Why can’t Aubie fly on United?

United Airlines won’t let Chris Kielich’s service dog board a flight to London. Can it do that?

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Question: I was supposed to fly to Heathrow last night on United Airlines, but the airline wouldn’t let me on because of my hearing service dog, Aubie. I’m so upset.

Per its website, last week I called United about Aubie and was told I could either send the airline all her international passport information before the flight or bring the paper copy to the check-in desk.

After the vet gave Aubie the final pill she needed to get her pet passport, I emailed all her information to United. I also emailed the U.K. authorities and got their written permission to bring Aubie into the U.K. They agreed to meet me when my flight arrived to clear us through customs.

I arrived yesterday at Dulles International Airport at 3 p.m., and a United Airlines desk manager said that Aubie couldn’t fly, then kept changing her story about why. First, she said I should have filed Aubie’s medical paperwork with them seven days before the flight.

I said I couldn’t do that because Aubie’s health certificate paperwork had to be done closer to the day of the flight. Then she said United needed the paperwork 48 hours before the flight. I told her I had called United specifically about that and the airline never told me that.

The soonest United can fly me to the U.K. is two days from now. I’m out two nights at a hotel, the price of a play I made reservations for (the only captioned night) and two whole days of my trip. I did everything United and the City of London told me to do, and they still wouldn’t let me on the plane. Can you help me? — Chris Kielich, Alexandria, Virginia

Answer: You did everything you were supposed to, but still couldn’t board your flight. When it became clear that you followed all the procedures, United should have made this its problem — not yours.

This case is particularly puzzling given the special attention the Department of Transportation pays to the needs of disabled travelers. It even has a special category for disability complaints. I can’t imagine United not bending over backward to get you on that plane with Aubie.

Your case required a real-time resolution, so the conventional approach — sending an email to United and waiting for a reply — was not going to work. Otherwise, I’d recommend reaching out to one of the United Airlines executive contacts listed on my site.

United’s published policy is clear on this issue: Trained service animals are allowed in-cabin to accompany qualified customers with disabilities. United has a special “service animals” section on its site, which you appear to have followed.

This shows the importance of paperwork, particularly on a special request such as traveling with a service animal. You argued with a United representative over the airline’s service animal policy. Having that policy handy when you tried to check in, either as a printout or on your personal electronic device, might have helped move this along. I wasn’t there when you tried to check in, so I don’t know what was said, or wasn’t said. But I do know that there’s no substitute for having something in writing.

I contacted United on your behalf. You received a message from the airline apologizing for its “disservice,” and it rebooked you on a plane the next day.

19 thoughts on “Why can’t Aubie fly on United?

  1. The UK is known to be strict when importing animals. Usually they require a pet passport (can only be obtained in the EU) or you have to get the USDA to certify the local vet’s certificate. My understanding is that these requirements apply to both pets and service animals. Did the passenger have either an EU pet passport or a certified USDA form? The article only describes paperwork from the vet and an email from the City of London. This may not have been enough.

    United’s website has clear information about this issue:

    “United is approved under the United Kingdom’s Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) to accept service animals on flights to the UK. Review the entry requirements on the gov.uk website. Please provide a minimum one-week advance notification. Additional fees may apply.”

    “Trained service animals are accepted in cabin for qualified individuals with a disability. A service animal should sit in the floor space in front of the customer’s assigned seat but cannot protrude into the aisles. Customers may use an approved in-cabin kennel for smaller animals provided its use meets stowage requirements. Exit row seating is prohibited. Documentation may be required for an animal traveling to international destinations.”

    If LW notified United 7 days in advance that they were bringing an animal and then presented the correct paperwork at the airport, they should have been allowed to fly.

    It sounds like the passenger presented themselves 3 hours before their flight which should have been plenty of time to resolve the issue. If it was a paperwork issue, they should have been able to explain that. I’m surprised that united does not have a help desk for passengers with special needs that could have been contacted to resolve this issue. I think this passenger is owed compensation for their troubles. United may have even broken a law here.

    1. I also emailed the U.K. authorities and got their written permission to bring Aubie into the U.K. They agreed to meet me when my flight arrived to clear us through customs.”

      Sounds like he had what the UK required

      “Per its website, last week I called United about Aubie and was told I could either send the airline all her international passport information before the flight or bring the paper copy to the check-in desk.
      Sounds like he checked with a representative of United and he was told he could bring the paperwork to the CHECK-IN DESK! Obviously he was NOT told that he had to bring it in to United a WEEK in advance.
      If you do as the representative tells you, whose fault is that?

  2. There is a scattering of front-line employees throughout the business world who are convinced that the only “real” service animals are Seeing Eye dogs. If you’re not obviously blind and you run into one of these working for an airline, you’re going to miss your flight.

    There needs to be a general accreditation system that issues a single type of certificate tag for “real” service animals. This would be like Pet Passport, but specific to service animals and usable domestically as well as internationally.

  3. I believe it’s another employee with a prejudice. DOG’S LIVES MATTER!

    I’d strongly suggest he investigates a Ferderal ADA Lawsuit. As a Legal Services Company, we see these cases in California regularly.

