Veteran sues American Airlines for refusing
Lisa McCombs arrived at a Kansas airport on a Sunday to catch a flight back home to Mississippi after a day trip. She says she was sitting in a public waiting area with service dog Jake by her side when an American Airlines employee approached her.
“Ummmm, are you trying to fly with that?” McCombs says the woman told her as she nodded at the Labrador retriever.
It was the beginning of what McCombs described as an “emotionally scarring ordeal” that continued during a layover at DFW International Airport, according to a federal suit against American Airlines filed last week.
McCombs told a court that she joined the Army in 2005 and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan that left her with a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. Jake is a certified service dog that has been individually trained to move his body in close contact with McCombs to distract her when he senses that she’s experiencing a panic attack or high anxiety, according to her complaint.
The Mississippi resident said in the court filing that she had flown into Kansas with Jake without incident the morning of Oct. 25, 2015, but that airline staff then proceeded to block her from flying out with her service dog two days in a row despite her documentation.
American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller declined to comment on McCombs’ allegations or say whether the airline would challenge her in court.
“We appreciate and thank Ms. McCombs for her service to our country,” Miller said Sunday, noting that the airline’s policy regarding service animals is in keeping with applicable laws.
But McCombs claims that American Airlines didn’t follow its own rules when it came to Jake.
According to the suit, the airline required one of the following to prove service dog status: an animal ID card, a harness or tags, written documentation or credible verbal assurance.
McCombs told a federal court that her dog was harnessed and wearing a vest identifying him as a service animal.
The American Airlines employee who had nodded at McCombs’ dog asked for her ID and then returned to tell her she couldn’t fly with Jake, according to the complaint. When McCombs protested, the employee told McCombs to talk to her supervisor, who allegedly told the veteran there was no documentation in the system and that he was canceling her flight.
McCombs described getting conflicting information from American Airlines representatives on the phone. She claims a woman told her that she could board her flight with Jake if she printed her documentation and showed it to the agents. But, McCombs says, another representative told her she had to pay $125 to fly Jake as cargo or submit documentation and wait two days for another flight.
According to the suit, McCombs started crying when the agents at the airport loudly demanded to know McCombs’ disability and what service the dog provided.
“I have PTSD, look at me, I’m an anxious mess!” she says she told them. “He’s my service dog!”
McCombs says in her suit that she pulled up Jake’s documentation on her laptop but airline staff wouldn’t budge. When she cursed in frustration, she says one of the agents threatened to have her arrested. She described being “kicked out” of the airport by an agent and that a police officer even offered to drive her to a shelter.
Although the veteran had been booked for another flight two days later, she says in her court filing that she called the airline to arrange an earlier flight and was told there would be no trouble with Jake.
The day after the first incident, McCombs returned to Manhattan Regional Airport in Kansas, where she once more met resistance from American Airlines staff, according to the complaint. A manager who demanded paperwork later approached McCombs with “malice,” causing Jake to whine and shift, the veteran claims.
“It is against the law to harass a service animal and their handler and I will call the police on you,” McCombs says she told the manager, who allegedly chuckled and walked away.
The woman says in her complaint that Jake was denied again because a letter from her doctor wasn’t dated and because his certification had to be within the previous year. After leaving the airport, McCombs says she spoke on the phone with another airline representative, who told her Jake was listed as an emotional support dog, not a service dog. (Emotional support animals don’t qualify as service animals under federal law. American Airlines requires documentation for the former.)
McCombs canceled her American Airlines flight and contacted another airline to fly out of a different city in Kansas. She rented a car to get there, but an American Airlines representative called her to arrange a third flight and assured her there would be no problem with Jake, according to the suit.
At the Manhattan airport, she was able to board a plane with Jake two days after the original flight, the complaint reads.
But when McCombs arrived at DFW Airport, she says she was met with “an entourage” of American Airlines staff pushing a wheelchair and loudly calling out, “We are looking for a Lisa McCombs, a disabled veteran.”
“This group of representatives insisted on escorting Ms. McCombs and Jake to the dog relief area and to their next gate, making a spectacle of Ms. McCombs and causing unnecessary attention and embarrassment even though Ms. McCombs repeatedly assured them that she and Jake could manage without their assistance,” the lawsuit reads.
Miller, the airline spokesman, said an American Airlines captain who is also an Army veteran reached out to McCombs after her flights to get more information about what had happened.
McCombs described this interaction in her complaint, alleging that military and veteran initiatives manager Jim Palmersheim had acknowledged to her that the airline was embarrassed by the situation. The woman alleges that Palmersheim said the company would make things right and offered her international, first-class tickets plus an invitation to a “salute the troops” event in Las Vegas hosted by the airline.
“Our airline really sucked when it came your experience,” McCombs says Palmersheim told her.
McCombs didn’t specify an amount in damages but wants the airline to pay compensation for emotional distress, refund her tickets with interest and cover all past and “reasonable” future medical expenses to treat her PTSD.