An Army veteran who suffers from PTSD says in a federal lawsuit American Airlines agents subjected her to two days of humiliation and stress when she tried to fly home from Kansas with her service dog, a Labrador retriever named Jake.
Lisa McCombs said she flew without incident to Manhattan, Kansas, on Oct. 25, 2015, but was stuck there for two days because American regional carrier Envoy refused to let her board a return flight with Jake, even though he was wearing his service vest and met criteria to board the plane.
“Ms. McCombs was emotionally crushed and humiliated by the conduct of (Americans’) agents, who discriminated against her because of her disability and publicly shamed her,” says the lawsuit filed by Biloxi attorney Christopher Van Cleave of Corban Gunn Van Cleave.
American Airlines responded Wednesday morning by email to the Sun Herald’s inquiries about the lawsuit, saying, “Back in October 2015, Capt. Jim Palmersheim, our senior manager of Military and Veterans Programs at American — a pilot and U.S. Army veteran — immediately reached out and spoke to Ms. McCombs for over an hour to obtain additional information on what occurred at both Manhattan Regional Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. We will not be able to comment on the allegations posed in the lawsuit, since this matter is pending litigation.
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“The process for traveling with a service animal on American is in line with applicable federal regulations.”
The lawsuit McCombs filed against American and Envoy Air in U.S. District Court alleges negligence, breach of contract and violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. She wants to be compensated for her injuries, including the medical treatment she required, airline tickets, legal fees and other costs. She also is seeking extra damages to punish American and Envoy for “reckless disregard” of her rights.
The lawsuit refers to the experience, about one month before McCombs’ flight, of Marine Jason Haag and his award-winning service dog, Axel. Haag, who is from Virginia, said in a Facebook post he and his wife were humiliated before a crowd of 200 when American refused to let him board a flight for which Axel had been pre-approved. American apologized to Haag, whose Facebook post went viral, and thanked him for his service, according to a USA Today article.
‘An anxious mess!’
McCombs describes a humiliating two-day ordeal in which American customer-service employees tried to intervene, to no avail. She said she acquired Jake after her Army service, from 2005 to 2009, which included tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. She was honorably discharged as a captain and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When Jake senses that Ms. McCombs is about to experience high anxiety and/or a panic attack,” her lawsuit says, “Jake moves his body into close contact with Ms. McCombs to distract her attention away from the factors that may cause her panic to spike, and calm her.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service animals as dogs trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities and requires they be allowed in all areas where the public can go. ADA rules apply only to trained service animals, not emotional-support or therapy animals that provide comfort through their presence.
Further, the ADA says only two questions can be asked of a person accompanied by a service animal. Is the dog required because of a disability? What task is the dog trained to perform?
McCombs and Jake, on a leash and wearing his service vest, arrived at the Manhattan airport for a flight that was supposed to return them to Gulfport that Sunday night. The trouble began while the two waited with other passengers for their flight.
The lawsuit describes in detail what followed.
An American agent walked up to her and, in a condescending tone, said, ‘Ummmm, you’re not trying to fly with that?’ gesturing toward Jake. The agent demanded documentation for Jake, but did not say what kind was needed. Soon enough, a supervisor got involved and American employees confirmed McCombs could not fly with Jake, saying she would need to pay $125 for the dog to travel as cargo, or resubmit identification for a flight 48 hours later.
McCombs described the American employees, including one she talked to on the telephone, as “rude” and “abusive.”
An American customer-service representative McCombs contacted by phone seemed confused about why she was being prevented from boarding the flight. After McCombs missed her flight, the airline employees started grilling her about why she needed a service dog, the lawsuit says, a violation of the ADA.
“Ms. McCombs was stunned by these verbal assaults,” the lawsuit says, “and responded in tears, ‘I have PTSD. Look at me. I’m an anxious mess! He’s my service dog! I don’t understand why I’m being treated like this!’”
People in the airport tried to comfort her, asking why she was being treated so rudely. Police arrived, but merely observed the scene until airline employees kicked her out of the airport. One of the officers asked if she needed a ride to a shelter.
McCombs says she was unable to sleep that night.
An American Airlines customer-service representative tried to get her on a Monday flight, but McCombs only suffered more humiliation at the airport, she says.
“The manager’s body language expressed malice and even caused Jake to whine and shift uncomfortably,” the lawsuit says. “Ms. McCombs advised (American’s) manager, ‘You need to step back from me. Clearly, you’re upsetting my dog, you’re upsetting me and you’re harassing me. It is against the law to harass a service animal and their handler and I will call the police on you. (American’s) manager chuckled, said ‘OK,’ and walked away.”
After missing a second flight, McCombs booked a Delta flight out of Kansas City and a rental car, but then someone from American’s corporate office called and said McCombs could take an Envoy flight home Tuesday afternoon without any problem. McCombs canceled her Delta flight without charges, but had to pay $60 on the rental car.
As she boarded the Envoy plane Tuesday afternoon, employees checked her ID and said, “Have a nice flight.”
She experienced more humiliation while in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, with 15 to 20 other passengers looking on. She said an “entourage” of American employees showed up with a wheelchair, calling out, “We have a disabled veteran, excuse me, a disabled veteran. We are looking for a disabled veteran, a Lisa McCombs.”
McCombs said she and Jake got home at 10 p.m. Oct. 27 — “48 hours and an unforgettable, emotionally scarring ordeal later.”
She said Capt. Palmersheim called the next day, saying things such as, “We are owning this,” “We are sickened and embarrassed,” “Our airline really sucked when it came to your experience” and “We are going to make it right, whatever that means for you.”
McCombs said she had to seek medical treatment after the incident, and lost time from work and other pursuits.
She said American offered to fly her to Salute to the Troops the next month in Las Vegas and suggested she might want first-class tickets on an international flight for her and a guest.