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American Airlines

Army Veteran Sues American Airlines Over Service Dog Incident

Army Veteran Sues American Airlines Over Service Dog Incident
Joe Cortez

Decorated Captain accuses airline of “verbal assaults”; alleges agents asked, “What service does [your dog] provide?”

A former captain of the United States Army is taking her complaints against American Airlines to court, claiming the airline would not allow her to board her aircraft with her service dog in tow. In a lawsuit filed in federal court, Lisa McCombs is suing American, regional carriers Envoy Air and American Eagle, as well as regional carrier ExpressJet for $75,000 in damages over an alleged incident with the airline in October 2015.

According to the lawsuit, McCombs was honorably discharged from the Army at the rank of Captain after tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. After her discharge, the decorated soldier was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was assigned a service dog. The animal is trained to sense when a panic attack is coming and move close to McCombs to distract her from a panic attack.

When attempting to fly with American on October 15 from Manhattan Regional Airport (MHK) in Kansas to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) with her service animal, McCombs claims she was denied boarding on her aircraft by gate agents. While waiting for the security area to open up, McCombs claims an agent came up to her and asked in reference to her dog: “Are you trying to fly with that?”

In the lawsuit, McCombs claims the situation was escalated to a local supervisor, who claimed that the flyer did not have “documentation in the system” for her service animal. After being handed off to another department over the phone, McCombs says she was given two options: continue on her flight and book her service dog as cargo, or resubmit her documentation for the animal and be rebooked in two days.

During the episode, McCombs claims customer service agents verbally accosted her, asking questions like, “What is your disability, anyways?” and “What service does [your dog] provide you?” After McCombs suffered from a PTSD attack during the episode, the lawsuit claims police were called to assist the gate agent but did not get involved in the incident.

Over the next two days, McCombs claims she was repeatedly denied boarding by airline agents in MHK and ultimately purchased a ticket on Delta Air Lines before being accommodated by American. In DFW, she claims she was ultimately embarrassed by American agents who met her at her aircraft with a wheelchair and identifying her as a “disabled veteran.” Now, she is asking the court for restitution on multiple counts for her experience.

A spokesperson for American told the Army Times they appreciated McCombs service and the senior manager of military and veteran programs reached out to discuss the situation. They did not comment on the lawsuit.

View Comments (5)

5 Comments

  1. robsaw

    November 1, 2016 at 9:54 am

    As much as I sympathize with anyone suffering from PTSD, all passengers boarding with assistance animals should be required to present certified assistance animal documentation to the airline with an appropriate medical certificate for the passenger.

  2. kulflyer

    November 1, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Meanwhile I had to sit next to someone who has a pig as a comfort animal. Really.

  3. ScousePete

    November 1, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    According to the ADA only dogs and minature horses are classed as service animals. At least you didn’t have one of those sitting next to you!

  4. AsiaTraveler

    November 1, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    It is my understanding (via a friend with a service dog) that asking, “What service does your animal provide?” is a legal and legitimate question. Whereas asking, “What is your disability?” is not legal.

  5. Dubai Stu

    November 2, 2016 at 9:09 am

    This isn’t a service animal. It is a support animal. Service animals provide some other service beyond emotional support, e.g. smelling the presence of peanuts, seeing guidance for the blind, etc. A support animal provides comfort and support to someone suffering from a psychiatric condition. Here is American Airline’s policy on support animals:

    https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/special-assistance/service-animals.jsp

    Her counsel is attempting to pidgeon hole the dog into the service animal category by claiming that when it senses that the Plaintiff is emotionally distressed, the dog moves in close and distracts her. Complaint, Par. 13. This sounds like a strain and would effectively make all support animals into service animals.

    The key is that you can demand documentation for support animals and have less ability to confirm with service animals. That is why their attorney is trying to force fit the animal into the service animal definition. My cat will often sense when I am upset and come over and roll by my feet and let me scratch him. Thus, my cat would clearly qualify as a “service animal” using that strained definition.

    Counsel is treading on her veteran status to expand the definition. I don’t like American. Its employees are unhappy and I don’t doubt that there may have been an ugly tone, but Judge “Dubai Stu” would be inclined to toss this complaint. I’d let her do some discovery and hope that American’s counsel dug into the training certificates of this dog because I would bet you that the Army’s certificates called it a an emotional support animal.

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