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A recent story posted on Reddit detailed a situation in which a passenger was forced to deplane after boarding because a service dog was occupying his seat. I looked at the rules when it comes to service animals to figure out who’s in the wrong and what sort of compensation this passenger is owed, if any.
The subject of this story had booked a front-row main cabin seat to fly out of Newark. Upon boarding, he found a dog sitting in his assigned seat. A handicapped passenger seated next to him claimed that “the dog could not move.” When the man alerted a flight attendant, she sided with the woman, claiming that “since the woman was handicapped and it was a front row MC [main cabin] seat, she could use both seats.”
The man was then told that there was no longer room for him on the flight, that he would need to deplane, and would be booked on a later flight. To add insult to injury, there was a vacant seat in first class, which our passenger offered to pay for and was ultimately refused. To add even more insult to injury, when the man complained, he was given “a better seat within the main cabin” on his new flight, a $15 meal voucher, and 1260 United MileagePlus miles (which are worth around $15).
What are the rules?
Taken at face value, this is a pretty strange situation. Regardless of whether the facts of this story are 100% accurate, I think it presents a good opportunity to dig into the rules and regulations relating to service animals to figure out exactly who’s at fault here and what passengers can do if they find themselves in a similar situation.
To that end, there are three important rules and pieces of guidance on this topic, and they read as follows:
You [the airline] must permit a service animal to accompany a passenger with a disability on the passenger’s lap or in the passenger’s foot space unless this location and placement would:
- Be inconsistent with safety requirements set by the FAA or the foreign carrier’s government; or
- Encroach into another passenger’s space.
Before refusing to transport a large service animal that cannot be accommodated on the passenger’s lap or in the passenger’s foot space without encroaching into another passenger’s space, you must offer the passenger the opportunity to move with the animal to another seat location within the same class of service, if available on the aircraft, where the animal can be accommodated. You are not required to reseat other passengers to accommodate a service animal except as required for designated priority seats in Subpart F.
Once a passenger has been accepted for boarding or has already boarded the flight, airlines are not permitted to require that passenger deplane, unless the removal of the passenger is required by safety, security, or health reasons, or the removal is due to the passenger’s unlawful behavior.
Your dog should sit in the floor space in front of your seat. They can’t be in the aisle or the floor space of the travelers next to you.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong?
Let’s walk through each of the above materials one by one.
Section 382.77 of the ACAA essentially tells us that an airline should take reasonable measures to accommodate a service dog that is too large to fit in the foot space of a seat, but that it is not required to reseat other passengers, or even accommodate the disabled passenger in a different class. All this is to say that, according to the ACAA, the flight attendant was in no way required to act the way she did.
Guidance from the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection is relevant because the subject of our story was offloaded from his flight after he had already boarded, despite DOT guidance specifically forbidding airlines from removing passengers in all but a few strict circumstances. Whereas the ACAA rules tell us that the flight attendant wasn’t required to offload the passenger, this guidance actually suggests she was in breach of DOT rules by doing so.
Finally, United Airlines’ own policy clearly stipulates that service dogs should sit on the floor in front of a passenger. It makes no mention of policies to accommodate larger dogs and certainly doesn’t state anything about removing other passengers to make space for service animals.
In summary, it appears that not only was the United flight attendant in question not required to offload the passenger according to both the ACAA and United’s own policy, but she was also probably in contravention of DOT rules.
To what compensation is this passenger entitled?
The Department of Transportation clearly lays out how to determine the compensation owed to passengers who are denied boarding. Though the passenger in our story was actually allowed to board and then offloaded, he should still probably be able to claim compensation under the rules for domestic denial of boarding. Compensation is calculated as follows:
- 0-1 hour arrival delay: no compensation
- 1-2 hour arrival delay: 200% of one-way fare (airlines may limit the compensation to $775 if 200% of the one-way fare is higher than $775)
- More than 2-hour arrival delay: 400% of one-way fare (airlines may limit the compensation to $1,550 if 400% of the one-way fare is higher than $1,550)
Keep in mind that these figures are only what United is legally required to shell out. The passenger may also be able to claim further compensation from United as a gesture of goodwill.
Though it’s pretty obvious that the United flight attendant acted inappropriately, I actually sympathize with her. The rules on this are complicated, and it’s United’s responsibility to ensure that their cabin crew understands them, rather than leaving these sorts of decisions up to the best judgment of whichever flight attendant happens to be on duty.
At the same time, the compensation that the passenger was provided by United was woefully inadequate, and he’s