It’s holiday travel time, so here’s a handy checklist before you head to the airport: Got your earphones? A scarf in case it gets cold on the plane? Slip-on shoes for the TSA line? Doctor’s note for your emotional support snake?
Scratch that last one.
In spite of what you may have heard about a wide range of emotional support animals showing up at airports, you won’t find a warm welcome for your snake on board that flight.
Current Department of Transportation rules allow airlines to ban snakes, as well as rodents (sorry, emotional support squirrel), spiders and a few other creatures. But that emotional support cat rubbing his hair all over your black sweater? Or that dog in the next seat who’s begging for your pretzels? They’ve got a ticket to ride. At least for now.
Transportation industry watchers and a slew of interested parties — including disability rights advocates, airlines and service dog providers — are awaiting updated rules from the DOT that will further refine policy around emotional support animals on airplanes. Federal policy changes are expected soon, perhaps before the end of the year. And though no one yet knows exactly what shape the new rules will take, chances are good that it’s about to get a little harder to bring your ESA on board.
Keeping a menagerie of strange animals, not to mention pets masquerading as service animals, off flights seems like a good idea, right? But emotional support animals, in spite of the bad rap they’ve gotten lately, represent an issue that is more complex than it seems.
For some people, like Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s for Warriors, which provides service dogs to veterans with PTSD and other injuries, stricter DOT rules can’t come soon enough. “Hopefully, it will be an improvement over the current rule,” he says, “which is wide open and not able to contain the number of untrained animals that are showing up on airplanes.”
In Diamond’s view, emotional support animals, which are not required to undergo specific training, don’t belong on flights. “We think only service dogs should be allowed on planes,” he says. “The issue with emotional support animals is that it’s just ripe for abuse.”
That abuse has grabbed plenty of headlines. In recent years, online businesses have emerged selling vests and harnesses for service animals as well as notes from therapists confirming the need for an ESA. Airlines typically require a doctor’s note for an ESA to be allowed to board. In some cases, notes purchased online require that an online questionnaire be filled out to assess need, but the ability to easily buy credentials has led some pet owners to falsely claim ESA status for their animals.
The incentives for cheating go beyond the convenience of being able to bring your animal into off-limits locations; pet travel fees on airlines are typically in the hundreds of dollars. “These are people who just don’t want to pay to get their dogs on the plane,” says Diamond, “and it’s causing a lot of trouble for people with legitimate service dogs.” In fact, he says, the No. 1 problem veterans traveling with his organization’s service dogs report is difficult encounters with ESAs or poorly trained service animals.
Jason Haag, CEO of service dog provider Leashes of Valor, is himself a veteran who suffers from PTSD and traumatic brain injury and has traveled with his service dog, Axel, for years. He’s in support of a rule change for ESAs too. “Honestly,” he says, “to put any untrained animal in a tube going 500 miles an hour with no exit doesn’t sound like a great idea to me.”
Untrained animals, Haag points out, may cause havoc on a flight by barking, moving around too much or being aggressive with humans or other animals. “Unfortunately, when you have too many animals in an enclosed area and they have not been trained, bad things can happen,” he said.
Airline employees try to maintain space between animals, but because service dogs should ideally be seated in the bulkhead row, ideal distance can be hard to achieve.
Haag and Diamond both support the idea of a national service dog registry, and Diamond has been working for two years to create an optional credential that, much like a parking permit for people who are disabled, could be promoted as a quick, visible assurance that a dog is a service animal. “It would be like TSA Precheck for dogs,” he says, “and make it easier for everyone and much easier to fly.”
Public perception around “fake” service animals has also increased the scrutiny people like Haag receive when they show up with a dog in tow. In 2015, Haag, a retired Marine captain, was flying home to Virginia from California after accepting an award for Axel, who was honored at the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards. But when an American Airlines employee decided to question whether Axel was a legitimate service dog, Haag was kept from boarding his flight. “I was furious,” he says, “but yet incredibly prepared for what happened. So I know firsthand what it’s like with crazy regulations and people not understanding all of them.”
Petrof points out that, in spite of airline reports that show the numbers of animals on planes is steadily rising, serious issues with ESAs still appear to be relatively few. “We don’t believe there are that many documented cases of problems,” he says. “Instead, it’s really a few high-profile cases that get everyone talking.”
Remember Dexter the Peacock? He sparked plenty of internet outrage in 2018 after his owner tried to take him on board a United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey. (United said no, and promptly tightened its ESA policy.) But Petrof says we don’t need new government intervention against oddities like Dexter. “That peacock has done large volumes of damage,” he says, “and that’s not the problem we have to solve.”
Disabled rights advocates have long held that barriers to access must be kept low in order to promote inclusiveness for people who are already facing considerable obstacles, which is why public access policy severely limits even the questions a person seeking accommodations can be asked.
Requiring a higher standard of proof for ESAs, Petrof says, could become a barrier to travel, especially for disabled people with limited means. “If you need proof beyond a basic doctor’s note,” he says, “depending on what kind of health care you can afford, you may not get to see your psychiatrist more than once per year. And wait times for mental health treatment can be long. You may not be able to satisfy these requirements in time to take a flight. So what it results in is, if you’re poor and disabled, you’re kicked off the plane.”
Not that Petrof is in favor of people scamming the ESA policies to get their pets a free ride: “We’re not trying to protect the people who are abusing the law,” he says, but he doesn’t believe an ESA crackdown is worth potential difficulties for the disabled community. “Folks who need an emotional support animal in order to use the transportation service are faced with having restrictions placed on their ability to travel, just because some people try to play fast and loose with the law.”
Instead, Petrof believes the ESA issue is one for the airlines to solve, on a case-by-case basis. “Once we start changing rules,” he says, “it seems like access for disabled people ends up getting limited. The airlines need to address the dog or animal that is causing a problem. They have a lot to figure out: passengers with allergies, seating, keeping dogs separated. It’s complicated. But honestly, if a dog is sitting quietly at someone’s feet and not bothering anyone, why do we need to know why that dog is there?”