Last year Army veteran Lisa McCombs was waiting with her service dog Jake to board an American Airlines flight home, something she'd done many times before. Lisa suffers from PTSD and Jake is able to calm her anxiety and panic before it overwhelms her. However, this time an airline agent approached her in the boarding area and asked "in a condescending tone, 'ummm, are you going to fly with that?" He began repeatedly interrogating her, believing that she was faking a disability. The agent wouldn't accept her email as proof that Jake was a service animal. He said that Lisa could pay $125 to have Jake shipped in cargo or could resubmit her documentation and book a flight two days later. The agents' tone was so harsh that strangers started scolding the agents and comforting her. Humiliated and stressed, Lisa was ultimately not allowed on the flight with Jake
To make the situation worse, when Lisa cursed in frustration, the agent called the police to arrest her. Since American Airlines wouldn't compensate her for lodging, the officers offered to take Lisa to a shelter.
The next day Lisa booked a new flight with an American Airlines agent who assured her that she'd be able to fly home that day with Jake. The agent noted in the airline computer system that Lisa would be traveling with a service animal. This time Lisa also printed out her documentation that confirmed that Jake's status.
However, the nightmare wasn't over. When Lisa arrived at the airport, she was met with more hostility from another American Airlines agent. He claimed that her paperwork couldn't be confirmed because the doctor's letter was missing a date and Jake's graduation certificate had to be dated within the previous year, both which are not actual requirements to fly with a service dog. Lisa was forced to miss yet another flight.
Desperate, Lisa was about to turn to a different airline when a woman from American Airlines' corporate offices booked her on a new flight and assured her that traveling with Jake would not be a problem. Finally Lisa was able to board, but during the layover in Dallas she says, "an entourage of American Airlines representatives came onto the bridge pushing a wheelchair, while loudly calling out so that all could hear, 'we have a disabled veteran, excuse me, a disabled veteran, we are looking for Lisa McCombs, a disabled veteran." Again Lisa was embarrassed and mortified. She didn't need a wheelchair, though the representatives insisted on escorting her through the airport in one. She finally arrived back at home two days later.
American Airlines' Military and Veterans Programs has since tried to rectify the situation, but this was such a harrowing ordeal for Lisa. I can't imagine that she could ever forget.
She is now filing a lawsuit against American Airlines, and their regional subsidiary, Envoy Air, for their breach of contract and violation of the American with Disabilities Act and disregard of her rights. She's asking for the airline to compensate her tickets, legal fees, and medical treatment.
Lisa developed PTSD after her four years in the Army, touring in Iraq and Afghanistan. When she was honorably discharged in 2009, she had reached the rank of captain, and had received multiple awards for service including the Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Campaign Star, the NATO Afghanistan Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
Not only is this a serious issue for Lisa, but also for countless others struggling with this illness. Unfortunately there are many people trying to pass off their pups as service dogs to get them on planes, but that's no excuse for airline employees to treat people disrespectfully. The Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that PTSD afflicts 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan and 20 percent of the veterans of the war in Iraq. Those numbers are astronomical. Many people with service animals are not in favor of a registry that would prove status, but with growing numbers of service dogs, airlines need to be sensitive while working under the current laws in place. I hope no one else has to go through a situation like Lisa's.