Chances are, you have heard the story by now. A young woman flying home on Spirit Airlines was allegedly told by an airline employee to either set her emotional support hamster free or flush it down the toilet after being told that the animal couldn’t accompany her on a flight. The news hit social media and almost instantly went viral.
It all started when a young college student, Belen Aldecosea, booked her flight home from Baltimore to South Florida. During her first semester of school in Philadelphia, Belen had discovered a large growth on her neck. To take her mind off her health issues as she waited for the biopsy results, she had purchased a small hamster she named Pebbles. Hamsters are commonly used as emotional support animals because of their size and how easy it is to care for them.
In order to make sure that Pebbles would be able to accompany her on her flight back home, Belen had asked the ticketing agent at Frontier Airlines if she could bring Pebbles on the flight. The agent told her that she could.
Fast forward to the day of her flight, and the information from Frontier Airlines was very different. After checking in, she was informed that Pebbles wouldn’t be able to board the flight with her. The airlines did schedule Belen on a later flight to allow her time to make arrangements for the animal, but Belen wasn’t from the area and couldn’t find anyone to care for Pebbles.
That is when Belen says that she was told by an airline employee that, if she wanted to board the plane, she would either need to set the animal free, or flush it down the toilet. Belen, recalling the moment when she had to flush Pebbles down the toilet, said, “I was emotional. I was crying. I sat there for a good 10 minutes crying in the stall.”
Frontier Airlines admits that its ticketing agent incorrectly told Ms. Aldecosea that she could bring her hamster on the flight when she booked, but denies that any of its employees ever suggested that she flush the animal down the toilet. Derek Dombrowski, a spokesman for the airline, responded, “To be clear, at no point did any of our agents suggest this guest (or any other for that matter) should flush or otherwise injure an animal”.
It remains to be seen how this story will play out in the court of public opinion and perhaps in a court of law, but we would like to address the larger questions in relation to this story.
Should any emotional support animal be allowed to fly on a plane? Are there any restrictions that an airline should make in its policy? A passenger recently tried to bring an emotional support peacock on a United Airlines flight, but the bird was denied boarding. Should this animal have been allowed on the flight?
What happens when an airline gives a customer incorrect information at booking, but then denies boarding at the time of flight? Should there be more accountability by the airlines for when they make mistakes?
These are all tough questions. Emotional support animals are a very real and very necessary thing. So is the security and safety of passengers aboard a plane. How these two issues get reconciled will be a front-and-center issue for airlines in the coming years, as airlines continue to grapple with what balance to draw.
What are your thoughts on this subject? We definitely see the need for some restrictions, but we also think that airlines need to become much more customer focused. In this situation, the biggest error was in the airline giving a passenger incorrect information at the time of booking. This is something that the airline openly admits. We believe something more should have been done by the airline to accommodate this passenger in light of the details.
In terms of bigger picture, we think the airlines do have an obligation to balance passenger safety with these requests. For that reason, we do not oppose some restrictions to the carrying of some animals on flights. However, we also believe that it is the obligation of the airlines to make sure their policies are very clear and understood by their passengers at the time of booking.