I’ve long been skeptical of pets on planes. Under the wing, they’re subjected to terrible conditions; I think it’s incredibly irresponsible for pet owners to put their animals through that just for the convenience of bringing their pets on vacation. When animals are small enough to be brought into the main cabin in a carrier, they’re frequently poorly behaved – not to mention extremely expensive. But the worst of all is a growing trend to skirt those fees: by having your pet designed as an “emotional support animal” (ESA), you can bring him/her along in the main cabin for free.
It’s not that I don’t believe that animals can provide comfort; I know from growing up with dogs that they certainly can. My dad likes to joke that when I was really little, my dog was my best friend (nerd alert!) and we did everything together. As an adult, I know how stressful flying can be, and I understand that for some people with anxiety/mental illnesses, that level of stress is just untenable. Prescription medication can help someone with a fear of flying who needs to travel, and in recent years, ESAs have become another option. I can see how having an animal for comfort could be invaluable to someone in this circumstance, but I take great issue with the fact that ESAs are largely unregulated.
If you’d like to bring your pet with you on a plane, you’ll need to pay a fee. On most US airlines, it’s $100-150 per pet per flight. But for a one-time cost of about $50, you can go online and buy a special jacket for your pet that declares them to be an ESA. Couple that with a doctor’s note and you can now avoid any airline fees and bring your ESA on board with you. Pet fees; what pet fees? Not to mention the fact that paying the legitimate pet fee affords you fewer privileges than if you fraudulently have your pet classified as an ESA, as this story from the LA Times illustrates.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, by law, no one can force you to answer any questions other than whether your animal provides a service and what they have been trained to do – you don’t even need the fancy vest. The Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Service Act is even more lax, noting that ESAs don’t have to be trained to perform any kind of task. By way of regulations, most airlines require your ESA to fit under the seat in front of you (though unlike regular pets, ESAs can be out of a carrier and in your lap), and ask you to provide a letter from a licensed mental health professional verifying that you have a DSM IV condition and are under active treatment… but there are plenty of fake internet doctors willing to provide such a letter for a fee. Ugh! And then an ABC News experiment found that you may not actually need to buy any kind of documentation, since airline staff doesn’t check these letters thoroughly and you can pretty much just make up anything you want.
It has always really frustrated me to see people game this system – and it’s often very obvious when that is the case. I’ve seen animals that were clearly not trained for any sort of service, and got their owner more worked up by their in flight antics (like when a scared “ESA” ate another passenger’s meal and then had diarrhea all over the first class cabin). And while I haven’t witnessed this personally, there are many news reports detailing the interesting therapy animals passengers have successfully brought on board, from ducks to pigs to monkeys to turtles to turkeys. Sorry, but I’m not buying it.
In spite of all this abuse, I’ve always felt bad for the people who do need ESAs, and who get lumped in with all the other charlatans and looked at askance by other passengers and crew. However, a review of the numerous studies about how animals can affect mental health has proven inconclusive. According to this interesting piece in the Washington Post, many of these studies have confused correlation with causation, didn’t include a control group, or didn’t have a large enough sample size to be conclusive. So perhaps no one needs an ESA on the plane? The real losers in all of this are those who legitimately require trained service animals. As this article from USA Today points out, blind people had to fight for their right to have service dogs in public places – and now that right is diluted by the many fakers who just want to fly with their pets for free.
Fortunately, I’m proud to live in a state that’s at least trying to get it right. Last year, Colorado passed a bill making it illegal to misrepresent a pet as a service animal. It’s not really clear how this can be policed, but I think it’s at least a step in the right direction. Now, I just wish that the DOT would issue a firm ruling to help eliminate the fraud at a national level. Unfortunately, while the DOT created a commission last year to look into ESAs, discussions last November stalled and were ultimately abandoned due to an inability to come to consensus.
Looking on the bright side: while I titled this post “snakes on a plane”, the regulations note that airlines do not have to accommodate “unusual” service animals like snakes, reptiles, and spiders. I’m not sure how turkeys, pigs, and marmosets don’t also qualify as “unusual”, but… thank goodness for small favors?