There has been a huge rise in the number of people traveling with emotional support animals, to the point that both Delta and United have added further restrictions on traveling with such animals. The new regulations don’t make it impossible to travel with an emotional support animal, though they do require more paperwork.
Spirit Airlines is in the news for a November 21, 2017 incident, during which a 21 year old college student claims the airline told her to flush her emotional support hamster down the toilet.
Belen Aldecosea was trying to fly from Baltimore to Fort Lauderdale with her pet dwarf hamster, Pebbles. She called the airline twice before her trip to make sure it would be okay if she brought the hamster onboard, and the phone representatives assured her that would be okay (Spirit Airlines doesn’t deny that they gave her incorrect information).
While it doesn’t excuse the incorrect information given by the phone representatives, I’d note that Spirit Airlines’ webpage about emotional support animals specifically states that the airline doesn’t accept snakes, other reptiles, rodents, ferrets, or spiders.
When the woman arrived at the airport she was able to check-in without issue (the ticket agent even saw the hamster in the carrier). However, as she headed towards the security checkpoint a Spirit Airlines representative came running after her and told her she wouldn’t be able to take the animal onboard (per their policy). The passenger claims that the Spirit Airlines representative suggested that she flush Pebbles down the airport toilet or just let her free, though this is something that Spirit Airlines denies.
She really needed to get back to South Florida due to a medical issue she had (she had a golf-ball size growth in her throat, which they learned was benign). She tried renting a car, but there were none available, and she was also denied for her age, after trying six different agencies. She also had no friends that she could leave Pebbles with. Spirit Airlines rebooked her on a later flight, so after agonizing for hours she felt like she had no option, and decided to flush Pebbles down the toilet, thinking that was more humane than letting her out free in the cold. Per the Miami Herald:
“She was scared. I was scared. It was horrifying trying to put her in the toilet,” Aldecosea said. “I was emotional. I was crying. I sat there for a good 10 minutes crying in the stall.”
I feel really bad for her. I know it’s easy to think that a hamster isn’t a “real” pet, though there’s no denying people can develop relationships with such animals, and I couldn’t imagine having to flush my pet down the toilet. I certainly couldn’t have brought myself to do it. However, I understand the tough spot she was in, as she felt like she had no other option, she had a medical procedure she had to return to Florida for, and she may not have had the financial resources to just no show for the ticket, get a hotel, book another ticket, etc.
The passenger is now considering filing a lawsuit against Spirit Airlines:
Aldecosea, 21, of Miami Beach, is now considering filing a lawsuit against Spirit over the conflicting instructions that wound up pressuring her into making an anguished decision with a pet certified by her doctor as an emotional support animal. She shared her story with the Miami Herald weeks after the story of an emotional support peacock — denied entrance to a United Airlines flight — went viral on the Internet.
This case is much different, said her South Florida attorney, Adam Goodman. “This wasn’t a giant peacock that could pose a danger to other passengers. This was a tiny cute harmless hamster that could fit in the palm of her hand,” he said.
Airlines are notorious for giving our incorrect information, yet they’re rarely held accountable. I do think this would be an interesting case. On a recorded line multiple representatives gave incorrect information, so shouldn’t the airline be held responsible for that? I suspect it’s going to be tougher to prove damages here than if we were talking about a straight monetary loss, though on some level I do think the airline is responsible here.
I feel horribly for the woman and the decision she had to make. Hopefully Spirit (and other airlines) do a better job of making sure all passengers know the correct rules regarding this.
What do you think — is Spirit Airlines completely at fault here for giving incorrect information, is the blame shared (since Spirit does publish this online), or…?