Video: Disabled Passenger Denied Access to Virgin Lounge Because of Service Animal
Another day, another video showing a passenger being mistreated by an airline — this time it's a Virgin Lounge agent denying entry because of a service animal.
Earlier this week, Micaela Bensko and her service dog Blue Belle were flying Virgin America from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). The wheelchair-bound passenger had purchased a day pass for the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, but was denied entry when she tried to enter with her service dog. Bensko later posted this video of her interaction with the club agent and her reaction following the incident:
The video starts as a recording of Bensko interacting with the lounge agent — it seems the situation had clearly been in progress before the recording started — while text across the screen explains that the agent is requiring a doctor's note in order for her to bring a service animal into the lounge. Eventually, a supervisor is called to over the lounge, but after waiting for a while — the passenger states 30 minutes, but the lounge agent challenges that — Bensko says her condition is flaring up and she can't wait for the supervisor any longer, which then prompts a re-hashing of the argument. At 5:20, we finally hear the Virgin agent state the reason she is being denied entry: "With any service animal, you have to have some sort of paperwork."
So, what does Virgin America's policy actually say? While the carrier does require a doctor's note for emotional support animals, the policy for service animals requires an "identification card for the animal," as well as the "presence of harness or markings on harness tag" and the passenger's "credible verbal statement."
In the YouTube video description, Bensko explains that "Blue Belle wears her vest clearly marked with 6"x2" panels that say SERVICE DOG. I carry her vaccination papers with me at all times." That being said, she doesn't state — and we can't be 100% sure — that she presented the agent with an acceptable identification card for Blue Belle. It's possible that this requirement was what the agent meant by "paperwork," and we never hear the agent specifically request to see a doctor's note.
To its credit, Virgin America is taking responsibility for the situation, apologizing to the passenger and clarifying policies with its lounge employees in the meantime. Here's the full statement that Virgin America provided TPG when we reached out for more details:
"We are sincerely sorry for the experience Ms. Bensko had at JFK airport earlier this week and would like to reassure all customers that support dogs are welcome in our Clubhouses. As soon as we were made aware of this incident, we sent an urgent reminder to our Clubhouse teams to clarify the policy around support dogs and will be investigating further to improve the way the situation was handled. It is never our intention to disappoint our customers and we’re keen to speak directly with the customer to understand what improvements we can make to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and to offer our heartfelt apologies."
This incident seems to be an error by the lounge worker, who denied the passenger because of her service animal. As in the case with my recent incident with United, we know airline employees can occasionally misunderstand or misapply airline policies. In this case, the situation was made worse by the failure of a supervisor to clarify the situation in a timely manner and the extended wait seemed to have exacerbated the passenger's medical condition — Bensko seems to be in pain when leaving the lounge, but looks to be physically recovered by the end of the video, although she has to lie on the terminal floor to be comfortable.
It's through these high-profile stories that airlines are either clarifying existing policies (as in this case) or changing their policies to be more customer-friendly. We hope Virgin and other airlines can learn a lot from this situation and work to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.
H/T: Fox News Travel