Matthew and Gabriela Giampietro thought they had done everything right when they decided to fly to Puerto Rico on JetBlue with their two dogs.
“They told me the paperwork to fill out, I did that,” Gabriela said.
They told NBC 6 they submitted Department of Transportation (DOT) forms saying the dogs were trained service animals, along with letters from a licensed mental health counselor saying they each had been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition and should be allowed to travel with the dogs.
“We left, no problem,” Gabriela said.
A few weeks later, the couple said they booked a one-way ticket back home on JetBlue and submitted the same paperwork but had issues at the gate.
“The lady who is checking your boarding pass is like ‘Oh, hold on,’” Gabriela said. “I was like ‘OK. You need to show them the paperwork.’”
Gabriela said a supervisor took a look at the documents.
“And the first thing that the supervisor said, ‘you’re the trainer of the dog?’” Gabriela said. “And I’m like yes.”
She said the man then asked what does the dog help her with.
“He helps me when I get panic attacks,” Gabriela said she responded. “I was like he helps me to get over it faster and I get less of them. He was like ‘that’s emotional support, that’s not a psychiatric service dog.’”
The couple said the flight left without then, leaving them stranded in Puerto Rico scrambling to figure out a way back home.
“We’re telling him we flew here,” Matthew said. “We just flew here a couple of weeks ago.”
“You accepted this paperwork,” Gabriela said, referring to the airline.
Marcy LaHart is an attorney specializing in animal law.
“I think that different ticket agents and different employees at the airlines have different ideas about what is required,“ LaHart said.
According to LaHart, psychiatric service dogs do not have to be professionally trained, but if you’re traveling with one, you have to be specific about the service the animal provides.
“When you’re asked what task does the animal perform, then you need to be able to say something other than oh, it provides me comfort when I have a panic attack.”
Recent changes made to the Air Carrier Access Act include defining a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability and no longer considering an emotional support animal to be a service animal.
Airlines are also now required to treat psychiatric service animals the same as other service animals. They can require you fill out a DOT service animal form, but airlines are no longer allowed to require a letter from a licensed mental health professional.
Ann Siegel of Disability Rights Florida said the changes were meant to help those who rely on psychiatric service animals.
“There’s a large group of individuals in our state who require the use of service animals and while I understand there may be a concern for misuse, there’s always a concern for misuse in anything,” she said. “I would rather err on the side of caution and not deny access to an individual who requires a service animal. As long as that service animal is calm, there’s really no reason to deny access.”
JetBlue did not answer specific questions about what happened, including why the couple was allowed to fly to Puerto Rico if there was an issue with the dogs.
But a spokesperson did send NBC 6 a statement saying the airline was, “…committed to assisting customers who have a need to use trained service animals while traveling. At the same time, we are committed to following updated federal regulations prohibiting customers from bringing untrained or unqualified animals on board, including attempts to claim a pet is a trained service animal.”
The airline also said they “…work to consistently enforce these policies, however, a customer may be stopped from proceeding with travel at any point if it is determined an animal does not meet the required qualifications.”
Matthew said JetBlue eventually agreed to fly them back home to South Florida days later, after he contacted the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.
“I was so excited,” Gabriela said. “I was like, we’re going home, thank God.”
“I feel like this could happen to anybody, anytime,” Matthew said. “It’s like, the chance is there, you’re taking the risk.”
The DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer protection told NBC 6 they received 32 air transportation service animal complaints related to passengers with disabilities in January and February.
To file an airline complaint, click here.
To read more about the DOT’s recent rule change, click here.