Micaela Bensko and her service dog, Blue Belle, have a bone to pick with Virgin America.
Bensko, who is wheelchair-bound and suffers from arachnoiditis and complex regional pain syndrome as a result of an accident in 2011, is alleging that Blue Belle was denied entry into Virgin Atlantic’s lounge on May 10 at John F. Kennedy International Airport-- despite having the necessary credentials for a service animal and paying extra to use the facilities.
According to Bensko, Virgin Atlantic staff were worried about the “possible discomfort of others,” and requested a doctor’s note before allowing Blue Belle to enter.
Bensko told Fox News that she and her dog were turned away after she already obtained clearance to use the Virgin Atlantic lounge from an attendant at the check-in desk.
“I had gone to the Virgin desk to check in, I told them my condition, that I had to get into the lounge,” said Bensko, adding that she needed the use of the lounge because she can’t sit upright for extended periods of time without suffering spinal contractions and acute pain. “I paid $75 to use that lounge … they even printed me a special ticket [to get in].”
However, when Bensko finally arrived at the lounge, a Virgin employee said her special ticket wasn’t enough to gain entry. She began filming incident and recently posted the video to YouTube.
“It’s not policy,” an employee can be heard telling Bensko.
Bensko responds by saying she was well aware of the laws and regulations regarding service animals, and that she needed no such note to bring Blue Belle into the lounge.
“It is a federal law that [Blue Belle] does not need a letter,” said Bensko, who was flying from JFK to LAX on Virgin America, but paid the extra to use Virgin Atlantic’s lounge. “She performs a service for me. I cannot get around without her because my neck is compromised.”
“In some places, you’re not even allowed to ask which services she performs for me,” added Bensko.
Virgin Atlantic’s regulations stipulate that passengers present an identification card for any service animal, a harness, or give a credible verbal statement. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, require further documentation.
Regardless, the Virgin employee continued to deny Bensko and her dog entry into the lounge. Bensko then asked if she could to lay on the ground near the entrance of the lounge, as her back was bothering her but was told to wait for a supervisor.
After pleading with the Virgin employee, Bensko eventually wheeled herself to a different area in order to lay down.
“I’m devastated,” Bensko says through tears. “I know a lot of people are doing videos now about airline, but this just hits home for so many people, because we go through so much stuff already.”
Bensko also told Fox News that she’s not planning to file a lawsuit against Virgin — she merely wants the airline industry to better train their employees on how to deal with passengers with disabilities.
“My main issue with this, and what I constantly encounter with service … there’s just no training as to the laws, the federal laws, mandated by our government between service animals and emotional support animals,” she said.
“I pressed record because nobody sees these things, with disabled people,” added Bensko of her motivation to film the incident. “People can see us, but they don’t look because they don’t wanna see.”
Virgin Atlantic says they are currently investigating the incident. In a statement obtained by Fox News, the airline apoligzed for the experience Bensko endured, and stated that “all customers [with] 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,” wrote Virgin. “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.”
But while Bensko has yet to hear from Virgin Atlantic directly, she tells Fox News that her grievance “goes so far beyond anything that can be managed by a phone call.”
She has penned an open letter to the airline industry, because, when it comes to this issue, she says she’s “physically unable” to keep quiet.
“[I] hope it can somehow spark a change in how airlines and corporations train (or in this case, don't train) their employees as to the federal laws mandated specifically to protect the disabled.
“I hope my experience opens this conversation much needed between the airlines and the ADA community.”