YouTube footage of a woman being “dragged” off a Southwest Airlines flight has gone viral with some commentators drawing parallels with the way in which Dr David Dao was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight in May. News agencies around the world have been quick to report on the incident with attention focused on the behaviour of both airline staff and law enforcement.
The latest incident took place on what was scheduled to be a five and ahalf hour Southwest Airlines flight from Baltimore to Los Angeles on Tuesday night. According to passengers onboard the flight, the disagreement started when a female complained about two dogs that had been permitted inside the passenger cabin.
The woman alleged she had a severe allergy to dogs – so severe in fact, that it was potentially life-threatening. In order to protect her health, she demanded the dogs be removed. In the circumstances, that sounds like a fairly legitimate request but airline staff refused.
According to passengers who were onboard the flight, Southwest Airlines employees initially tried to negotiate with the passenger. Flight attendants took her to the rear galley and tried to talk to her in private. When that failed, even the Captain tried to mediate the situation.
Unfortunately, it looks like things quickly went downhill. Southwest Airlines told the passenger that she would have to get off the plane if she was unwilling to travel with the dogs in the cabin – allergy or not, the dogs were ‘service animals’ and had every right to remain on the plane.
The woman refused and law enforcement was called. Bill Dumas, a film producer who captured the widely circulated YouTube footage said of the ensuing scuffle: “She put up a pretty ferocious fight to not be removed from the plane,” adding that the police officers “were in a very, very tough situation.”
The grainy and often shaky footage, shows the woman being dragged from her seat before officers attempt to frogmarch her off the aircraft. She can be heard shouting that she needed to get to Los Angeles because her father was due to have surgery. She also tells the officers that she is a professor.
The two and half minute clip finishes with the woman being pushed off the plane by police officers who repeatedly ask her to walk off.
Was Southwest Airlines right to have the woman removed?
So who’s in the right here? The woman seems to have a legitimate gripe but unlike the Dr David Dao incident, things might not be as a clear-cut as they first appear.
First, there’s the law – in particular, the U.S. Air Carrier Access Act. This piece of law has been in force for decades and makes really clear provisions for how disabled passengers should be treated by airlines. Here’s what the law tells airline’s how they must treat passengers with service animals:
“As a carrier, you must permit a service animal to accompany a passenger with a disability.” There’s absolutely no ambiguity there – the service animal must be able to join the passenger in the cabin.
But what if the service animal is going to annoy another passenger or someone allergic to the animal. The law addresses this very point as well:
“You must not deny transportation to a service animal on the basis that its carriage may offend or annoy carrier personnel or persons travelling on the aircraft.”
That simply means that the passenger with a service animal will always take precedence over a passenger who is annoyed (such as having an allergy) by the presence of the service animal. The service animal stays onboard and the annoyed passenger either puts up with it or gets off.
What counts as a ‘service animal’?
But what does service animal even mean? It’s actually a really broad definition and can include a guide dog for the blind or even whats called an ’emotional support animal’. The only caveat in all of this is that airlines can refuse the carriage of what are called “unusual or exotic” service animals – like snakes, ferrets, miniature pigs and ponies.
A dog is not covered by this clause.
So here’s the thing. The woman in this incident was clearly under a lot of stress. She wanted to get to Los Angeles as quickly as possible because her father was due to have surgery. That’s probably why she refused a Southwest Airlines offer to accommodate her on the first available flight the next day.
Southwest Airline attempts to avoid the mistakes of United
But the law is crystal clear on this one – airline’s must accommodate service animals over other passengers.
As for the behaviour of law enforcement – Forced removal is never going to look pretty. Restraint is a messy business for even trained professionals. Although the incident looks nasty, the officers, in this case, have actually used very little force on the woman.
Nonetheless, Southwest has been quick to try to head off a customer relations disaster. Chris Mainz, a spokesman for the airline has said of the incident: “We are disheartened by the way this situation unfolded and the customer’s removal by local law enforcement officers.”
Mainz explained: “In most cases, we can separate the animal from the customer with an allergy,” continuing: “The onus is on the customer to tell us what their needs are.”
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.