be fine — especially since an individual cannot sue the airline directly over alleged violations but rather must complain to the Department of Transportation (the 10th and 11th circuit federal appeals courts have ruled, consistent with the Supreme Court’s Alexander v. Sandoval, that there’s no private right of action for violations of the Act since such isn’t explicitly provided for in the text of the statute).

Still, this extreme example aside, it’s quite easy to get oneself and one’s pet certified to bring on an emotional support animal. You just need a doctor’s note.

There are companies that sell registration of emotional support animals, but that doesn’t really get you anything, you still need that doctor’s note.

I’ve taken my Yorkshire Terrier on many flights, usually when visiting family, but he fits just fine under the seat and simply goes to sleep for most of the flight. He gets a thorough walk before and after, and I’ve tried to time flights with his usual nap times. Other passengers remark at the end of the flight when he comes out from underneath that they didn’t even know he was there.

Have emotional support animal claims gotten out of control? Are people taking advantage? What should be done about it?

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. The whole emotional support animal thing is a SCAM. The law needs to change. Why would this woman need an emotional support animal? what she needs is medication.

  2. As a dog lover I can understand wanting your pet to go with you on a trip or maybe even needing to for relocation reasons. But this lady needs more than an emotional support animal. She was rude, demanding, wouldn’t listen to the flight crew or even the police. She should be banned from flying. What if she acted up mid-flight or tried to open an exit door, or…..

    As a sidebar since when did so many people need service animals? It is getting to be like the entitled that obtain disabled license plates to park near the door or get special treatment when they don’t have true mobility needs (and no I’m not talking about those that really need it).

  3. @Robert–good point! Does the person who is flying with the animal “trump” the person with the allergies? If so, can the person with the allergies leave the aircraft and be put on another flight at no charge? Or should the person with the allergies be moved to another cabin, ie, Biz or First? If there is no “next flight” that day, will the airline pay for accommodation for the inconvenienced passenger?

  4. I am allergic to cats so I understand Robert’s point. I can be inside the same plane and be ok but if I’m sitting next to that woman in coach then if have a serious issue with it… Especially if the cat isn’t in the carrier.
    As for the woman, she resisted authority after security told her to leave. What happens? She will be dragged off. Glad to see this happens to anyone who resists authority after being warned and informed.

  5. I also have very bad allergies to pets. The ACAA claims that the airline must accommodate both the allergic and the emotionally disturbed. However, I have had to be moved versus the person with the animal. I have spoke to the folks over at the DOT and they say more people need to write and complain. The DOJ which administers the ADA does not provide for emotional support animals while the ACAA does. Makes no sense that one department has more lax rules than the other. But that’s our government for you.

  6. In an effort to appease both those that hate fake dog and cat support animals and those allergic to real dog and cat support animals I offer you to fly with my hypoallergenic emotional support Florida alligator, Bruno. Since emotional support animals don’t have to be caged, you can turn Bruno loose and he should quickly clear the flight of those other pesky support animals.

  7. This whole thing has become absurd, and clearly violates the spirit of the law.

    I really don’t like dogs. Yet I won’t know until I board that I might be stuck next to one. So now I might need to de-plane?

    And please spare me the analogy comparing dogs to smelly people, children, etc. Whenever debating this issue, someone always points out that you can be stuck in a seat next to a screaming infant, or someone with BO, or someone that won’t shut up. All true. But Animals and people are not equal. We should accept people, and be tolerant. But that doesn’t extend to pets. Put’em in the hold, or leave them home.

  8. I’d love for you to do a serious piece, Gary, about what those of us with allergies can do, both when the immediate situation presents itself and longer term. We never know until we board a plane that we’ll be subjected to an animal next to us or directly beneath our own seat. I have asked to move and been told no because the flight is full.

  9. @Rosie S – first of all, different animals entail different (or no) allergies. For instance, I have terrible allergies. To most everything. Which is why I have a yorkshire terrier as my dog, their hair is much closer to human hair, they just don’t cause allergies in many people at all. in fact, my yorkie has allergies but pretty much no one would be allergic to him.

    I say “first” because the first thing is to understand what the issue is (or isn’t).

