Photo: eva_blanco/Shutterstock

How Emotional Support Animals Are Changing Air Travel

Culture Activism
by Reannon Muth Jun 2, 2010
When I started working as a customer service agent for an airline, I knew my job would involve placating difficult passengers.

BUT I NEVER considered three of those passengers would be snarling pomeranians.

I heard them before I saw them. Their high-pitched yelps ricocheted across the San Francisco International Airport’s departure concourse. Everyone in the check-in line turned to see where the commotion was.

“I’m checking in for the red-eye to New York,” the dogs’ owner said briskly. She placed her luggage on the scale and one of the pomeranians leapt onto the top of it, growling protectively and baring his teeth.

“Romeo!” The woman scolded, pulling at his leash. “Sorry, they’re not normally like this,” she said with an embarrassed smile.

“They?” I questioned, peering over the counter top. “How many dogs do you have with you?”

“Three,” she answered, curtly. And before I could inform her about the airline’s ‘one-pet-per-passenger’ policy, she hastily added, “They’re my emotional support animals.”

Emotional support animals, as the US Department of Transportation defines them, are “animals that assist persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.”

As I looked from the three barking, hysterical dogs to the middle-aged woman standing before me, I wondered what sort of emotional support they could possibly lend someone. They looked more frightened about their impending flight than she did.

But of course, I couldn’t ask her, because that would have meant violating a 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act that states airlines cannot inquire as to why a person requires a service animal.

The law was enacted to protect the privacy of the truly disabled, but it’s also created a loophole for those without a disability wishing to cheat the system and avoid the $100 fee that airlines levy on people traveling with a pet. Basically, anyone can pass their pooch off as an emotional support animal by purchasing a $10 “Service Animal” vest off the Internet (no documentation is required).

Although the traveler could be asked to produce a letter from a mental health professional, airlines are so afraid of getting slapped with a discrimination lawsuit that they rarely ask to see one. In fact, the Department of Transportation goes as far as to urge “carriers not to require documentation.”

Service animals (such as those that assist the blind or deaf) aren’t new to air travel. Service animals have been assisting the physically disabled since the 1920’s and are trained in a wide-variety of tasks, from fetching medication to detecting seizures or pulling wheelchairs.

But emotional support animals are not service animals.

They don’t assist with a physical disability but rather, an emotional one (such as agoraphobia) and aren’t required to undergo any training whatsoever. Unlike therapy dogs, who work in hospitals and rehab centers, are certified and bred for their gentle, calm demeanor, emotional support animals aren’t even required to be house-broken.

They’re pets.

Pets with a fancy title maybe, but pets nonetheless.

And while under normal circumstances, a pet would have to ride in a carrier under the seat or in the cargo hold, thanks to a 2003 guideline set forth by the D.O.T, emotional support animals can now sit on the floor or on their owner’s lap, free of charge.

Just like service animals.

This isn’t to say that emotional support animals don’t provide a valuable service for those who truly depend on them. Anyone who has experienced the unconditional love of a dog couldn’t dispute the fact that they and other pets provide love and comfort… especially to those suffering from anxiety or depression.

But is that enough to allow them an all-access pass on aircraft? And where do we draw the line? If an untrained Pumba the Warthog can fly for free because he provides emotional support, then why not an uncertified house plant? My bonsai tree offers me comfort, shouldn’t I be allowed to bring him on board, free of charge, as well?

Because as it is, what qualifies as an emotional support animal is only limited to the imaginations of the owners of the pets and the doctors who “prescribe” them. As long as the animal doesn’t pose a threat to the safety of the other passengers on board, any animal (with the exception of snakes, rats, or spiders) can be considered fit for the job.

And that includes ducks, monkeys and even pigs. In the last six months, I’ve checked in three emotional support parakeets and several emotional support cats and I even know of an agent who once assigned a bulkhead seat to a miniature pony.

“This isn’t to say that emotional support animals don’t provide a valuable service for those who truly depend on them.”

And what about the passengers who may not feel so happy about sharing their legroom with Mister Ed? Or what about those with pet allergies? While airlines may try their best to accommodate those allergic to pet dander (by moving them to the rear of the plane, for example), the D.O.T specifically states that the “inconvenience of other passengers is not sufficient grounds to deny a service animal carriage in the cabin.”

Once, while I was preparing to board a flight, a captain stormed off the plane and approached the gate podium. “Tell me,” he inquired in a low voice, “What the Hell is the deal with these emotional support animals?”

After I informed him of the regulations, he shook his head in disbelief. And then told me about how he’d spent part of his last flight chasing down an emotional support dog who’d escaped away from his owner’s grip and run amok under the seats, frightening the passengers.

The dog had eventually found a hiding spot near the aft lavatory, where he’d urinated on someone’s handbag.

“They’re turning our airline into a circus,” he fumed. And I had to agree.

What’s the solution?

Do we ban emotional support animals from air travel because of the actions of an untold number of dishonest people? Perhaps a simple solution would be to require that emotional support animals receive the same training that therapy animals or service animals receive. While that training can be expensive (up to $60,000 according to the New York Times), it would weed out the fakers from the legitimately disabled.

Or maybe the real problem lies with why people feel they have to rely on emotional support animals in the first place. Because if people are so afraid to fly that they need Old McDonald’s farm on-board with them, then perhaps what they need isn’t a more relaxed definition of the term “handicapped” but rather, a better therapist.

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