JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A St. Augustine veteran's fight with an airline that allegedly forced him off a plane due to his service dog is bringing about change across the country.
The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) released a consent order Monday, finding American Airlines violated the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) by failing to properly train employees on how to interact with disabled passengers using service animals. The order requires American Airlines to implement new training for all gate agents and reservation agents within 30 days.
Sgt. Kevin Crowell, a disabled combat veteran, filed his formal DOT complaint against the carrier in August of 2014. Crowell was traveling to Key West with his wife in 2014 along with his service dog Bella.
According to the complaint, the flight attendant on a connecting flight told him pets were not allowed in the bulkhead, referring to his registered service animal. Crowell reserved his airline ticket online as being a passenger with a service animal and he had Bella's documentation. American Airlines said an error in computer coding created a dispute on the flight. Crowell was asked to deboard the plane, an action his complaint said aggravated his post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"For someone who has PTSD, severe PTSD, they could be suicidal and harassing them could be a trigger that will send them down a spiral," said Rory Diamond of K9 Warriors. "Every day we're hearing from our warriors that they are being harassed [for having a service animal] in hotels and restaurants and in particular at the airport."
Advocates for disabled veterans are considering the DOT's decision a major victory veterans who rely on service animals.
Crowell's attorney, Bill Sheppard, said unseen disorders like PTSD subject veterans to being treated as second-class customers.
"It's a slap in the face, in the best of circumstances," said Sheppard. "Airlines and air carriers must respect folks who have to rely on service dogs, most of those are combat veterans."
Many state laws protect service animal owners by giving them the option to file a civil lawsuit for a 'loss of dignity claim' and money damages , Sheppard says. However, a congressional order exempting airlines, left them with no option other than a DOT complaint.
"This is [Crowell's] only victory," said Sheppard. "But he's proud of it. We have to stand up for our brothers and sisters."
The DOT gave the air carrier 60 days to complete the supplemental training on properly documenting passengers with service animals' requests.
The DOT dismissed two of Crowell's three claims including one that American Airlines completely denied the veteran and his dog any transportation.
American Airlines denies its employees discriminated against Crowell, according to the DOT order. The airline says it attempted to re-accomodate the veteran after he deboarded the plane. Crowell was unable to complete his trip and rented a car to go home instead. American Airlines said it refunded his airfare and attempted to reimburse him for the car rental.