MUMBAI: When eight-year-old Jiyon Ganguly walked into Kolkata airport with his labrador Simbaa one January morning, the terminal paused in its steps. Passengers gawped and as Jiyon’s mother Parama Bhattacharya and Simbaa stepped into a curtained enclosure for the pre-flight security check, the stunned woman security officer accidentally dropped her hand-held metal detector.
“She almost fainted. There was such a commotion. But Simbaa being the gentleman he is, stood calm through it all,” Parama said.
After all, it was probably the first time in India that an autistic passenger was allowed to board a flight with his therapy dog. Most airline websites say only passengers with physical disabilities — those with a visual or hearing impairment — can board a flight with dogs trained to assist them. There’s no mention of mental health assistance dogs.
In India, as in many countries abroad, only humans are permitted to fly in passenger cabins. Animals have to go cargo, except in cases where the animal in question is trained to assist a passenger with a disability. The general rule is clear: service dogs are allowed onboard flights. But most airlines interpret it to mean only persons with physical disabilities.
This is the grey zone that Jiyon, afflicted with Autism Spectrum Behavioural Disorder, and his therapy dog Simbaa, a nine-month-old labrador, navigated on January 12, when, after two weeks of negotiations, Jet Airways let them fly together.
It started with a traumatic train journey from Mumbai to Kolkata on December 23. Since dogs are allowed only in first class cabins on Indian Railways, the family booked themselves into one on Duronto Express. On board, Simbaa ate the pesticide meant for rats. Since the train did not have a halt, the labrador spent night and day vomiting. The dog settled after a visit to a veterinarian in Kolkata, but the family was jolted.
“I had checked airline websites and passengers with mental disabilities are not allowed to carry their therapy dogs on board. The only option was to send the dog into the cargo hold,” Parama said. That was when she decided to speak to Jet Airways.
She got a negative response from the airline’s reservation team in Kolkata. “They asked me what is autism, whether it is an abnormality, whether it is retardation. I explained and they said I should speak to their medical team in Mumbai. The Jet doctor said they had never done this before, but he asked me to get a medical certificate from Jiyon’s doctor on his condition and the need for him to travel with the dog,” Parama said, adding that his tone suggested there was little chance the dog would be allowed.
Parama said she persisted with the doctor and reasoned that if they could pay heed to passengers with physical needs, why not those with mental issues. The airline finally agreed to let the boy travel with his therapy dog. “It was probably the first time that any airline in India had allowed this. Jet took care of everything right from the time we entered the terminal building. It was the best flight Jiyon and I had ever taken,” said Parama.
A Jet Airways spokesperson said that as a policy, they permit service dogs for disabled guests or those with special needs and there is no charge applicable.
Dr Harish Shetty, the psychiatrist treating Jiyon, said: “It’s fantastic that an airline has recognized this disability and is compassionate. Therapy dogs have a calming influence on the patient. When flying, the child is in an environment that he is not used to, so having his dog on board helps greatly.” The doctor said he had not come across any cases in the past when a patient with a mental disability was allowed to fly with his/her therapy dog.