Joshua Feldman claims that his four-pound Chihuahua, Tiki, is a “service dog.” But on a recent attempt to board a Hawaiian Airlines flight, the gate agent claimed that Tiki is an “emotional support animal.” Who is right?
There’s an important distinction between the two types of animals – and it kept Feldman and his wife from flying that day.
The Feldmans were traveling from Las Vegas to Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines, which they’ve flown several times in the past with no trouble, accompanied by Tiki.
Whenever Feldman flies, he contacts the airline in advance to notify its personnel that he would be traveling with a service dog. At check-in, airline agents ask him about the tasks Tiki performs for him. Feldman responds that he has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that Tiki has been trained to assist him when he has anxiety attacks.
On this occasion, the Feldmans and Tiki were pulled aside as usual and asked about the tasks Tiki performs for him. Then Krystal, the gate agent, walked away from the counter without explanation, leaving Feldman waiting for 30 minutes for her return.
Feldman says that being pulled aside and forced to wait for prolonged periods of time before being allowed to board Hawaiian Airlines flights is a routine experience for him, unlike the respectful treatment he receives from other airlines’ employees.
“What I am describing to you is what I go through with my wife and service dog every time we fly Hawaiian Air flights,” he says. “After being kept waiting for a long period of time, we are then always finally allowed on our flight, which leaves us rushed to make it through TSA security and get to the gate and board, even though we arrive hours ahead of time.”
In fact, to make matters worse, Feldman says he’s been treated the same way by Hawaiian Airlines check-in staff on several return flights from Honolulu to Las Vegas.
“Hawaiian Airlines check-in agents have made the statement to us that you are lucky we are allowing you to fly back to Las Vegas this time,” he says. “Where’s the Aloha? It’s outrageous.”
But Krystal’s treatment of Feldman was not routine. Upon returning to the check-in counter, she informed Feldman that Tiki was an emotional support animal and not a service dog. Feldman told Krystal that she was incorrect — Tiki is a service dog. He informed Krystal that service dogs are different from emotional support animals.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines “service animals” as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Among the tasks the ADA includes in its definition of service animals is “calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack,” as Feldman claims Tiki does for him. Tiki was wearing a tag with the notation “Service Dog – All Access” on it.
Krystal told Feldman that if he could provide medical documentation that Tiki is an emotional support animal, he would be allowed to take her on the plane. But when Feldman reiterated that Tiki is a service dog and pointed out that the ADA prohibits requests for documentation or proof training for service dogs, Krystal replied “We do not recognize the ADA. You will not be getting on the plane today.”
Feldman’s wife told Krystal that they had previously been allowed to bring Tiki on past Hawaiian Airlines flights as a service dog and suggested that Krystal look this up on her computer, but Krystal replied that Hawaiian Airlines did not have a computer with the capability of looking up past flights. She repeated that Hawaiian Airlines “does not recognize the ADA” and that the Feldmans would not be boarding their flight. When they asked to speak to a supervisor, Krystal told them that she was the supervisor.
The Feldmans were forced to cancel all of their travel arrangements and book another flight on another airline. When they canceled their hotel reservation, the hotel manager offered to call Hawaiian Airlines on their behalf. Shortly after she made the call, the Feldmans received a call from a resolutions supervisor for Hawaiian Airlines asking how he could resolve their situation.
Feldman explained to him that he and his wife had incurred thousands of dollars in losses as a result of being prevented from boarding their flight. The resolutions supervisor told Feldman that he could only issue a refund for their airfares, which he did. Feldman then told the supervisor that he wanted 250,000 frequent flier miles as well as assurance that the treatment he received from Krystal would not happen to him again. The resolutions supervisor responded that Feldman would have to contact other departments of Hawaiian Airlines because these were things he could not help Feldman with.
Unfortunately for Feldman, many businesses are becoming wary of accommodating service dogs because of the growing phenomenon of fake service dogs. Because the ADA prohibits businesses from asking for medical documentation, identification, or other proof that an animal is a service dog and only allows them to ask if the dog is a service dog and what tasks it performs for its owner, many persons are taking advantage of the law to pass pets or emotional support animals off as service dogs.
Hawaiian Airlines is standing firm in its position that Tiki is an emotional support animal, and that its refusal to let Feldman fly with Tiki is justified because Feldman provided no medical documentation of a physical, psychological or psychiatric need for an emotional support animal.
Feldman might have escalated his complaint to higher-level executives of Hawaiian Airlines using our company contacts, but he asked our advocates for assistance.
But we don’t think we can help Feldman with his request for 250,000 miles. There’s a wrinkle in Feldman’s argument that he doesn’t have to provide documentation for Tiki, of which he may not have been aware.
Because Tiki has been trained to help Feldman with PTSD, she might be classified as a “psychiatric service animal.” The Air Carrier Access Act indicates that airlines are allowed to require documentation that a dog is a psychiatric service animal. Feldman didn’t have that documentation with him.
Our advocates suggested that Feldman file a disability complaint with the Department of Transportation and post in our forums about his case, although he hasn’t done so as of this writing. But we hope he gets documentation so that he never again experiences the treatment he received from Krystal.