Dogs, cats, turkeys, pigs, rabbits, hamsters, marmots, even iguanas? No, you haven’t wandered into a zoo or pet shop. This is a typical cabin on one of many airlines, and those aren’t pets; they’re “emotional support animals”.
If you have the bad luck to be seated next to someone with one, well, be grateful snakes and ferrets aren’t allowed.
Anyone who ventures into a U.S. airport these days likely will see a passenger carrying a small furry creature wearing a special vest or tag identifying its distinctive function. Some of these are actual service animals, defined by the ADA National Network as “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
Many, though, fall into a looser category of animals that are supposedly helpful to travelers who don’t have blindness or PTSD but might feel less anxious with a nonhuman companion. The federal Air Carrier Access Act has been interpreted to require airlines to accommodate passengers who need — or claim to need — an animal for emotional support. The main thing it takes to qualify on most airlines is a letter from a physician or therapist, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reports.
This policy has spawned a host of websites offering quick, easy certification. One offers 24-hour service, including a five-minute questionnaire and chat with a licensed therapist. Says the site, “Getting an ESA Qualification Has Never Been Easier.”
Another highlights one big attraction: “Pets fly in cabin free.” Oh, we forgot to mention: If you want to take your pet cat aboard, you can expect to pay $125, but if you want to take your emotional support animal, you can expect to pay nothing.
The dual policy is an invitation to people willing to scam the system without regard for their cabin mates. One example, located by ABC News, is a young woman named Genevieve who said she wanted to take her dog, Kali, with her when she flew, so “she lied about having an emotional illness so that Kali could become an emotional support animal.”
Now, thousands of incidents have pushed the nation’s largest airline to tighten rules for passengers flying with service or comfort animals. In announcing the changes earlier this month, Delta said it flew 250,000 animals in those categories last year, an increase of 150 percent from 2015, while “incidents” such as biting or defecating had nearly doubled since 2016.
The list of odd ball creatures that have been spotted on commercial flights in the role of “emotional support animals” includes “Daniel Turducken Stinkerbutt” (a diaper-wearing emotional support duck), “Hamlet the Support Pig” and a turkey (name not available) who got the VIP treatment by being rolled through the airport to his/her/it’s departure gate in an airport wheelchair – ironically by Delta airport personnel! And there have been many others: kangaroos, pet birds, turtles, monkeys, and more.
But most of the questionable service or emotional support animals that have been allowed to fly – for free – in passenger cabins have been dogs. And most are noticeable by the fact their breeds are rarely or never used as “legit” service dogs because of known “personality” issues with the breed or the difficulty in training them for such serious and very demanding work. Lhasa Apsos may be beautiful and fun little dogs, but there’s a host of reasons why they aren’t used as service dogs. And that’s true of most breeds, and, of nearly all mixed-breed dogs.
And not even all Labrador and Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and other breeds commonly employed as service dogs are suited for the job. Actually, very few dogs, or other animals, selected for such exacting and demanding training actually complete the course and get successfully paired with a human who needs their services. Those that do make it almost invariably are so well disciplined about serving their human that they do not socialize with other travelers in flight. They typically sit, or lay at their human’s feet, rarely if ever bark, and are reliably house broken.
Finally, after several weak industry attempts failed to come up with a sensible response to the growing problem – one so ridiculous that on several occasions paying HUMAN customers have been removed from flights after claiming their allergies to animal dander were so severe that they could not fly with an animal on board – Delta finally has taken the bull by the horns, so to speak.
It is both clamping down on the abuse of the emotional support animal allowance required by the Air Carrier Access Act and drawing a safety-driven line prohibiting even certain kinds of animals that actually have legit training and certification as service animals. From now on, people traveling with service and support animals must submit required documentation for both themselves and their animal to Delta at least 48 hours before their scheduled flight departure. And among those potentially legit animals banned henceforth by Delta are those with hooves. That means even Cuddles the miniature horse can never fly on Delta even though he is just as well trained and equally certified as any legitimate service dog supporting a blind person.
Others on Delta’s list of animals forbidden from riding in the passenger compartment are: hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, sugar gliders, reptiles, amphibians, and goats, along with non-household birds (farm poultry, waterfowl, game bird, & birds of prey), animals improperly cleaned and/or with a foul odor, and animals with tusks or horns.
The airline now transports 700 service and support animals each day. So it has decided to take action to discourage illegitimate use of the emotional support option.
As of March 1, each owner will have to provide veterinary health and vaccination records, a letter documenting the traveler’s need and a signed “confirmation of training form” at least 48 hours before takeoff. “This comes as a result of a lack of regulation that has led to serious safety risks involving untrained animals in flight,” said Delta.
It’s a sensible step, and one other airlines should consider in the interests of the many passengers who don’t evade rules, lie and put others at risk to save money. The change will work to the benefit of those travelers with real conditions that warrant accommodation of their support animals.
Mr Americana, Overpasses News Desk
January 28th, 2018