By Robert McGarvey
First there was the peacock – a purported emotional support animal rejected by United Airlines. Then there was the emotional support hamster, supposedly flushed down the toilet at the direction of Spirit Airlines crew.
Question: what gives with all the “emotional support” animals?
Question: Do they belong on flights?
Somehow – suddenly – this topic has become one of travel’s hottest buttons. There are many who say the animals have no place on the plane. There are others who insist depriving them of their animal is cruelty.
Heated words get tossed around.
Sometimes passengers loudly squabble and punches are threatened.
Where do you stand?
Personally, I can’t see a business traveler traveling with an emotional support animal – if I’m wrong about that, tell me in the comments – but we are all nonetheless impacted by this.
Know this: emotional support animals are not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), landmark legislation signed into law by George H. Bush. Service animals are but service animals – dogs primarily – “must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.”
The US Justice Department specifically pointed out that emotional support animals are not service animals. “Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
It added: “some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places. You may check with your State and local government agencies to find out about these laws.”
The flap on airlines is not about service dogs – they have a clearcut right to accompany their owners aboard – it’s about emotional support animals, where, a kind of wild west rules and just about anything can be claimed to be an emotional support beast.
Up until now, it has been relatively easy to bring an emotional support animal on board. That is changing. Effective March 1, United, for instance, will require documentation for accepting on board an emotional support animal. The carrier elaborated: “In addition to providing a letter from a licensed medical/mental health professional, customers will need to provide a veterinary health form documenting the health and vaccination records for the animal as well as confirming that the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting.”
United said it carried 76,000 emotional support animals in 2017. That was up a staggering 77% from the year before.
Delta requires that paperwork be filed 48 hours before flying with an emotional support animal.
Pretty much all carriers can be expected to tighten the rules for emotional support animals.
Delta, by the way, has said it carries 700 emotional support animals daily and the beasts, it said, are wandering cabins, biting passengers, and relieving themselves wherever.
If you think some airplanes have become aviation equivalents of Noah’s ark, you’re not entirely wrong. Snakes, ducks, even ferrets have been brought aboard as “emotional support” animals. Squirrels and rats, too.
Airlines had been hoping the federal government would step in and regulate emotional support animals but that isn’t happening. A federal ACCESS Advisory Committee has been unable to agree on rules governing emotional support animals. The Dept. of Transportation has said it intends to draft its own regulations but there’s no sign of them.
So now the airlines are seeking to step into this void.
Given airline past behavior it is impossible to see any of this going smoothly, or even rationally. That’s just not how they work.
If you want to bring an emotional support animal on board, be sure to have your paperwork in order and talk early and often with the carrier before takeoff. Rules are in flux. Don’t get caught in the middle.
If you are on the plane to do business and the idea of sharing your row with a python makes you nervous, speak up. Tell the flight attendant. Tell the python’s owner. Say Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer.
But, right now, probably nobody is going to be entirely happy when it comes to emotional support animals. Not those who want to bring them or those who want them banned.