Asthmatic Woman Booted Off United Flight Because of a Cat

Donna Wiegel was flying Baltimore – Chicago last month. She has “a lot of respiratory problems and asthma” and avoids being near cats. She spotted one at the boarding gate. And though she asked the gate agent to seat her as far away from the cat as possible, once on board she discovered she was only a ‘few rows away’ (presumably there were a limited number of empty seats on the flight).


    Copyright: photodeti / 123RF Stock Photo

Crew told her that she was welcome to trade seats with another passenger. That was on her.

She didn’t want to move. She wanted the airline to “move the cat.” But that’s not how this works.

Apparently she “found a new seat” but says she was “confronted by three crew members, who booted her from the flight.”

“I was definitely thrown off the plane. I had no option. I was perp-walked down the aisle,” Wiegel told the news station, noting the crew busted the handle of her suitcase when they pulled it from the overhead bin.

She says she was hyperventilating, “[a]lmost a full-blown panic attack.” Crew were concerned that allowing her to fly would mean an onboard medical issue.

United covered her transportation to Washington Dulles and put her on another Chicago flight. But she’s bitter that it wasn’t the cat (and the cat’s owner) that weren’t delayed.

“The cat got to Chicago in plenty of time,” she told NBC. “He could have gone out for dinner!”

I don’t know whether this woman’s fear of a medical issue was up against another passenger’s emotional disability, or against a passenger who had paid for their pet to travel in cabin with them. Pets are generally allowed on planes in the U.S. so those who want to avoid them carry that burden or cost. A fear of pets, or allergies to pets, doesn’t impose costs on the person traveling with the pet.

In this case I think the United gate agent should have been more accommodating. I’ve been on plenty of flights where gate agents call up passengers to try to accommodate others that wanted to sit together (usually I’m being offered a bulkhead window seat in exchange for my aisle, natch). They could have asked for volunteers willing to trade a less desirable seat that was far from the cat for this woman’s seat.

However once on board, if the woman had remained calm — rather than panicked and indignant — while trading seats, she could have been seated far from the cat which is what she was asking for from the start, and what she felt would solve the issue.

She was ultimately moved to another flight, an inconvenience for sure, because of how she handled the situation.

Here’s 9 tips for dealing with onboard allergens:

  1. Identify whether there’s a real allergy threat. 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. The first thing is to understand what the issue is (or isn’t).


    He’d rather be on the couch at home than under an airplane seat

  2. Plan in advance. Pets in cabin – other than emotional support animals – require a reservation and payment of a pet in cabin fee. Since only a limited number of pets are permitted, most passengers will make this reservation in advance and you should be able to determine if nearby seats have pets reserved (although finding an agent to help you with this will be a trick, hang up and call back, escalate as-needed). Since some pet reservations might not be set up until check-in, ask again an hour from departure so that you’re dealing with the issue prior to boarding (most people with pets will check in on the early side since they’ll need to do so in person to pay the pet fee).

  3. Ask for re-seating On a full flight, during boarding, an airline isn’t likely to be able to accommodate a seat re-assignment, so this is only likely to be possible on flights that aren’t full.

  4. Switch to a different flight. If you find that there’s a pet next to you as a surprise, despite best efforts to determine it in advance and switch seats, the airline may not be able to move you. 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.

  5. Trade seats with another passenger. Your best bet for changing seats though is almost always going to be trading with another passenger rather than getting the airline to help you switch when the plane is full. 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!


    At the DFW D Terminal Pet Relief Area

  6. Fly early in the day. Even if your flight doesn’t have any pets on board there may have been one directly underneath your seat on the previous flight. The later in the day you travel, the more flights the plane will have undertaken that day. Instead, fly in the morning — when the plane is more likely to have been cleaned recently but also when more time has passed since a pet may have been on board.

  7. Vacation internationally and choose your airline carefully. You won’t be able to ensure that there are no animals onboard because an airline policy against pets isn’t going to trump service animals. But airlines based in countries that don’t allow importation of animals, or with severe quarantine restrictions, aren’t likely to have even service animals because owners are less likely to deal with the administrative burdens involved. US carriers don’t generally allow pets (but do allow service animals) on European flights. Choose British Airways or Virgin Atlantic over Air France and Lufthansa which are welcoming of pets.

  8. Prepare to combat allergies. There are plenty of other allergies you may confront during travel, like peanut allergies and other food allergies. Indeed your destination may be a source of allergies (high levels of pollen or other allergens). Know your allergens, have any medications handy (don’t check them), pack your own food as-needed. Book a hypo-allergenic room at your destination.