    On a full flight, during boarding, an airline isn’t likely to be able to accommodate a seat re-assignment. But they’ll often be able to switch you to a different flight to accommodate the issue. That’s an inconvenience to you, sure, but it’s away to travel without the allergy most likely as it’s very rare that you’ll be seated near the source of an allergy on consecutive flights. most flights don’t have any pets onboard at all.

    Your best bet for changing seats though is always going to be trading with another passenger. And if you’re someone who has a reasonable likelihood of needing to change seats, the best thing to do is have reserved a desirable seat. An aisle seat is going to be very tradeable for a middle seat!

  10. Actually, she doesn’t need a doctor’s note at all. It’s illegal for a company to ask for proof. All they can do is ask if its a service dog & if it is, then it’s considered to be legal in any business in the US.. If you declare it as a service animal, that’s all. They can’t ask about what disability you have.

    http://www.ada.gov/qasrvc.htm

    They only thing they can do is ask the following questions:

    • Is the dog required because of a disability?
    • What task or service has the dog been trained to do?

  11. @Samir I’m not a disability lawyer of course but I’ve seen airlines ask. Bring the letter. Although I do believe it’s the Air Carrier Access Act that’s relevant here rather than the ADA.

  12. Posting this will likely get some pet lovers ire at me but so goes it
    Let s not forget the woman who took a 300 pound pot bellied pig named Porky on board a US Airways flight back years ago in 2000 pre 9-11 for emotional support mandated by her Dr.
    The thing okay oinker started pooping in the aisles and running wild throughout coach when the plane tried to land. Apparently it panicked in landing mode and otherwise was well behaved in First Class throughout the flight.
    FAs refused to clean up after it. Can u blame them? Disgusting
    Pig also refused to eat Roast pork tenderloins or bacon when dinner was served which is fully understandable

    No pets on board period no exceptions except for the legally blind end of story IMO
    Where does it stop? We have support pigs, dogs,cats Bruno the alligator, Rodney the elephant Tony The Tiger, Magilla Gorilla and self entitled folks who value their pets over people
    Mostly because they can’t relate to human beings just animals that will listen to their utter sad nonsense and wag their tail happily. Pets are wonderful but they aren’t a replacement for human beings but for those that cant relate to the human race I get it. Better than nothing
    What they really all need is a year with Dr Phil
    My sister fits this bill as much as I love her but she does have one bit of common sense
    She will never take her dogs on a plane ever for fear of them being mistreated.
    She will drive cross country with them if she has too or hire someone
    But they are happy to put up with her nonsense as long as they are loved fed well and well taken care all of which to her credit they are
    I salute her even if she will never have a husband over dogs
    At least she and the dogs aren’t in peoples faces posing as normal seat mates infringing on the rights of others allergies fears or otherwise
    http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=95217
    See you on board with my 2 emotional support Pit Bulls soon
    No worries they are truly like wimpy poodles as I raised them really well 😉 🙂

  13. I probably am going to sound like a character in a Lee Child novel, but this emotional help dog issue really has gone too far. It’s not only airplanes but restaurants as well. Before you string me up, I am open arms to seeing eye dogs, well trained aids that always seem to be on best behavior. Yes, I do believe it has come to making people jump through hoops to get these passes which seem to be about as difficult to obtain as a library card. Please let FiFi enjoy the time away from you.

  14. Y’all are missing THE most important issue in this story:

    Did UA process the next two people on the upgrade list into the empty seats?

    If not, WHY not? (I would call shenanigans!)

  15. Suppose I convince my doctor to give me a note saying I have PTSD from a previous dog attack. Can I then demand the airline not carry any in-cabin dogs on my flight? Would my BS doctor’s note trump theirs?

  16. A couple of clarifications:
    — Samir’s note is correct on the matter of service animals, but service animals and emotional support animals are two different things. The former must perform a function that the human owner cannot (this is usually a seeing eye dog). The woman here would not have been able to justify calling it a service animal.

