Emotional support animals on airlines are in the news again, this time with the story of a student in Florida who alleges a representative of Spirit Airlines told her to flush her pet hamster down the toilet, which the airline denies. The incident, which took place in November of last year, is making the rounds in the consumer media now that the student says she is considering filing a lawsuit against the airline.
Student Belen Aldecosea told The Miami Herald that, before attempting to bring her pet hamster, Pebbles, on the Spirit Airlines flight from Baltimore to south Florida, she called the airline twice to ensure that she could bring the animal onboard. Spirit, however, refused to allow the hamster onto the airplane, and Aldecosea alleges that an airline representative suggested flushing the animal down an airport toilet. Aldecosea unsuccessfully rented a car and, needing to fly home quickly in order to deal with a medical issue, flushed the hamster.
A Spirit Airlines representative tells Travel Agent that none of the airline’s agents suggested flushing the hamster down the toilet.
“We can confidently say that at no point did any of our agents suggest this Guest (or any other for that matter) should flush or otherwise injure an animal,” a Spirit representative said. “It is incredibly disheartening to hear this Guest reportedly decided to end her own pet’s life.”
Spirit Airlines did say that the company misinformed Aldecosea that a hamster was permitted to fly as an emotional support animal. When she arrived at the airport, Spirit agents booked a later flight for Aldecosea so that she would have time to find other accommodations for the animal.
The incident is in the news following a week of controversy regarding air travel guidelines for emotional support and service animals. United Airlines issued new guidelines for support animals after an incident in which a woman was barred from bringing an emotional support peacock on a flight out of Newark. The new rules, effective March 1, require customers to provide confirmation that their emotional support animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting and acknowledge responsibility for the animal’s behavior; a health and vaccination form from the animal’s veterinarian; and an affirmation by the veterinarian that the animal will pose no threat to the health and safety of other passengers, or cause a significant disruption in service.
The changes were similar to another recent guideline change by Delta, which now requires customers to show proof of health or vaccinations 48 hours in advance of their flight. Unlike United, Delta’s new guidelines apply to both emotional support animals and service animals.
Both United and Delta cited a major increase in incidents involving animals over the past year. Delta in particular noted an attack by a 70-pound dog, as well as instances of passengers attempting to fly with a number of unusual support animals that include comfort turkeys, gliding possums, snakes and spiders.
Spirit Airlines’ guidelines for emotional support animals allow customers to bring such an animal onboard so long as they have a letter from a mental health professional. (According to the Miami Herald Report, Aldecosea had a doctor’s letter certifying her hamster.) Spirit Airlines’ guidelines, however, specifically bar rodents, as well as snakes, other reptiles, ferrets and spiders, from being brought onboard.
Spirit told Travel Agent that it offered Aldecosea a voucher following the incident, but that she never responded.