  9. Weigh the risk and own the solution. You will face allergens if your sensitivity is severe enough, if only because the person sitting next to you may be a pet owner and have dander on their clothes. So you make the best preparations you can to avoid as many allergens as possible, prepare to mitigate any symptoms that develop, and if you find yourself in a situation that’s especially bad be prepared to remove yourself from it and re-route. Ultimately they’re your allergies and you’re going to have to take responsibility for weighing the symptoms against the inconvenience.

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. “Emotional support animal” smh. Western civilization has already started to become a shell of itself. People need perspective. Life is hard. Enjoy the flight, snowflake…and cat.

  2. Other than service animals I am all for banning pets in an airplane cabin. Its becoming more and more common and really its quite silly. They are animals. They don’t need to be in the frickin cabin. I also don’t get why they couldn’t just put the cat in the back of the plane or something until the flight was over. The idea of emotional support animals is just absurd. If you need an animal to make it through a flight then you probably shouldn’t be flying to begin with. I just don’t have sympathy for those people. The woman in this story sounds like she has more issues than an allergy though.

  3. 10. put the health of human beings ahead of animals and/or the people with made up ’emotional support animal’ nonsense.

    i know you’re on the left Gary, but implying ‘fear of allergies’ is something to manage is bs. i am allergic to cats, it’s not some irrational fear that a flight near a cat with recycled air (cat allergens) is going to cause me health problems.

    in the progressive liberal bizarro world, every fringe group, or made up fringe group, no matter how small or ridiculous, MUST be catered to at the expense of the rest of society as a whole. it’s, frankly, insanity.

  4. Many airlines will seat pax with cats ONLY in the last 2 rows. Why didn’t the United FA do this? I’m sure someone in the last row would have been happy to move forward.

  5. I definitely think things have gone too far with animals on planes. I personally know several people who have had their doctor/friends prepare “emotional support” animal documents just so their pets can ride with them in the main cabin. When I challenge them on it, they all say that their pets “calm their travel anxiety”. Well no shit, everyone’s travel anxiety would be “calmed” if their over-loved pet was in their lap.

    I’m not sure how airlines can regulate animals any further without getting major social media heat for it. Which as we’ve seen can really take an airline down a few notches. I would personally put an end to the “emotional support” animal phenom. Too many people have taken advantage of its loose terms. I saw an emotional support Monkey on a flight from Dallas to LAX a few years ago – No joke.

    I remember the days when it was extremely rare to see an animal in the main cabin.

    I think we’ve forgotten that Air Travel is not a right, its a privilege.

  6. aby wrote: “in the progressive liberal bizarro world, every fringe group, or made up fringe group, no matter how small or ridiculous, MUST be catered to at the expense of the rest of society as a whole. it’s, frankly, insanity.”

    I don’t mean to be rude, but are you perhaps commenting on the wrong article? Or on the wrong website? Cats are allowed in airline cabins by the FAA, so if your beef is with “emotional support animals,” then it’s probably misplaced here.

    Also, FYI, I believe Gary has identified himself as a libertarian, so you’re literally as wrong as it is possible to be when you peg him as “on the left.” (Apologies to Gary if I’m mistaken.)

  7. Why do we put the right of a passenger to travel with his or her pet above the right of a passenger to travel without having a severe allergic reaction that could be life-threatening?

    Indeed, we do make accommodations for those allergic to nuts without making them take another flight.

    Not necessarily an easy solution to apply in practice, but perhaps someone with said pet allergy could register as such at time of booking, and any passenger traveling with a pet making a subsequent booking would be advised they would need to book an alternate flight.

    This would require a change in policy (possibly by the airline as well as the government) to require advance notice of a passenger’s need to travel with a pet (whether it be as a service animal, emotional support animal or extra fee companion), but, at least a passenger with an allergy “handicap” would be treated with the same level of concern as any other customer.

  8. Gary is as much of a Liberal as a snowball is likely to spend a week on vacation in Bangkok.

  9. Gary, do you remember the recent photo of the miniature horse “therapy animal” on a plane? There were a lot of questions on reddit about “if a person with horse allergies boarded the plane, who wins?” Which disability is higher on the pecking order of aggrieved groups? Now we know. This wasn’t even a pretend therapy animal, and the animal stayed and the human got the boot.

    Besides that, let me say “dittoes” to the previous commenters’ complaints about the misuse of “support” animals. I was in some national parks last year and it is really getting way out of hand

  10. Simply united could have helped arrange moving passengers around so they were many rows apart. If the woman with asthma then felt is was still a risk she could have left on her own. I am sure we don’t have the detail if the person with Asthma was making a huge deal about it as she was probably annoyed. Fitting too many entitled people in a metal tub including some flight attendants that don’t feel customer service is part of their job is the main issue. If have seen two similar issues on different flights many times and it really escalates when some FAs don’t feel it is their job to help. The ones that are nice and helpful the situation never escalates.