    — Tim echoes the widespread belief that that the ADA allows emotional support animals on both airplanes and restaurants. It does no such thing. Service animals are allowed in restaurants, but emotional support animals are accorded no such right. Tim would be well within his rights to complain to the management of any restaurant if someone brings emotional support Fido into a restaurant

    Also, one question: my understanding is that airlines must accommodate emotional support animals, but only if they remain in the owner’s lap or under the seat. They may not roam free. Is my understanding correct?

  17. @Gary – from the rules: http://airconsumer.dot.gov/rules/382short.pdf – verbal assurances are okay, as long as they are “credible”

    (1) Carriers shall accept as evidence that an
    animal is a service animal identification cards,
    other written documentation, presence of
    harnesses or markings on harnesses, tags, or
    the credible verbal assurances of the qualified
    individual with a disability using the animal.

    I only know this because we run into it all the time at my work.

  18. A couple of clarifications:
    @Samir — you are correct in describing the rights of service animals, but service animals and emotional support animals are two very different things. The former performs a function that cannot be performed by its human owner (this is usually a seeing-eye dog). The woman in the video would have a very tough time explaining what service function her animal was fulfilling, as she would be required to do under ADA.

    @Tim — You highlight the widespread belief that emotional support animals may be brought into restaurants or pretty much any other public space. Nope. Emotional support animals are covered by ACAA and the Fair Housing Act. Nothing more. The next time some restaurant patron brings emotional support Fido to the table, you have every right to complain. Local health codes trump the patron’s emotional support issues.

    P.S. I might be wrong, but I believe ACAA mandates that emotional support animals may be brought on to a plane but must remain either under the seat in front of the owner (which didn’t exist in this woman’s case) or on the owner’s lap and must not cause disruption which, reportedly, this woman’s dog did. So a doctor’s note wouldn’t have been much help.

  19. How can a service animal (or any kind of animal, btw) be allowed to travel in someone’s lap? If I must stow anything larger than a tablet during take off and landing – and the rule applies to people as well, as they have to have their seat belts fastened – why doesn’t this rule apply to service animals?

  20. I found this online: https://ntl.custhelp.com/app/ask

    I just sent this letter:

    —————————————

    I am writing today to submit feedback on the well-intentioned, but severely abused rules codified in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) that require airlines to allow passengers to bring dogs and cats onboard an aircraft.

    Someone with an ADA-recognized disability, such as blindness, clearly has a well-defined and legitimate need, and uses a well-trained dog. However, this notion of a “emotional support animal” is absurd and abused. Passengers may follow the letter of the rule, but clearly violate the spirit. You need to tighten the rules.

    Passengers simply need to search online for “Emotional Support Dog” to receive links to dozens – maybe hundreds – of services that will register your dog for a fee. It is as little as $59! The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) include things like:

    * Are there any restrictions? NO.
    * What kind of training is required to be an Emotional Support Dog? NONE.
    * Is there any application? NO APPLICATIONS AND NO DOCTORS NOTE NEEDED.

    Websites clearly support this sham, going as far as providing links if your personal healthcare professional will not participate in the charade: “(you will need) A letter from your therapist, psychiatrist, or other licensed mental health professional that prescribes or endorses you to have or obtain an emotional support animal to ameliorate the symptoms of your emotional, psychiatric, or mental disability. If your therapist is unwilling to write a qualifying letter of prescription for you to obtain an Emotional Support Animal, or if you don’t currently have therapist, click here to obtain a letter of prescription from a licensed mental health professional.”

    This is not a victimless problem. Those who utilize this scheme create uncomfortable situations for those around them, who may be allergic to these pets, or can also be afraid of these pets. And it’s not the perpetrator that is impacted; it’s the victim that needs to accommodate! It is the victim that needs to give up their seat and relocate, or the victim that might need to wait for another flight.

    I cannot imagine reasonable people objecting to service dogs for those with ADA-recognized disabilities. Please consider adding that requirement that only service animals for ADA-recognized disabilities be allowed into the passenger compartment.

  21. Thanks for writing this Gary! I have traveled with my cat (she’s a hypoallergenic one BTW!) and have had insensitive comments voiced like the ones posted here in regards to my animal. That’s even when I followed policy and did not take my animal out of it’s carrier on the plane. I have ALWAYS been willing to move if my seatmates objected, and have even changed seats from first class to economy to avoid issues. Thank you for helping me defend myself further!

