The last thing United Airlines needed Thursday was another consumer complaint.
After all, earlier in the day the airline announced the results of its internal investigation of the David Dao incident at O’Hare, reached a settlement with Dr. Dao for his abrupt removal from a flight to Louisville and announced new rules designed to treat passengers with greater respect.
Then came Donna Wiegel’s story about getting kicked off of a United flight because of her encounter with a cat.
"I was definitely thrown off the plane," she said. "I had no option. I was perp-walked down that aisle!"
Wiegel had a ticket March 4 for a 5:30 p.m. flight out of Baltimore bound for Chicago. But when she noticed a woman with a cat in the gate area, she says she notified the agent that she would need to be seated as far from the cat as possible.
"I have a lot of respiratory problems and asthma," she said. "And cats are a trigger that I have to avoid at all costs."
Wiegel says that once she got on the plane, the woman with the cat was seated just a few rows away.
"I said, 'Oh, that is way too close,'" she said, and was told to swap seats with another passenger in the rear of the aircraft.
"I still balked at that and said why do I have to move? Why can’t the cat move?" she said.
"We can’t move the cat," she says she was told.
Wiegel says no sooner did she get to her new seat than she was confronted by three crew members.
"They said you’ll have to come with us -- the crew is not comfortable having you on the flight," she recalled. "I’ve never been kicked off a plane, and I was just so stunned that this would happen to me."
She said the handle of her suitcase was broken when it was wrestled from the overhead bin. And that when she got to the gate area, TSA agents were waiting.
Crew members told her she couldn’t stay on the plane because they feared she was going to have a medical emergency if she remained on board.
But she insists it was her treatment which caused the most distress.
"You know, I’m hyperventilating at this point," she said. "Almost in a full blown asthma attack."
Wiegel was eventually driven from Baltimore to Washington Dulles Airport, where she was put on a 10:30 United flight back to Chicago, five hours after her originally scheduled departure. She said she immediately filed an online complaint with the airline, but for nearly eight weeks heard nothing until NBC 5 contacted United on Thursday.
“We’re disappointed anytime a customer has an experience that doesn’t measure up to their expectations,” United said in a statement. “We reached out to Ms. Wiegel today to apologize and find out more about what happened. We are working with our partner on this flight, GoJet Airlines, who operated this flight, to get more details.”
It isn’t clear why the cat received priority. If it fell into the category of “emotional support animal,” airlines are given little choice but to remove an allergic passenger as opposed to an animal. But Ms. Wiegel says that distinction was never made in her case.
"The cat got to Chicago in plenty of time," she said. "He could have gone out for dinner!"