(WFLA) An Iraq war veteran says American Airlines wouldn't allow him to bring his service dog on the plane, even though he called and checked ahead of time.
Josh Rivera says he went to Tampa International Airport on Thursday with his dog, a black lab named Brady. The pair had just graduated from Southeastern Guide Dogs, and it was Rivera's first public experience with a service animal.
The vet says he called a week ahead to find out what he needed to do for the flight back home to California from Tampa.
"At the gate I checked in, and notified them that I had a service animal with me, and they said there are no problems," Rivera said.
However, a problem soon arose.
"They called me five or ten minutes later back to the counter and they told me I wouldn't be able to get on the aircraft because they believed I had an emotional support animal, and that they weren't allowed to fly on the plane," said Rivera.
An American Airlines spokesperson told News Channel 8 by phone: "Department of Transportation requires any passenger to advise the airline ahead of time and provide proper documentation for the service animal … Emotional support dog is not considered a service dog. It requires a different type of documentation." (Click HERE to see the documentation)
Rivera disputes that Brady is an emotional support dog, and says he tried to explain that to American Airlines supervisor Mike Stafford.
"He wasn't listening," says Rivera. "He wouldn't have it. He said that the animal wouldn't be able to get on the plane with me, and I was prevented from boarding the plane."
Rivera served in Iraq, where he was an explosive ordinance disposal technician.
"I've done hundreds and hundreds of IED [improved explosive device] responses in Iraq," Rivera said. "I was injured during those responses."
He says he has "numerous limitations", and his dog Brady helps him with them.
According to American Airline's website, an "Emotional Support or Psychiatric Service" animal is one that provides support to "an individual with a mental health-related disability". The policy states that an emotional support animal is allowed to be in the cabin, provided it is "clean, well-behaved, remains with the customer and under the customer's control at all times".
Rivera insists Brady is a service animal, and that his behavior is not in question.
"You can see the animal is very well-behaved," Rivera said. "He's professionally trained by Southeastern Guide Dogs."
The Southeastern Guide Dogs Facebook page refers to Brady as a "Veteran Service Dog". An S.G.D. official told News Channel 8 their organization does a lot of work with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
Rivera is not the first to have a problem like this with America Airlines. Last week, Kevin Crowell, a 20-year veteran, was traveling from Miami to Key West with his service dog Bella. American Airlines staffers told Crowell pets were not allowed in the bulkhead, even though Crowell told them Bella was a service animal.
American Airlines also responded to our questions about that case, saying: "In that instance, that was a mistake. We apologized and offered him a full refund. We are using this as a training opportunity for our employee".
After Rivera's experience with American Airlines on Thursday, he decided to fly Southwest instead.
"They welcomed me right in," said Rivera. "It seems like most other airlines, if not all of them, seem to be very accommodating, except for American Airlines."