August 06, 2018

Tarmac delays, support animals, more: Airline rights discussed by panelists

Joseph Trytten, a law student at Tulane Law School, travels a lot with his saxophone. He said he’s fed up with the airlines’ “inconsistent” handling of his instrument case.

He’s not alone. Every day, consumers’ rights are tested during air travel.

“[Airline] employees don’t seem to know the rules,” said Trytten, who attended the program “Flyers’ Rights: What Every Traveler Should Know” held Aug. 3 at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago.

The program explored the rights of air travelers in situations ranging from waits on the tarmac, to traveling with animals and music instruments.

The panel featured aviation experts from law firms, American Airlines and the Department of Transportation.

Meghan Ludtke, managing director of regulatory affairs at American Airlines, said one of the questions she is asked most is, “why is the plane late?”

She explained that many factors contribute to the timeliness of a plane, including weather, maintenance issues, security problems and congestion on the tarmac.

Ludtke and Maegan Johnson, a senior trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, disagreed over who benefits from new federal regulations on tarmac delays.

Johnson said that during a tarmac delay the DOT requires airlines to provide a comfortable cabin temperature, working toilets and medical assistance, if needed.

The rules also require airlines to provide passengers with food and water after a two-hour tarmac delay. After three hours passengers must be given the option to deplane.

Johnson said the rules were implemented in response to incidents in which passengers were stranded aboard airplanes for long periods because of flights delays.

However, Ludtke said the tarmac rules have resulted in even more cancelled flights than ever.

She noted that for the first six months of 2018, 1,700 flights were canceled due to the tarmac rules. “The cost is in the millions of dollars,” she said.

Airline rules concerning animals on airplanes were also discussed.

Johnson said DOT allows emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals in the cabin planes. She said emotional support animals’ presence helps to eliminate any discomfort a passenger may have; the animal’s presence helps the person and the animal can sit on a passenger’s lap. She said generally, the psychiatric service animals are trained to do something specific, such as lick your face, during a flight.

Some audience members said they have been on an aircraft with a pig and peacock. However, Johnson said those animals in the cabin are rare.

Airlines have guidelines to determine whether an animal is a service animal and require documentation for psychiatric support animals and emotional support animals.

The biggest area of concern for passengers in this area is safety, Johnson said. There have been incidents of dogs biting passengers and getting into fights with other animals on the plane.

Ludtke said that airlines have lately dealt with fraud-related cases, such as breeders trying to transport animals for free.

“People have been misrepresenting their pets, “Johnson said. In May, the DOT issued a notice of proposed rulemaking, seeking comments on amending its Air Carrier Access Act, which regulates the transportation of service animals.

Ludtke said American Airlines has seen a spike in the number of emotional support animals and that many people just don’t want to fly their animals in the belly of the plane. Therefore, some people try to take advantage of the rule.

Audience members were curious about the rights of other passengers when animals are on board. Airlines try to accommodate allergy sufferers by reseating them or putting them on another flight at no cost, according to panelists.

Also on the panel were Aleksandra Puscinska of Clyde & Co. in London, and moderator Amna Arshad of Jenner & Block, and co-chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division Committee on Air & Space Law.

The program was sponsored by the ABA Young Lawyers Division.