In more than 30 years of traveling, Sue Martin had never run into a problem flying with a guide dog. That changed two weeks ago, the Maine woman said, when American Airlines removed Martin and her dog from a flight to California.
Martin, a Franklin resident who has been legally blind for decades, said she, her husband, Jim Martin, and her guide dog, Quan, were flying from Bangor to California on March 1 and landed at Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C., after the first leg of their journey. At Reagan, they got on a connecting flight headed for Dallas and almost immediately encountered problems.
The Martins were assigned bulkhead seats, which on many planes offer more leg room. But on the plane they were on, the seats were more cramped than other rows on the flight, and in trying to get Quan situated at her feet, Martin said, she stumbled and fell, hurting her hip.
Martin, 61, asked a flight attendant if she could be moved to a seat in another row that would allow Quan to lie in the floor space in front of the seat. The flight attendant refused, Martin said. When she asked again, the attendant told Martin to return to the terminal and talk to a ticketing agent.
The ticketing agent told Martin that she couldn’t change her seat assignment and refused when Martin asked if she could upgrade to a first-class seat with more room, saying it was against airline rules for guide dogs to be in the first-class cabin. Martin said that having flown for years with several guide dogs, she knew that wasn’t the case because it would amount to discrimination against someone with a disability.
When she reboarded the flight, a man in first class offered her his seat, Martin said. She took the offer and settled in with Quan. That’s when another American Airlines employee got on the plane and told her she had to leave.
He asked to speak with her on the jetway, where she was told that her “‘presence on the plane is not safe,’ or some stupid thing,” she said.
Martin went back to the plane to gather her belongings. Her husband asked the pilot, on their way out, why they were being kicked off the flight.
“‘Because I can,’ ” was the pilot’s reply, Martin said.
AIRLINE REVIEWING ALLEGATIONS
In response to a request for an interview about the incident, an American Airlines spokeswoman sent an email that said the airline takes “all disability complaints very seriously and we are thoroughly investigating these allegations.”
The airline did not directly address the incident, instead providing a link to its policy on service animals, which begins with a statement that they are welcome on all flights and there are no additional charges for those traveling in the cabin.
The policy online has some restrictions on service animals on flights, saying they must fit on the lap, at the passenger’s feet or under their seat, and cannot block the aisles or sit in exit rows. There is no listed restriction forbidding animals in the first-class cabin.
The airline’s actions may have violated the federal Air Carrier Access Act, which bars discrimination against people with disabilities who travel on airlines with service animals. According to the law, service animals must sit on the floor, and if the service animal can’t be accommodated at a passenger’s assigned seat, “you must offer the passenger the opportunity to move with the animal to another seat location, if present on the aircraft, where the animal can be accommodated.”
American Airline’s policy says, as does the federal law, that the airline requires an animal ID card, harness or tags or a passenger’s “credible verbal assurance” that the animal is a service animal.
Martin, who has had five guide dogs since she was 28 years old, said Quan was wearing a Seeing Eye harness and the leash also had a Seeing Eye logo on it, although one of the airline employees referred to the German shepherd as a support dog, not a service or guide dog.
In a blog post written after the incident, Martin said she told the employee that Quan was a guide dog, not a support dog, but was ignored.
The Martins were rebooked on a United Airlines flight out of Dulles International Airport and had to pay $80 in cab fare to get there. They ended up arriving in California eight hours later than intended.
Martin said she went ahead with her plans – delivering a talk on adaptive technology at a conference – and seeing some family members, but dreaded the flight home the entire time.
“It pretty much ruined my vacation,” she said. “I’ve never been so humiliated and traumatized.”
Martin said she filed two complaints with American Airlines and one with federal transportation authorities. The airline, she said, called to say that they had looked into the incident and determined that the crew acted properly.
The employee in charge of the investigation of her complaint was the same person who told her she was being removed from the flight, she said.
SUPPORT DOGS VS. GUIDE DOGS
Martin has been blind since a suicide attempt when she was 26. She works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she is a manager in information technology. A native of Alabama, she and her husband previously had lived in Maine and were thrilled last year when they got the opportunity to move back. She has written books about surviving suicide and living with a disability.
Nicholas Guidice, a professor of computing and information science at the University of Maine, said people trying to fly with their dogs as “emotional support” animals are a growing problem for those using service dogs because people may abuse the designation to bypass restrictions on animals on planes.
But Guidice, who is blind and typically flies eight or nine times a year, said he’s never heard of someone encountering the problems that Martin had to deal with.
“There’s some push-back (from the airlines) because people are trying to sneak dogs in,” he said, but it’s against the law to discriminate against people with guide dogs. American Airlines’ own rules say passengers flying with a support animal need to submit medical documentation of the need ahead of time and get prior approval, which is not the case for guide dogs.
Guidice also said the airline’s contention that it couldn’t move Martin to a different seat doesn’t make sense, and he was heartened to learn she had filed complaints.
“This is not only unacceptable, this is against the law,” he said.
Martin plans to pursue her complaints, but said she didn’t seek out the attention.
“At this point in my life, I’m all about our nice, quiet life and keeping life simple and stress-free,” she said.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: