For anyone familiar with Spirit Airlines, its $65 carry-on baggage fees, its $3 for water, and its $10 boarding passes, is it any wonder that the Greyhound Of The Skies may object to a passenger’s “emotional support” hamster?
It was to 21-year-old Belen Aldecosea, who flushed her pet Pebbles down a toilet at Baltimore-Washington International Airport when the airline refused to let her board the plane with her Fort Lauderdale-bound animal guest.
“She was scared. I was scared. It was horrifying trying to put her in the toilet,” Aldecosea told The Miami Herald of the incident, which happened in November. “I was emotional. I was crying. I sat there for a good 10 minutes crying in the stall.”
Aldecosea is reportedly considering suing Spirit Airlines over conflicting instructions they gave her over the phone prior to her arrival at BWI Airport. She said she called the airline twice, and twice received confirmation that she could bring her dwarf hamster aboard her flight.
Spirit Airlines spokesman Derek Dombrowski confirmed that “our reservation representative, unfortunately, did misinform the guest that a hamster was permitted to fly as an emotional support animal (ESA) on Spirit Airlines."
When Aldecosea arrived at BWI, she said the first Spirit agent she encountered checked in Pebbles and his small cage without a hitch. But on her way to the TSA security checkpoint, she said, a second Spirit employee ran after her and said she could not bring the rodent aboard the plane — neither in the cabin nor the cargo.
She alleges that a Spirit worker said she could flush Pebbles down a toilet, an allegation Spirit denies.
“To be clear, at no point did any of our agents suggest this guest (or any other for that matter) should flush or otherwise injure an animal,” Dombrowski said.
Not knowing anyone in Baltimore, too young to rent a car as well as unable to due to high demand during the busy holiday season, Aldecosea accepted a flight later in the day.
She thought this might allow her time to find options that didn’t include flushing Pebbles down a toilet.
“With her flight boarding soon,” The Miami Herald reported, “she pondered whether to just let Pebbles free outside. She said she considered it more humane to end her life right away, and not let her run around scared in the cold, only to die getting hit by a car.
“I didn’t have any other options,” Aldecosea said.
“Emotional support” animals aboard planes have been a controversial topic for years. On January 19, Delta Air Lines announced travelers wishing to bring aboard an ESA would have to submit a signed veterinary health form or immunization record, an “emotional support” animal request form signed by a doctor or mental health professional, and a signed confirmation of animal training form.
Delta’s announcement came on the heels of increased abuse of lax airline regulations with “emotional support” animals. Delta said its airlines carry nearly 250,000 service or support animals every year — many of which are for passengers with no apparent physical disability.
“Customers have attempted to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders and more,” Delta wrote.
An “emotional support” animal is said to ease an owner’s anxiety and other emotional problems. Unlike service animals or psychiatric support animals, they are not trained to perform any tasks related to their owner's physical or mental disabilities.
The 1986 Air Carrier Access Act gave travelers wide latitude to travel with a variety of animals, and while airlines are allowed to require documentation, many don’t. Some passengers, as ABC News illustrated in an amusing investigation, bring bogus “certificates” in case the airline requests medical documentation verifying the need of an ESA.