Passenger Kicked Off American Airlines Flight After Asking Not to Be Seated Next to Large Dog

Here’s a story from my Facebook feed this morning. It comes from a woman who flies American Airlines regularly (she’s a top tier Executive Platinum member). And she’s the kind of customer American likes.

  1. She regularly buys first class tickets.

  2. If she buys an economy ticket, and it looks like her upgrade won’t clear, she buys up to first.

I think it’s fair to say she’s allergic to coach. In fact she may even qualify for an accommodation under the Air Carrier Access Act: she needs an emotional support seat up front!

However she experienced a situation that highlights one of the perverse things wrong with air travel today, and with American Airlines customer service.

She purchased a business class ticket Miami – Los Angeles on their Boeing 777-300ER with international lie flat direct aisle access seats. It’s a five and a half hour evening flight, and she wanted to ensure she flew up front.

Upon boarding, a passenger seated in the row behind her got on “with a rather large dog” who she says “tried to jump on” her.


American Boeing 777-300ER Business Class

She says she’s “allergic to animals” and asked a flight attendant for help getting re-seated. They offered her another seat in the back of the cabin, but there was a dog in the seat next to that one too so she declined.

That’s when she had an unexpected problem.

I said to a[.. flight attendant] that I hope we don’t need to make an unplanned stop to which she replied “we don’t want that to happen” I replied that I didn’t want that to happen either.

I returned to my seat and did my best to shield myself from the dog.

A few minutes later the [gate agent] came up to me and said that I had to get off the flight. I thought he was joking but when I realized that he wasn’t, I complied as I know the FAA rules concerning crew member compliance.

As I disembarked, a few of the [flight attendants] were applauding and cheering because I was being removed.

Although there were still two more Miami – Los Angeles flights last night, she didn’t get to her destination. Instead she was on a flight this morning on a narrowbody, not the lie flat seat she purchased.

There’s not a lot you can do if you have an allergy and you’re seated near an animal onboard. I offer 9 tips for planning to deal with pet allergies onboard.

It seems to me though the the crew should have handled this differently from the get go.

  1. If a dog isn’t being well-controlled in the cabin, the owner shouldn’t be allowed to fly until they demonstrate that it can be properly managed. I’m somewhat sympathetic to disability claims here, I also think that if someone is going to fly then they ought to bring an emotional support animal that fits under the seat and doesn’t try to jump on other passengers. At the same time, someone concerned about animals may misinterpret such an action.

  2. The crew should have done more to try to reseat the passenger. I think it’s fair to announce, “a passenger in business class has an allergy to dogs, is there anyone willing to trade seats with her?” Maybe there isn’t, but American could have made that effort.

I’m ultimately fine with animals on board, provided they are well-controlled and behaved and airlines need to be better at accommodating passengers with allergies too once there’s a conflict.

At the point that the crew wasn’t going to handle the situation, once the passenger mentioned the potential to divert I can understand concern. It shouldn’t have gotten there but an airline reasonably doesn’t want to risk flying with a passenger that’s contemplating needing the aircraft to stop mid-flight.

I wasn’t there and we have only the passenger’s version of the story. However applause from crew over this passenger’s removal is mortifying. It’s clear that she is sincere in her telling, she believes this is exactly what happened. Yet American advised her that she is “due no compensation” but that they “hope to see [her] on another AA flight.”

She’s clearly a good, valuable, frequent customer. She’s not a novice traveler who doesn’t understand the rules (I can separately attest to this). She let American know that she was mortified and embarrassed by a situation on their flight, not just inconvenienced. American should be bending over backwards to make this right to her because she’s made it clear that this incident is highly significant to her, an inflection point for her as a customer of the airline. Their response to her was tone deaf and has her questioning her loyalty to American.

I think there are lessons here beyond the treatment of one customer as well.

  • We’re seeing increasing conflict onboard between passengers over emotional support animals. Whether airlines like it or not they need to become better at resolving these conflicts.

  • There are many great crew out there, but largely they’re great by virtue of their own commitment and personality. Handing out big raises won’t in itself change the culture, and for the most part US airlines have allowed themselves to forget that they’re a service business.

  • Airlines have been too generous with compensation at times in the past. That was a matter of explicit policy, like United (prior to being taken over by Continental) deciding it was better to pay out vouchers to complaining customers than maintain the interiors of their aircraft. However customers who represent significant income streams need to feel like their voice is being heard, and it’s in the airline’s financial interest to make sure that happens.

US carriers — and not just American — would be wise to listen to this woman’s story not because it’s beyond reproach (it was probably unwise to mention a potential diversion!) but because she’s a profitable customer speaking clearly about what’s important to her. And businesses ultimately make money by providing their best customers who are willing to pay the prices asked with what they actually want.

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. Miami – LA in first – I can imagine the entitlement on all sides here – dog owners and the passenger.

    esa needs to change.

  2. The comfort / emotional support dogs are a problem everywhere. I see them in baskets at grocery stores. I mean really? This is insanitary. Before you go crazy with hate mail, I have two dogs myself and am a health care provider. I clearly understand service dogs for blind, deaf, other disabilities. As someone else stated there are medications for psychiatric conditions and anxieties, so take them. The comfort dogs are frequently poorly trained, do jump on people, do make messes etc and this whole thing is out of control. Further is it a real slap and disservice to the disabled with genuine trained and working service dogs. Who minds a real well trained quiet service dog who sits quietly and is completely obedient vs a nut job dog who is comforting someone by jumping on others, barking, seeking attention or messing on the floor

  3. My son travels often on business, is anaphylactic allergic to cats, and has been very polite if ever encountering a seat partner with one. Most times, he’s able to switch with another passenger, but I can only imagine, shudder to think what could happen to him if not. It’s a very serious problems, for airlines to find a balance to suit everyone.