  11. Ps. I have a pet that did travel with me but I never took him out of the bag and followed all the rules. It’s people with pets , kids, large bags, loud cell phones .that don’t feel rules apply to them or not considerate of others around that are the issues.

  12. As someone who has flown with allergies, and has made a request for reseating (and I always “remained calm — rather than panicked and indignant — while trading seats,”) I can tell you its empirically false that the airline would have accommodated her if she’d behaved differently. I say this based on a dozen or so experiences, including one yesterday, that have left me with hives or wheezing. It’s not safe, and the airline employees don’t seem to care, no matter what tone of voice or phrasing I use.

  13. After finding myself seated next to a cat, to which I am very allergic, and itching throughout the flight, I determined the answer was to always travel with antihistamines. The airline doesn’t (or won’t) provide them, and as the other respondents indicate, it doesn’t really care. Perhaps pet-allergic flight attendants would be more accommodating, or at least concerned….

  14. How this should have gone:

    Woman with asthma: Excuse me FA I notice I am next to cat and I have a problem and could you help me switch seats

    FA: Oh I am so sorry let me see what I can do… (go few rows ahead of cat woman )
    Hello, would anyone be willing to move a few rows back I apologize but I can offer a free glass of wine or snack box for the inconvenience.

    (Go a few rows behind asthma woman) Is anyone willing to move a few rows forward I apologize but I can offer a free glass of wine or snack box for the inconvenience.

    (FA give cat woman and asthma woman a free something and say enjoy the flight and glad everything worked out)

    What probably happened Asthma woman-” This is ridiculous I could die someone needs to do something….” FA-” Maam this is a full flight and I can’t help. You can ask yourself if anyone is willing to switch(eye roll and storms off)…. 🙂

  15. its gone too far, we just saw the emotional support pony! miniature horse… a PONY… are you kidding me? dog…cat.. ok i can see that. but a pony? come on people… and if its all about being afraid of flying… and you need this emotional support animal. DONT FLY.

    get real. I was afraid of flying and international and all that. i sucked it up. now i love it. get real. put the pets in cargo. WOOF! GRRRR

  16. Gary your response is rather cold hearted at best and completely tone deaf at worst. While your attempt to alleviate this via your response in number 1 via an assessment of the level of issue that the pet allergy is that is a situation that is both hard for the passenger (Wiegel) and the flight crew to know before hand. So let me give you two words that raise absolute dread with those who have asthmatic issues and pet allergies related to things like pet dander which can initiate it..

    Anaphylactic Shock

    We as internet commentators have no idea of the level of severity of her allergy, and no right to really dig in without the passenger herself opening up. However any service agency needs to be aware of the passenger and insurance risk the above can be. In this particular situation I actually agree with what United did with regards to asking the woman instead to leave the flight. However I don’t agree with your comments and justification.

  17. Why is it that when someone has a peanut allergy the airline will dump all the peanuts onboard yet when someone has cat / dog / other animal allergies they do nothing?

  18. Why can’t airlines have a special section for individuals who bring their pets onboard similar to the old smoking section when smoking was allowed. Now, I realize that they likely can’t do this for emotional support animals because that would be discrimination based on a protected class but for those choosing to bring an animal onboard and pay the fee this shouldn’t be discrimination and would make it much easier or individuals to choose seats and airline employees to accommodate passengers with allergies.

  19. This is simple. Captain is responsible for passengers safety. As soon as the pax indicated they would have a potential health issue, the crew can no longer assure her safety… So she has to go. I’ve seen this with peanuts too…

  20. Shocked that the majority sides with the allergic woman. A passenger paid to take the pet on board (perfectly legal and different from a “emotional support pet”). Why would that passenger who has done nothing wrong be inconvenienced? I know the rebuttal is that the allergic woman has done nothing wrong either so why should she have to be rebooked on another plane/be inconvenienced? But in this case, the most sensible thing was done — rebook the allergic passenger. You’re dealing with more difficultly and the potential for logistical issues if you try and rebook both a pet and its owner.

  21. As an asthmatic who is allergic to cat’s I sympathize with the lady. I probably would have kept my mouth shut and stayed in my assigned seat. Because I paid for that flight and my seat. So I sure would not give up my paid for seat….plus if the airline has to divert because of asthma attacks because of animals on flights. They might change the current policies. I never go anywhere without my portable nebulizer.