  22. @Gary – I’ve been reading for a few years now and never knew you had a dog, much less traveled with one sometimes!

    Interesting reaction among commenters. There are some strong feelings here on both sides, though I feel there’s perhaps an entitled group who simply don’t like pets on planes (or other entitled people), whatever the reason.

    I certainly hope those with allergies do complain to the DoT, though, as they quite simply should take priority over anything short of a service animal.

  23. @jamesb2147 – I’ve mentioned him only a couple of times over the years though he’s been a member of the family for 13! (he’s an old little fella :).

  24. I went here to post a note to the DOT, and would encourage you all to do the same.

    https://ntl.custhelp.com/app/ask

    Here is my letter:

    I am writing today to submit feedback on the well-intentioned, but severely abused rules codified in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) that require airlines to allow passengers to bring dogs and cats onboard an aircraft.

    Someone with a ADA-recognized disability, such as blindness, clearly has a well-defined and legitimate need, and uses a well-trained dog. However, this notion of a “emotional support animal” is absurd and abused. Passengers may follow the letter of the rule, but clearly violate the spirit. You need to tighten the rules.

    Passengers simply need to search online for “Emotional Support Dog” to receive links to dozens – maybe hundreds – of services that will register your dog for a fee. It is as little as $59! The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) include things like:

    * Are there any restrictions? NO.
    * What kind of training is required to be an Emotional Support Dog? NONE.
    * Is there any application? NO APPLICATIONS AND NO DOCTORS NOTE NEEDED.

    Websites clearly support this sham, going as far as providing links if your personal healthcare professional will not participate in the charade: “(you will need) A letter from your therapist, psychiatrist, or other licensed mental health professional that prescribes or endorses you to have or obtain an emotional support animal to ameliorate the symptoms of your emotional, psychiatric, or mental disability. If your therapist is unwilling to write a qualifying letter of prescription for you to obtain an Emotional Support Animal, or if you don’t currently have therapist, click here to obtain a letter of prescription from a licensed mental health professional.”

    This is not a victimless problem. Those who utilize this scheme create uncomfortable situations for those around them, who may be allergic to these pets, or can also be afraid of these pets. And it’s not the perpetrator that is impacted; it’s the victim that needs to accommodate! It is the victim that needs to give up their seat and relocate, or the victim that might need to wait for another flight.

    I cannot imagine reasonable people objecting to service dogs for those with ADA-recognized disabilities. Please consider adding that requirement that only service animals for ADA-recognized disabilities be allowed into the passenger compartment.

  25. My goodness what hissy-fits have been thrown today! And how much time did it take you to craft that letter Mr. Mike? Seems to me you would have better spent your time checking out how use your miles for Delta’s private jets (http://www.deltaprivatejets.com). Because with the sense of entitlement you have that’s the only way you are going to be satisfied while flying.

    I don’t care much for dogs either. I especially hate doppler-effect screaming infants, foreigners who have no idea they have BO, drunk people who talk too loud, seat kicking kids and those stupid little bags of peanuts. But at least I have sense enough to know that I can get an attendant to move me if the situation is unacceptable.

    Note to Gary: Please keep on taking your precious little family member (13 years-congratulations!) with you while you fly. And to those who have no clue of what PTSD is like on a day to day basis, I hope you never have to find out. Otherwise you’ll end up like myself and have to carry YOUR cat on the plane too!

  26. @Mike: For an ESA, American requires a letter from a qualified mental helthcare profession, stating you are being treated for a disability recognized by the DSM. So does every airline.

    An ESA trumps anyone’s allergies and that person can be reaccomodated.
    There is a high percentage of people who see psychiatrics and therapists. You are just seeing the logical extension of the Air Carrier access act

    My solution is to travel first class internationlly on a US airline. The paperwork for getting a dog into another country is substantial. Rabies titer exams have to be sent to Kansas State. Forms have to be overnighted and approved by FDA
    If the animal is unruly, they get kicked off the flight

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