  4. I can not imagine that a flight crew would “applaud” as a passenger left the aircraft. They would be fired. Contrary to the media blitz on flight crews attitudes , they do not applaud when someone is removed. They may look very relieved, but do not applaud. If there is concern that someone is not able to make a flight due to illness, it is always best to err on the side of the passenger’s safety and remove them, rather than delay care in an emergency. It takes approximately an hour and a half to get someone to emergency crews on the ground for care if in flight. There are only limited emergency supplies on an air craft to support a doctor or medical situation.

  5. Side note on Emotional Support Animals: It’s not an issue of training. There is *NO* training required. It literally just requires a letter from a Psychiatrist, Therapist, or Mental health social worker type. The letter has to be “current”. Which usually means within a year or two timeframe, and on official letterhead.

    @David L. – You are wrong regarding the emotional support animals. They are covered, and an airline *IS* required to accommodate a passenger who has one. Their hands are tied. As long as the documentation is legit, they can be sued if they refuse, and they will lose.

    Another Side Note: Right now, there are two big reasons for the proliferation of Emotional Support Animals. The first one is obviously the pet policy on airlines. As I mentioned before, I’d have no problem paying for an extra seat so I can bring my Basset Hound certain places. I’d even go for the entire row if necessary. I will not put her in the cargo hold, and my revulsion to this is increased even further after the United Rabbit debacle. Bad airline policies regarding pets, has helped spur the growth of ESA’s. I see the loophole, and I will use it. The second reason, and this is one that people may not be aware of – Is that if you rent an apartment, the landlord is required by law to waive any pet fee’s. Also, if the building in question don’t allow pets or dogs – They (again by law) are required to allow yours. Retail businesses, still have the ability to block ESA’s at their discretion. These two carve-outs exist pretty much just for airplanes and rentals. I’m not sure if they also apply to hotels, since I’ve never looked into it. (Those few times I travel with my dog, I just find a pet friendly hotel, and pay the extra fee.)

  6. I don’t live in the US, and when reading stories about how “emotional support animals” are given preference over passengers with (at times life threatening) allergies I am flabbergasted. So, someone who could die from an allergy is second to a passenger who wanted to bring their pet. Obviously, the issue is not about real disability animals that are properly trained. The problem isn’t with the airlines but with this particular law, and the culture leading to this law.

  7. The problem here is not essentially the ESA but American’s total disregard for their loyal flyer. Of course they should have looked for an alternative solution. And if they couldn’t find one on that flight they shroud have shown their loyalty to her by offering some loyalty gesture, not money, but points or an upgrade voucher.

    Whilst it is right that the airlines have to take ESA passengers and their animal, surely they can limited the number in each cabin.. There are limits to the numbers of passengers needing oxygen that will be accommodated on any one flight, why not the same with animals?.

  8. You lost my sympathy by stating that dogs should be placed under the seat?! Service dogs are generally labs and shepherds for a number of reasons. Also “small” dogs at times could be puppies in training and need to be exposed to varied settings.
    AA staff could have been busy and pressured before take off although clapping was unwarranted. That should have been left to the passengers. At my advanced age I would rather be seated next to a dog than a human in any conveyance.

  9. I know too many people that do not have an emotional support need but use that to get their dogs on board with them regardless of their size. That’s the first process that needs to be evaluated. People with real service dog needs are the ones that will ultimately lose out here.

  10. This person is an FAA inspector and should have asked for another flight, instead of causing havoc and possible delay. She knows better.

  11. When is the insanity with people and their pets going to end? Oh I know: when someone dies in flight or gets seriously attacked by pets that aren’t trained like service animals. Once again, when almighty buck enters the picture.

    American: Take heed or you’ll get the press that United recently got.

  12. I have had dogs for over 40 years but feel this emotional dog issue has gotten out of hand. The person with the dog or other animal should have a letter from a mental health clinician which states the mental illness by number as stated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual which is the accepted classification for mental illness. If the person needs the dog for other specialized reasons such as epileptic seizures, the letter must come from a neurological specialist not some GP. The same standard would apply for each reason an animal is needed. I read one report where there were 10 dogs in plane. What happened to the rule of two dogs per cabin? If someone wants to bring an animal on board and there are already two reserved, it seems that third person would have to find another flight. I can’t begin to imagine the smells in a cabin with 10 dogs.

  13. Does anyone question the accuracy of this ‘allergic to economy’ rich lady’s statement? How many dogs are there in the business class? It’s possible that she feels that nowhere in the business class can be far enough away from that one dog. It’s hard to imagine that the attendants would applaud upon her removal. And if she exaggerated this, is it possible that exaggerated or omitted some important details? And even if the attendants really did clap hands, why would they be so happy?

  14. When ALL ES animals are required to fly First/Business with their owners you will find out how emotionally supportive the animal is.
    Smaller cabin, fewer passengers and more room would be suitable for all ESA’s.

  15. Dear Ms. Grossberg, you’d rather fly with dogs than humans, eh? Well, I can assure you that the feeling is mutual. We’d rather you did too. Heck, I’ll go further and hope that your pilot is a dog too. Happy Travels.

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