Public outrage after guide dog not allowed on airBaltic flight

Social media in Latvia has been inflamed following an account of a woman who was not allowed to take her guide dog with her on board an airBaltic flight.

The Ombudsman's Office acknowledged that this situation is unacceptable and discriminatory, while airBaltic requested an explanation from Carpatair, which was sub-contracted to perform the flight under a so-called 'wet lease' agreement between the two airlines, Latvian Radio reported on June 19.

Baiba Baikovska was scheduled to fly to a work conference in Malaga, Spain. Baiba has disabilites that mean she always has her guide dog, Elfa, alongside her. The dog opens the door for her or hands her the phone if it has fallen. The dog has been specially trained and has been Baiba's assistant for six years.

Baiba purchased flight tickets from airBaltic in January to make sure that her dog would also be able to travel with her.

Until the last moment, she had confidence that they could go to Spain, however, just before they went on board, Baiba was surprised by disappointing news: her flight was being handled not by airBaltic itself, but by Carpatair, which refused to take Baiba on board with her guide dog.

The direct flight was one of the main reasons for Baiba's choice of airBaltic: “[It was] why I paid more and why I didn't take any people along.”

In the end Baiba went alone to Malaga, leaving Elfa at the airport with her mother.

"This morning I actually realized more about what it was like: to be without a dog or without a human being, without an assistant, because in my case a dog performs human functions. This morning it meant extra stress not being able to get up from the bed that Elfa, my dog-assistant, helps me with every day," said Baiba.

Baiba acknowledged that she could not see the positive in this situation. Being without a guide dog means physical discomfort, risk of falling, fatigue, financial loss, and emotional trauma. For some people, staying without an assistant can even be a matter of life and death.

“I already had an incident where I had to ask some Spanish men to help me where Elfa could [normally] help me. It's not a convenient situation,” Baiba added.

“This kind of situation is not acceptable,” said Ruta Siliņa, representative of the Ombudsman's Office. In a similar situation, the airline must first be contacted, but the Ombudsman's Office may also be involved as a mediator if a person is seeking help and if it is not possible for both parties to find a settlement.

“The guide dog is not simply a pet – for a person with special needs, for a disabled person, this guide dog is an irreplaceable assistant, like a device that helps them to move and ensure access to services,” said Siliņa, stressing that when a dog-companion is prevented from boarding an aircraft with its owner, the person is in effect denied the right of access to the service.

"We can say that there is a violation of the prohibition of discrimination, which means that in this case the injured person can turn to the airline and ask for a compensation mechanism," said Siliņa.

Augusts Zilberts, a representative of airBaltic, said it is international aviation practice that guide dogs are transported with their owners, without exception. This is the first time in airBaltic's experience that another airline has refused to take a guide dog on board.

“On our part, on behalf of the airline, we can express our deepest regret and apologies to the passenger for this very unpleasant and surprising case,” said Zilberts.

airBaltic is in contact with Carpatair to find out exactly the grounds of the rejection but it has already been confirmed that Carpatair will review its conditions for the provision of its services. “From now on, guide dogs will be allowed,” added Zilberts.

Similarly, airBaltic is also pursuing an internal investigation of the situation in order to improve the internal circulation of information by the airline.

"Of course we'll cover all the costs and return the money on the flight," Zilberts said.

airBaltic reached an agreement with Baiba, and on Monday, June 19, Baiba's mom and her dog Elfa flew via Paris to Malaga. Baiba has yet to decide whether to take further action against the airline.

airBaltic boss Martin Gauss took to Twitter Tuesday morning to apologize for the incident and posted a picture of Baiba and Elfa in Malaga.



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