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The rise of comfort animals on commercial flights

Created date

March 9th, 2017
Comfort animals on commercial flights.

Comfort animals on commercial flights.

Travelers boarding a recent Delta Airlines flight were taken aback by the presence of an unusual passenger. Seated in economy class, in a dreaded middle seat, was a turkey. Yes, an actual turkey.

The gobbler’s presence on the plane was not part of a Thanksgiving stunt or promotion. Rather, he (or she) was there to give comfort to his owner. As an emotional support animal (ESA), the turkey was allowed to fly free of charge and his presence was protected by federal law.  

Airborne animals 

In recent years, the number of animals on commercial flights has increased dramatically, due in large part to the rapidly growing number of animals classified as ESAs. Most often they are dogs, but cats, pigs, rabbits, and even birds can be classified as ESAs. 

Unlike highly trained service animals that help those with disabilities navigate through the world, the purpose of ESAs is simply to help sooth their person. While many people, including veterans of war, rely on ESAs to maintain their mental and emotional equilibrium, the vague nature of “emotional support” has prompted some to game the system so they can take their pets everywhere free of charge.

Federal laws

Any passenger can bring a small, non-ESA animal on board an aircraft for a fee of about $125. The animal must remain in a carrier that fits under the seat and that carrier counts as one carry-on bag. ESAs, on the other hand, fly for free and can sit on the passenger’s lap. Clearly, it’s better to travel with an ESA. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which oversees the nation’s air travel, views any type of domesticated animal as a possible emotional support animal. DOT stipulates that ESAs must be “appropriately trained,” but there is no established standard for that training, nor do they have any official way of identifying ESAs.  

The federal Air Carrier Access Act says that airlines must accept identification cards, physician’s notes, or even “credible verbal assurances” that the animal accompanying a passenger is both trained and providing needed support. 

(Although DOT accepts a wide variety of animals as ESAs, in deference to flight crews and other passengers, an airline may prohibit “unusual” service animals such as reptiles, rodents, or spiders.)

ESA websites

The ill-defined rules have given rise to a burgeoning ESA industry. Retailers like Amazon sell a variety of ESA-related pet accessories—from a $50 ESA dog vest to a $25 holographic ESA identification card. These items are readily available because there is no official screening that identifies an ESA. 

ESA certification websites have also multiplied in recent years. The sites tout how easy it is to classify pets as ESAs, stressing that an animal doesn’t need any specific training because the animal’s very presence is what helps mitigate the negative symptoms associated with a person’s emotional or psychological disability.

Starting from that very low bar, ESA certification websites connect “patients” with mental health providers who, either over the phone or via email, ask a few basic questions about the person’s mental health and their relationship to his or her pet. If you manage to answer the questions properly and, more importantly, pay the designated fee, you will be given a doctor’s note attesting to your need for an ESA.

One such website, The National Service Animal Registry, claims to have a database of nearly 20,000 ESAs. All it takes to get on that list is $64.95, plus shipping and handling.

Barking back

There is growing concern that people are misusing the loosely written laws so they can easily travel with their animals without incurring additional fees. The DOT is currently considering rewriting their regulations. 

States too are imposing restrictions. Last year, Colorado unanimously passed a law making it a crime to misrepresent a pet as a service animal. Sixteen other states have passed similar laws.

While some make fraudulent ESA claims, disability lawyers worry that any tightening of restrictions could make it more difficult for those who rely on legitimate service animals. 

The rights of average travelers must also be considered. While the presence of animals aboard aircraft may help calm some, it can put others in distress. Social media is full of firsthand accounts of emergency landings prompted by incessant barkers or rogue poopers.  

Those with severe allergies may be sickened from flying near animals. When a passenger shows up with an ESA, it’s up to the already overburdened flight crews to find a seating plan that accommodates both the passenger with the ESA and those who have allergies or other issues with animals.  

While there is undeniable evidence that companion animals can be a miracle tonic to those who are anxious or uptight, an aircraft full of animals is anything but comforting. If the number of animal passengers continues to increase, there is no doubt that tighter restrictions will be sure to follow.

Do you think there should be stricter regulations on traveling with emotional support animals? Share your thoughts in the comments below.