In recent years, it has become commonplace to see a multitude of animals in the cabins of domestic flights in the United States. Anything from cats and dogs, to pigs and miniature horses, has, up until now, been given a free pass under the title of a support animal. But these leniencies may soon be coming to an end. The federal government is cracking down, with a new rule which will see a significant restriction as to the types of service animals allowed on commercial flights.
Our Fit Pets explain that an emotional support animal (ESA) is a pet that has been certified by a licensed mental health professional as being an important component of the treatment program of an individual. In other words, a health professional, such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist prescribes a patient an emotional support animal to assist them with comforting and thus minimizing the symptoms of their emotional/psychological disability.
Any domesticated animal may qualify to be an ESA – cats, dogs, mice, birds, snakes, rabbits, rats, mini pigs, etc. They also need no specific training as it is merely their presence that can ease a person’s psychological or emotional disability symptoms. Flying can be a stressful experience for many and particularly for those with a disability that affects their emotional wellbeing, so it’s common for people to opt for the company of their ESA when taking a trip that involves traveling by air.
In recent years, there has been a growing backlash to passengers taking advantage of the airline industry’s lax approach when it comes to where the boundaries fall on what constitutes an ESA. Passengers have attempted to board with all manner of wild and exotic pets, including the widely reported incident in 2018, when a woman tried to take a peacock on a United Airlines flight for ‘emotional support’. Two years earlier, the ‘comfort turkey’ that was allowed to board a Delta Airlines flight made the headlines.
These untrained animals can display significant behavioral problems which pose both comfort and safety concerns for both crew members and passengers alike.
“For years, our members have been dealing with untrained, sometimes wild animals in the aircraft cabin,” says American Airlines flight attendant, Paul Hartshorn, Jr., also a spokesperson for the Flight Attendants’ Union.
“This has made many passengers incredibly uncomfortable,” Hartshorn went on to say. “It’s the incessant barking, defecation in the cabin which happens more times than I care to tell you.”
According to Hartshorn, this issue has long been a significant cause for miserable flight experiences for many, from allergy outbreaks to incidences of flight crew members and even uninvolved passengers being bitten by untrained animals.
It’s also a welcome change for members of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), who deem it an important safety measure.
“It is inappropriate to have untrained or undertrained service animals in confined public spaces such as the aircraft cabin. The alignment of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) definition of service animals with the definition under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) creates much-needed consistency between the rules in the air and the rules we follow on the ground in other public settings. We commend the Department of Transport (DOT) for setting clear and enforceable standards,” said Julie Hendrick, APFA National President.
Finally, after a year-long process of determining the new parameters, the Department of Transport (DOT) is cracking down on this issue. The new rule, as outlined by the DOT, “defines a service animal as a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
The airlines must also be provided with documentation to confirm both the passenger’s disability and the dog’s certification as a service animal.
Whilst these changes are a welcome interruption to the chaos that many feel it has become, others are concerned with the implications for discrimination against the disabled community.
According to the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, Curt Decker, these newly imposed restrictions are focused on prioritizing corporate gains over the rights of Americans living with disabilities.
“These changes will only make the experiences of travelers with disabilities worse. Considering the airline’s abysmal record of mistreating people with disabilities, I have no faith that they will administer this new system fairly,” says Decker.
Decker went on to explain that whilst there are those who take advantage of the law in order to avoid paying their pet’s flight fees, those with a genuine need for a support pet should not have to pay the price. The NDRN has confirmed that they will be lobbying the Biden administration to revise or abolish the new rule.
In the meantime, the new regulations are set to take effect in January 2021. Airlines will then have to make stricter discretionary decisions as to whether an animal will be allowed to board as an EDA. Otherwise, passengers will face a fee of up to $175 to bring their pet along.