Blind Maine woman, guide dog booted from flight over seating

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Sue Martin and her guide dog, Quan, who were kicked off an American Airlines flight this month.

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.

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.

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.

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Comments (1)

Cathryn+BellaK9 September 5th, 2017
Ms. Martin + Quan - Oh, my heart goes out to you! What a terrible experience - simply awful! Good for you for not letting this awful treatment go without saying anything. That\'s completely unacceptable. I also travel with a Service Dog; currently I have Bella, a 100-lb Weimaramer. I\'m dedicated to United Airlines, I \'only\' fly with them. (assuming they fly to where I am going!) It\'s because they have always been so wonderful to me and Bella (or one of my three previous Service Dogs). I have never, ever been inconvenienced, bothered, etc. The opposite is true - they bend over backwards to be accommodating, pleasant, super helpful -- even trying to spoil my dog with treats (sorry, not while she\'s working - but thank you for the kind thought!). I swear by United, I feel so confident whenever I board the aircraft that I\'m going to have a great experience. I hope your future travels will be much, much better for you, Mr. Martin and Quan. And I hope that not only will you get a richly deserved apology from American, but that their personnel training programs will change as a result. (Well, we can always hope!) BTW, in a much less severe, but an irritating episode nonetheless, my Father, Bella and I were initially denied entry to a restaurant (TGIF) by a hostess. After I assured her that yes, indeed, Service Dogs may enter restaurants, she demanded to see proof that Bella was a Service Dog. Bella was wearing a full-size cape with embroidered patches (\"Service Dog\" and \"Working Dog - Do Not Pet\"), and a photo ID tag of her, identifying her along with my name, as her handler. I had around my neck a similar photo ID tag, with a summation of the ADA on the reverse. I patiently explained that businesses are not allowed to request such information from me in order to grant access; and eventually she relented - once the line of patrons behind us began to grow impatient, I suspect. The hostess led us to a dark, closed section of the restaurant. There weren\'t any overhead lights, no one was working in this section - a table had to be set up for us, chairs were dragged over, etc. We waited for a long time before a server came and gave us menus. We had been placed in the farthest away corner of the restaurant from where all other patrons were being seated. Perhaps the hostess felt we had something contagious? The rest of the story --> after we got home, I wrote a nice, but firm, letter to not only the President of the Company, but I cc\'d the head of Legal Department (Corporate Counsel) and the HR Department. I mailed the letters off and within a few days, my phone rings. It\'s someone (a muckity-muck) from their legal department. They are falling all over themselves to apologize. They want to make sure that they make up for the \'unfortunate misunderstanding\' we experienced. I think they were flabbergasted when I told them, when I insisted, all I wanted was for them to implement a new, correct training program for all employees so this wouldn\'t happen to other people. It doesn\'t sound like that\'s going to happen with you and American. From your quote of keeping life simple, I believe you\'re letting the experience go - a wise choice. But people KNOW what happened, and THANK YOU for sharing your story. (And please kiss Quan for me!)

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