    The ADA was written with Zero Enforcement and Zero Penalties. The only way it’s enforced is via a lawsuit initiated by the plaintiff (the injured party). In many places there are lawyers who hire disabled people (or are themselves disabled) to travel around and locate businesses that do not comply with the ADA. They file a suit in federal court and then offer to settle for amounts ranging form $2,500. to $20,000. They make a fortune doing this and often putting small businesses into bankruptcy. (Specific case: The Barnwood Restaurant in Ripon, CA.)

    I see them as abusers, but AUBIE is the exact sort of case this law was written for. In this case, AUBIE and his master deserve to be made whole and more important, UnTied Airlines needs to learn how better to handle such cases.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    That said, there does need to be a differentiation between legitimate Service Animals and someone who just doesn’t want to leave “Wolfie”, their Chihuahua, alone so they can go shopping for more Vodka and Cheese Doodles. THIS is not that case.

    1. I can’t quite tell if this is said in sarcasm or not (before the “~~~~”. The whole ” Lives Matter” is a bit irritating and doesn’t really have any bearing on this.

    2. There is no ADA claim here. ADA does not cover air travel. This is clearly covered only by the Air Carrier Access Act which is enforced only by DOT.

  4. Well done indeed … this is an amazing story that I would have thought could never happen. It’s galling to think that we have to bring paper copies of information related to a specific need, but if that’s what it takes to get bozos like this … and she’s a MANAGER?? … to pay attention and do their jobs properly, that’s what people will need to do. Really awful experience for Chris & Aubie; I hope they pursue this vigorously after arriving back home.

  5. We have a small pet pup that we take on trips (not international) that we could easily claim as a ESA. We always pay (and we’re not happy about that — $95 each way on SW; sometimes my ticket is less than that and she doesn’t even take up a seat! but that’s another story). I can’t stand when I see animals with their “ESA” harness. I, seriously, want to punch that person in the face. Of course, the dog (or cat) is extremely cute; but still. I get so mad at this.

    1. Drives me crazy too. It cost me over $1000 to fly my very large dog from Chicago to San Diego (the special crate was over $300). And I paid it because I was moving and had to bring my dog. My flights were cheaper than his. I didn’t slap a special sticker on him and bother everyone else. And yes, he is cute and we’ll behaved.

  6. It seems to me that when you know there might be an issue, that it is useful to carry a copy of the rules and paperwork, plus your “log” of discussions/emails/confirmations. I sense a mixup between the whole service animal issue and the strict UK animal quarantine & travel issue. CYA in the paperwork & hoops you have jumped through. But UA should have known, done better in training their people & had a “Disabilities” Desk easily accessible to contact in questionable cases. This is not a completely unique case, unfortunately.

  7. I’m curious…should every customer on a flight be allowed to take their pet onboard? The grousing about paying for pets seems to indicate this is what people believe.

  8. But, the real answer is, if you do not know something (if that was the case with the United representative/agent at check-in) then the agent should have called a supervisor or gotten on the computer and found the information..heh.. or not! I don’t expect them to know everything, but I would expect them to be intelligent enough to find out if they do not know! heh!

    1. Hmm.. i must have read it wrong. I thought the United rep thought (s)he knew the rule and stuck to it; not that (s)he didn’t know the rule at all — if that was the case then indeed (s)he should have asked someone else, be-it a supervisor or fellow colleague. But in the end, I always print out the necessary documentation (rules) or have them quickly available on my mobile device(s). I plan for the worst case scenario; but don’t think I’ve ever gotten the worst case scenario. Lucky I guess.

  9. Two easy fixes to this type of problem.
    1. A notebook binder at EACH check-in desk that spells out IN WRITING the Airline policies, so ALL gate agents have access to them at all times.
    2. A poster WITH pictures of ALL approved Service Dogs VESTS BY Color used by both Civilians and some Veterans.
    2a. Also pictures, again in color, that shows the Vests of Approved Service Dogs FOR Veterans only. These Vests and animals are new on the scene, and many because of the PTSD issues created by war or combat. Civilians also can have PTSD and may well have one of the type Service dogs. This does not make these dogs any less important to a person that a Seeing Eye/Hearing Impaired Dog.
    As we discover more and more dogs that can SERVE humans to assist them in medical issues they may have. We will also see more types of Service Dogs coming into the everyday work place.
    Just because they might not meet, in some peoples own minds, what “THEY” believe a Service Dog (animal) should be does not make that LEGALLY true.
    Mark me a person with a son who has a military Service Dog.

    1. Unfortunately, if someone says their animal is a service animal, the Air Carrier Access Act is clear that a person cannot be questioned or required to provide documentation. The only exception is that international travel requires documentation to attest to the animal’s health. But questioning or making someone prove they are disabled or their animal is a service animal is illegal and is itself a violation of the Air Carrier Access Act.

      I agree that people shouldn’t be able to bring every animal they want on a flight, but the way the law is written they can.

  10. This matter does not fall under the purview of ADA. ADA does not regulate air travel. This would be a violation of the Air Carrier Access act, but that is a matter strictly resolved by DOT.

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