Service Dog Denied Permission to Board an Airplane? Yeah — When Pigs Fly! Oh, Wait a Minute…

“A xel, a heroic service dog that saved the life of one of our nation’s brave warriors and had just been named Service Dog of the Year at the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards® during a star-studded, nationally televised gala at the Beverly Hilton, was denied permission to accompany Captain Jason Haag as they were about to board the airplane for home.”

That is the first paragraph from this press release from the American Humane Association, which claims that despite reportedly following the requirements of American Airlines which state that to show that an animal is a service animal and that at least one of the following criteria must be provided…

  • Animal ID card
  • Harness or tags
  • Written documentation to verify the service, psychiatric or emotional support status of your animal
  • Credible verbal assurance


…and that a harness and vest clearly identified him as a service dog, Axel was allegedly denied entry aboard the airplane.

“At the time of boarding however, an American Airlines representative began to ask additional questions, including questions about his disability and demanding additional documentation”, according to the aforementioned press release. “An airline representative later stated to American Humane Association’s legal counsel that Capt. Haag needed to have a medical alert card, which is not in fact a requirement.”

I have my own questions and thoughts — but let us first review what I had posted numerous times in articles such as this one:

Only two questions may be asked by employees of an airline — or of any other company, for that matter:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?


When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, an employee of an airline or other company cannot do the following actions without violating federal law:

  • Ask about the nature of the disability of the person
  • Require medical documentation
  • Require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog; or
  • Ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task


…but the two permitted questions may be more than enough in some cases to have determined whether or not a dog is a legitimate service animal.

Even if a dog is considered a legitimate service animal, an employee of an airline or other company could still have it removed from the premises if the dog is considered:

  1. Out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it; or
  2. Not housebroken


If what the content of the press release alleges is actually true, then the employee of American Airlines violated federal law — specifically, the Air Carrier Access Act, which was passed by the Congress of the United States in 1986. It was designed to prevent discrimination by commercial airlines — based both within and outside of the United States — against passengers on the basis of physical or mental disability.

The official definition of a service animal — according to the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice of the United States pertaining to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA — is as follows:

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

This definition does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of “service animal” under the Air Carrier Access Act.

Some State and local laws also define service animal more broadly than the ADA does. Information about such laws can be obtained from the State attorney general’s office.

“American Airlines issued an apology today, and American Humane Association is calling on them and all airlines to better train their staff to meet the needs of our nation’s brave veterans and others who require the help of a service animal”, continued the content of the aforementioned press release. “American Humane Association supports both our two-legged and four-legged veterans and believes we must all stand up for all those who serve our country and help and defend those in need. There should be no room and zero tolerance for discrimination against these heroes.”

While I believe there is a lot of superfluous puffery in that press release that tends to border on being dramatic, I generally agree with its message; but let us assume that Axel is indeed a legitimate service dog — and I have no reason to doubt that statement — how is it that an airline employee can question the legitimacy of Axel; but a pig being passed off as an emotional support animal can board an airplane with no questions asked?

Moreover, the official stance of the American Humane Association does not address those passengers who are passing off their pets as emotional support animals simply to transport their pets free of charge without relegating them to the cargo hold — a problem which has both simultaneously denied revenue for the airline and created an environment aboard the airplane which can be uncomfortable to some fellow passengers in terms of noise, allergies and other issues.

One example of this increasing problem is that of a woman who was escorted off of an airplane last month because her dog was unruly; and you can witness her behavior for yourself in the video embedded within the article.

In order to rein in this issue — pun intended — owners of dogs may face a penalty for passing off their pet as a service dog in the state of Florida on or after Wednesday, July 1, 2015, as all 112 members of the Florida House of Representatives who were present unanimously voted for the bill, which is worded as follows:

Service Animals: Requires public accommodation to permit use of service animal by individual with disability; provides conditions for public accommodation to exclude or remove service animal; revises penalties for certain persons or entities who interfere with use of service animal; provides penalty for knowing & willful misrepresentation with respect to use or training of service animal.

The penalty could include jail time; and perhaps laws such as this one are needed to put the bite on impostors posing as emotional support animals.

Additionally, airline employees need to be educated on the differences between a service animal — typically a dog but could one day include orphaned parrots, crows and ravens — and an emotional support animal, which could include just about any animal that is accompanied by no more than a note from a doctor and a phony certification.

Lawmakers, airlines and organizations such as the American Humane Association need to collaborate on creating fair policies towards laws to ensure that those passengers who need support animals while traveling be allowed to do so as comfortably as possible without fear of discrimination; but also without leaving loopholes to allow for abuse of the system — flagrant or otherwise.

  1. I feel bad for everyone in cases like these. Airlines made the mistake of raising animal fees, so people responded by claiming more animals as service (whether they are or not). Most agents are aware of the 2 questions, and even beyond that, know that there are people who cheat but there isn’t much that can be done about it as the questions / ADA/ ACAA constrain them. As a result, situations like this happen which cause true pain and frustration for someone when agents are annoyed.

    I believe the solution is to create a national serivce animal ID (or state or doctor administered) similar to a handicap driving tag. This would respect the individuals right to privacy, while respecting airline’s request not to be taken advantage of.

    1. I agree, Noah.

      Could the source of the problem be the greed of some of the airlines and their fees? Perhaps it is the selfishness of some passengers? Maybe it is a little of both and some other factors thrown in?

      To me, it seems like a solution which could be viable if the parties mentioned in the article would just get together and take some quality time out to thoughtfully create fair policies and procedures — perhaps a national service animal identification, as you suggest — and I cannot imagine that it would really require that much time or resources to do so…

  2. A tricky question even before Noah raised the possibility that cheating scoundrels seek to stiff the airline of their dog revenue, which can only lead to unravelling the network of ancillary fees and surcharges that play so important a role in profitability. So the cabins will shortly be littered with ersatz service dogs. But what about people whose disability is emotional, who are simply terrorized by prolonged proximity to any sort of dog, especially while in an aluminum tube at 450mph six miles high? Who decides who should suffer?

    1. That is a good question, Mike — and I have another question which I posed in this article…

      …if fellow passengers have allergies to animals, should they suffer? Do passengers with emotional support animals have more rights than allergy sufferers — even if those allergy sufferers have notes from their doctors?

      The Canadian Transportation Agency had been ordered by the Federal Court of Appeal to reconsider a ruling imposed on August of 2013 which required Air Canada to separate dogs from passengers allergic to dogs in its airline cabins on airplanes, finding that there was no significant evidence for the ruling and done without consideration to the argument from Air Canada that a less intrusive remedy could be found:

      Apparently courts decide who should suffer in an airplane…

      …and to stray to another topic, then there are peanut allergies:

      These are only a couple of many contentious issues pertaining to who has more rights aboard that cramped aluminum tube at 450 miles per hour six miles high, Mike

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