Continental Gate Agent Tells Passenger She Thinks Her Mental Illness Is Fake

Laura has a pretty good description of what an anxiety attack feels like to her: “First, your chest starts to feel tight, like you are wearing a corset. You can’t breathe properly, your heart rate starts to skyrocket, causing a pounding feeling. It’s very out-of-body. You can’t figure out what’s going on. It’s like being trapped by your brain into a tight corner.” If the skeptical gate agent for Continental had ever experienced this–or had just been given adequate training for dealing with passengers with disabilities–maybe she wouldn’t have told Laura her doctor’s note looked fake, or asked her to stay put when Laura said she needed to get her meds.

Here’s Laura’s full story:

I wish to share a story with you about my recent experience with Continental Airlines. I feel that I was prejudiced against due to my lack of a “physical” disability. I was wondering what I can do in my situation to get results from Continental.

Last week, I moved from beautiful Honolulu, Hawaii, where I’ve been living the past three years, to Albany, NY. My boyfriend, whom I lived with in Hawaii, is traveling to Costa Rica for a few months to do some volunteer work – build orphanages, kiss babies, stuff like that.

Unfortunately, I have a terrible anxiety disorder which has landed me in the hospital twice and in the insane asylum once. My boyfriend is one of the few people who can calm me down when I start to “freak out” and with his absence, I decided to move to Albany to be with my parents, who can be of assistance if I need it. I traveled with my psychiatric assistance animal, my cat Sushi. She helps me relax and calm down in the event of an anxiety attack. She has been “prescribed” by my psychiatrist.

Before I left Hawaii, I faxed Continental a letter from my doctor, on her letterhead, stating my disability and my need for my cat to travel with me. The letter was faxed a few days before Christmas. Around January 15 or so (my flight left January 20), I called Continental to confirm that my cat was cleared to fly with me as a psychiatric assist pet. The gentleman from Continental’s disability reservation desk confirmed everything.

My flight went from Honolulu (HNL) to Los Angeles (LAX) to Newark (EWR) and finally a commuter plane into Albany (ALB).

My cat was cleared through agriculture in HNL. I had with me: her agriculture forms, her vet forms and my doctor note. HNL informed me to double check with the gate agent in each city. LAX was fine – small hiccup when they couldn’t locate my disability records, but the gate agent finally did, and I continued on my merry way to Newark. Up until this point, the only anxiety I had was while leaving HNL. My cat was with me, so all was well.

I get to Newark and I’m fine until I show my papers to the gate agent. The agent, a Ms. C. _____, asked me for a boarding pass for my cat. I explained that I never received one – she went through HNL and LAX without needing a boarding pass. Ms. _____ looked over my papers and called the regular reservation desk. I informed her that the disability reservation desk were the people who gave me the OK to travel with my cat. Ms. _____ ignored me.

She gets on the phone with reservations and looks at my papers – and then has the audacity to say that my doctor’s note looks like a fake and, since it was dated in December, it must be an old note and, therefore, not applicable anymore. She asks me what my disability is, since it’s not apparent to her, which, according to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), she can not technically ask. She mentions to the reservations desk, in a low voice that I was not suppose to hear, that she doubts my disability.

At this point, I feel a full-fledged anxiety attack starting, so I ask her to excuse me so that I can retrieve my medications. She asks me to stay there for a second while she figures out how I – get this – “snuck” my cat onto the plane. She suggests that I buy a boarding pass right then and there for my cat – only issue is that I am 24 years old and had a grand total of $8 to my name – not nearly the amount needed to buy a $100 ticket for my cat. Finally someone says something over the phone and she looks at me and laughs.

If you have never experienced an anxiety attack, allow me to educate you: first, your chest starts to feel tight, like you are wearing a corset. You can’t breathe properly, your heart rate starts to skyrocket, causing a pounding feeling. It’s very out-of-body. Then the actual attack starts and you are rudely pulled right back into your body, breathing hard, sometimes crying, sometimes not. Anything anyone says goes in one ear – and out the other. You start to sweat, but you are cold. You can’t figure out what’s going on. You can’t make sense of anything – it’s like everything is in fast forward and you are in slow motion, trying so hard to catch up with everyone but not making sense of what you are seeing. It’s a horrible feeling. It’s like being trapped by your brain into a tight corner. To have someone laugh at you makes it worse.

Ms. _____ finally approves me to fly with my cat, but not before inducing an anxiety attack and preventing me from retrieving my meds by using her authority to keep me rooted in place. She also informs me that my return trip, in may, is still valid, but no longer with my cat, as my doctor note is no longer valid and since I won’t be flying back to HNL, but instead, moving to LA with the boyfriend, who has plans to attend UC Irvine for his PhD pending acceptance. This entire confrontation lasted roughly 20-30 minutes, during which, Ms. _____ scattered her conversation with curses – not aimed at me, specifically, but at the aggravation that my disability was bringing her.

Luckily, I had befriended a lady in the waiting area and she made sure I was ok, made sure I got my meds and, fortunately, had the seat in front of me and kept an eye on me until my drugs knocked me out for the brief hour plane ride.

It’s been a week and I wrote to Continental. I received a typical response, which is below:

Dear Ms. Ferreri:

Thank you for contacting us regarding your recent Continental flights. We understand you are disappointed in the service you received, and we appreciate the opportunity to address your concerns.

Due to the nature of your e-mail, we have forwarded your concerns to our disability specialist for investigation and handling. The investigation process can take up to 30 days. You can expect future correspondence from us through U.S. mail.

Thank you for your patience. Your comments are important to us, and we want to ensure they are properly addressed by our specialized staff.

Regards,
Jane
Complaint Resolution Official (CRO)
Disability Specialist – Corporate Customer Care

Laura adds, “I believe that, in thirty days, the severity of my situation will diminish. I wish for action to be taken now and soon.”

Don’t sit around waiting for Continental to respond. You should immediately file a formal complaint against the gate agent and Continental–but not under the ADA. Airlines must follow the Air Carrier Access Act when it comes to customers, and it forbids them from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. You can read the general regulations here, but below is the actual text of the relevant section (49 U.S.C. § 41705):

§ 41705. Discrimination against handicapped individuals

 

(a) In General.— In providing air transportation, an air carrier, including (subject to section 40105 (b)) any foreign air carrier, may not discriminate against an otherwise qualified individual on the following grounds:

(1) the individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

(2) the individual has a record of such an impairment.

(3) the individual is regarded as having such an impairment.


The DBTAC Southwest ADA Center at Baylor College of Medicine says you can file a complaint by filling out this form (PDF) and mailing it to the address below. You can also call the aviation consumer disability hotline at 1-800-778-4838 (voice) or 1-800-455-9880 (TTY).

Aviation Consumer Protection Division

U.S. Department of Transportation

400 Seventh Street, S.W. Room 4107, C-75

Washington, D.C. 20590


RELATED
“Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement” [Department of Transportation]
“Air Carrier Access Act” [Accessible Journeys]