The Unfriendly Skies: When Emotional Support Animals Attack at 35,000 Feet
Most people are familiar with service animals and there is no denying the vital function that they provide for the people they assist. To perform this role, service animals are specially trained to assist people with disabilities, such as blindness or deafness. For this reason, service animals, usually dogs, are permitted in places other types of pets may not be, such as the main cabin of an airplane. Unlike service animals, “emotional support” animals—or animals that provide some therapeutic benefit to owners with mental disabilities—are a largely unregulated group and several recent incidents call into question how these animals should be regulated in public.
Federal law protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination and applies to airlines. “[I]n providing air transportation, an air carrier” is prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Further, other federal regulations detail when airlines must permit passengers with disabilities to travel with service animals. However, in terms of emotional support animals, airlines are not required to accept an animal “unless the passenger provides [the airline] current documentation” listing the following: (1) their recognized mental or emotional disability, (2) the need for the animal to travel with them by air, (3) the individual providing the assessment is a licensed professional and verifies that the passenger is under his or her care, and (4) the date and state in which the license was issued.
Recently, emotional support animals have been making their way into the news for the wrong reasons. In one instance, a woman tried to bring an emotional support peacock on a United Airlines flight, but she was denied by the airline. Federal regulations permit such a denial; in fact, airlines can decline snakes, exotic animals, or other animals that might impede movement in the aisle of a plane.
However, physical safety issues involving emotional support animals are arising more frequently. The most likely cause of this increase is that “[u]nlike service animals such as guide dogs, support animals need no training.” This means an emotional support animal could be very aggressive, while service animals are specifically trained not to be disruptive. On a recent Southwest Airlines flight, a young girl was bitten by an emotional support dog while boarding the aircraft. On a Delta Air Lines flight, a dog lunged at a passenger and the resulting attack “left him with facial wounds that required twenty-eight stitches and scars that are still visible today.” Untrained emotional support animals also pose a safety risk to trained service animals who they might attack.
The major airlines have been reviewing their policies regarding emotional support animals. United began a review after recording a “75% increase in emotional-support animals on flights and ‘a significant increase in onboard incidents.’ The number of comfort animals flying on the airline jumped from 43,000 in 2016 to 76,000 last year, according to Charlie Hobart, a United spokesman.” A similar situation can be observed with its competitor Delta, which “flew 250,000 animals in those categories last year, an increase of 150% from 2015, while ‘incidents’ such as biting or defecating had nearly doubled since 2016.” Even though the United States Department of Transportation “does not collect data on the number of service and support animals on flights . . . disability-related complaints that it tracks related to service animals nearly quadrupled between 2012 and 2016.”
The motivation for some passengers to exploit the system and have their household pets qualify as emotional support animals is largely financial: “Airlines charge up to $125 each way to carry a small pet in the cabin. There is no charge for service and support animals.” Furthermore, an ABC News investigation revealed the ease with which people can obtain the necessary documentation. One person interviewed, who now admits she no longer claims her pet as an emotional support animal, initially “found a website that provided a psychological evaluation for free, all she had to do was fill out a questionnaire.” After providing false answers on the questionnaire, she “received the special letter she needed to show she was permitted to have an emotional support animal” and thus, her animal could travel with her, free of charge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research on the impact emotional support animals actually have on their owners is inconclusive at best.
For airlines and their passengers, change is underway. Beginning on March 1, 2018, both Delta and United will require passengers attempting to fly with emotional support animals to “provide the airlines with documents certifying that their animal is properly trained to behave in public and forms detailing their animal’s health and vaccination records, in addition to signed letters from a licensed doctor or mental health professional.” As Paul Mundell of Canine Companions correctly points out, “[P]eople who fake their need for an emotional support animal should be ashamed.” However, personal guilt should not be the only barrier preventing passengers from exploiting the system. While the Department of Transportation failed to issue guidance on emotional support animals by July 2017—a congressionally issued deadline—it is now expected to do so by July 2018. Hopefully, new guidance will ensure the friendly skies remain friendly—and safe.