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Will 2020 Mark The End Of Emotional Support Animals On Airlines?

April 27, 2020

Michael Goldstein Contributor

In 2020, the issue of Emotional Support Animals (ESA) on planes may come to a head. Airlines for America, an airline lobbying group, is pushing for new rules for “animals in the sky” that would effectively limit the service category to trained animals, such as guide dogs. This would eliminate untrained ESA animals who purportedly provide psychological support to their owners.

To many, the topic brings a menagerie to mind, with airline tales of emotional support snakes, ferrets, hamsters, and monkeys. American Airlines had to banish an 80-pound support pig after it squealed and defecated in the aisle. Dexter the emotional support peacock was turned away from a United flight and subsequently died.

Last summer, a flight attendant was reportedly bitten by an emotional support dog during an American Eagle flight from Dallas to Greensboro, North Carolina. The flight attendant required five stitches in her hand.

Airlines for America is leading an effort to get the Department of Transportation (DOT) to change the definition of “service animal” on aircraft to match that of the American Disability Act. The ADA definition of service animal is “any dog that is 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. Tasks performed can include…pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button.”

The key word is probably “trained.” An airline spokesperson told me it was all about the explosive growth in untrained ESA animals and their “uncontrolled” behavior. Airlines for America, which represents US airlines like American, United, Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue and Hawaiian, enlisted 80 non-profit organizations in their effort to get DOT to change the rules. These include the Airline Pilots Association, Association of Flight Attendants, the American Kennel Club, Guide Dogs for the Blind, Travelers United and K9s for Warriors.

The airlines group notes the doubling of ESA certifications in the last three years, with websites selling on-line certifications from psychiatrists, harnesses and tags. Some allege this is a scam for pets to fly free, instead of their owners paying airlines up to $125 each way. The number of emotional support animals flown has grown from 500,000 to over a million since 2016.

Yet the issue may not be as clear-cut as portrayed. Under the Air Carrier Access Act, (ACAA) and separately, under Federal housing laws, an animal doesn’t have to be trained for a specific task to be considered an emotional support.

Professor Rebecca F. Wisch of the Michigan State University College of Law wrote, “An emotional support animal is an animal…that provides a therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship. The animal provides emotional support and comfort to individuals with psychiatric disabilities and other mental impairments. The animal is not specifically trained to perform tasks for a person who suffers from emotional disabilities.”

Such assistance animals are recognized as a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability under the Federal Fair Housing Act, based on documentation of a disability. Wisch writes, “Emotional support animals have been known to assist disabled individuals with severe depression, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many other emotional and psychiatric disabilities.”

For the airlines, under DOT rules the current definition of service animal is “any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a person with a disability; or any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.” Documentation, such as a doctor’s note, “may be required of passengers needing to travel with an emotional support or psychiatric service animal.”

To the airlines, the issues are clear. They want to be in control of the cabin, without untrained animals posing a nuisance or danger. There may also be concern with loss of income from owners reclassifying their pets as ESA animals.

The new rule making submitted for comment to the DOT last year by the airlines will “address the appropriate definition of a service animal and include safeguards to ensure safety and reduce the likelihood that passengers wishing to travel with their pets on aircraft will be able to falsely claim that their pets are service animals.”

“They’d have to change the law. They’re trying to make an end run,” says Professor Favre, Professor of Law at Michigan State University and head of the Animal Legal Web Center. “I don’t think Federal law will let them do that. Emotional support animals arose in the context of housing. It was broadly supported. There was no requirement of training, as the animal wasn’t going to do anything but be there. You did need to get a letter proving you had a psychiatric assistance animal [to present to the landlord.]”

Other than housing, “The airplane is the only other place that animal is allowed to go. You can’t bring your emotional support chihuahua to Starbucks,” says Professor Favre. “There are people with phobias about flying—I could see an emotional support animal being very helpful. The difficulty is who really needs it.”

“There needs to be a middle ground—too many people are abusing the system. All of these animals on the ESA side are crowding out the true service animals. Now people are getting looked at funny if they show up with a trained Labrador because the public thinks it’s another fraud,” adds Prof. Favre.

Professor Favre cited Delta Airlines as a potential ESA model. “Delta has on their website the requirement that paperwork be filed in advance. That’s a good step for filtering ESA requests. The Delta profile might work well for the airline industry. If the animal shows up and seems to be a risk, they can say no. But I’d go with the presumption that the paperwork represents a legitimate position.”

Statistics say that up to one in five Americans has a mental illness. Is there a continuing need for emotional support animals to help people get through our traumatic air travel system?

The airline industry might get the rule change they seek, says Prof. Favre. “There’s nobody organized on the other side.” But that might not be the last step in the ESA saga. “A lawsuit is possible, because it is going too far.”

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