  22. clearly the above readers commenting on Gary’s political leanings do not follow him on twitter.

    btw, as a libertarian (real one, not a fake one like crazy Gary Johnson), i can say Gary Leff’s twitter feed is liberal af. snowflake in BKK- no, just an actual SJW snowflake sympathizer. i’d posit that i have been reading Gary longer than nearly everyone here. i remember when there were only 2 bloggers in the travel space…

    emotional support animal nonsense was a bastardization of service animals (of which zero are cats, btw). if i need the emotional support and somewhat unnatural love of my gender neutral dolphin (hey, it’s 2017- EVERYTHING goes, don’t judge), then i suppose the airlines should provide a salt water aquarium to accommodate me- right?!??!

    and, yes, this govt over-reach needs to be remedied. if you’re too fragile to fly without your pony- then you’re unstable af and, thus, can’t fly. done. solved.

  23. What’s the matter, “frequent flyers,” need a safe space away from animals? Or are you guys such unsociable dictators that you can’t handle animals, let alone people. If someone pays for a cat, dog, mouse, horse, or snake to fly on a plane and the airlines allow it, then let the pet on the plane! You animal haters need to learn to stop hating and hypochondriacs need to calm down.

  24. Gary:

    I would add to your list:

    1. Document your allergies. If the allergy is potentially life-threatening, have with you when you travel a doctor’s letter on letterhead stating so.

    2. Failure to accommodate allergic needs (if the allergy is severe) can be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We all have had many flights where peanuts were not served because a passenger had a severe nut allergy that could cause anaphylactic shock. If the airline will not accommodate your needs (for example, through reseating), ask for the Complaint Resolution Officer. Each airline must have one at each location they serve, and the CRO must take action, if possible, to alleviate the discrimination. See,14 C.F.R. Sec. 382.151. The authority of the CRO supersedes the authority of everyone from the airline other than the pilot in command with respect to safety issues.

  25. LoL… “emotional support animals”…. what a crock of sh*t. Precious petals need to get a grip. If they are so emotionally unstable I don’t want to be in the same confined space with them that’s for sure.

  26. “in the progressive liberal bizarro world, every fringe group, or made up fringe group, no matter how small or ridiculous, MUST be catered to at the expense of the rest of society as a whole. it’s, frankly, insanity.”

    So why should the rest of the society (most of which have no problem sitting close to cats) cater to this passenger’s (and your) allergy to cats? And before you continue to make a fool of yourself, educate yourself on the importance of emotional service animals to veterans who suffer from PTSD.

  27. All you idiot whiners are the reason I take peanuts with me on every single flight. And eat them whenever I damn well please. You manage your allergies, they’re not my problem.

    Everyone of you here complaining about ESA’s? In a different context, that might be valid. No-one said ESA. Ko was the first commenter to properly note that it was a paid-for pet. Paid for, within the rules and contractual expectations. Allergy whiner was the problem.

  28. This whole issue burns me up. Obviously those with flippant remarks have never had a serious allergic reaction. Of course the woman was irate; I would be, too. Why should she have to give up her flight, her desirable seat (one she probably paid extra for) or ask others to move? Move the offender–I’m talking to you flight attendants and gate agents. And yes, the pet owner is the offender. If you can’t travel without your pet, then drive or stay home. People who put so much importance on an ANIMAL and put that ANIMAL above a HUMAN have a serious problem and need help badly.

  29. Again…………….AGAIN…………..a relatively simple issue that could have been solved by someone doing their job. Is it really so hard to organize a seat trade? Couldn’t the FA simply assist instead of saying “work it out on your own”. Couldn’t the GA simply put the cat, the cat owner and the allergic lady at polar opposites?

    Any Asian airline would have this relatively minor issue figured out in 4 minutes. Here, it is news, escorted from the plane due to threat of a medical emergency, a ticked off passenger and 9 tips to assist the rest of us in dealing with cats and people who are allergic to the cats.

  30. small dogs and cats last two rows
    Large dogs first bulk head row

    Done No exceptions

    FEE FOR ALL PETS Unless they are SERVICE animals

    ESA can pay a fee ! They are baggage like my laptop (I need it for work)

    DONE NO EXCEPTIONS –

    IF your pet starts to work the cabin then that is the LAST TIME you bring any pet on board.
    DONE NO EXCEPTONS

    We need to STOP making allowances and exceptions for every Tom Dick and Harry. Not every kid in the Baseball League needs a trophy if you are in last place you do not need a trophy for it. Stop caving in to making EVERYONE feel good. They can DRIVE or take their Broom

  31. Most folks calm their anxiety by drinking on board or popping a Xanax or an Ambien or by the use of medical marijuana products. If you are one of those, consider yourself lucky.
    For those whose issues are not helped or whom cannot tolerate any of aforementioned, Emotional Support Animals are a simple, useful tool that allows people the freedom to travel and in many cases, those people are traveling to seek medical attention elsewhere.
    PTSD is real and people who travel with ESA’s aren’t just seeing relief in the air, those animals provide a service when they get to their destination and beyond. Agreed that any and all animals brought on board a plane should behave like a dog on duty. Anything less is not acceptable.

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