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Crewed Talk

”Pet” Peeve – an Airline Finally Starts to Stand up to Phony ESAs

”Pet” Peeve – an Airline Finally Starts to Stand up to Phony ESAs
Amanda Pleva

One of my favorite passengers was an English bulldog. He had a ridiculous name (let’s call him Donkey) and every time his owner went to the restroom, she asked us to hang onto him, and it was a joy. He was well-behaved, cute as a button, and had plenty of kisses for everyone. I still have photos on my phone of Donkey.

But Donkey’s flying days (at least as a free cabin-roaming pup) are numbered, and as much as I enjoyed having him on my lap that day, it’s about time.

Delta recently announced its decision to require additional paperwork for emotional support animals (ESAs) and add clarifying language for service animals following a recent incident in which an Atlanta man was attacked by a 50 pound “emotional support dog”. The man was in a window seat next to the dog and therefore could not escape the attack, which left him hospitalized and with multiple lacerations across his face.

The fact that it’s taken us this long to get here is shocking. While many flights feature cute animals whose presence is barely noticeable, there are nearly as many on which the behavior of the animal is not suitable for the environment. We are supposed to write up animals who bark, growl, urinate/defecate and otherwise impede the comfort and safety of other passengers, but when we as flight attendants or other airline employees do, it seems that, depending on the circumstances, these complaints are ignored or downplayed – such as when I’d watched multiple ESAs urinate all over the gate area, just to be told by the airport supervisor that there was nothing we could do (despite there being a written rule that this was behavior sufficient enough to deny boarding). Writing these incidents up flags the owner in the computer system in order to prohibit animals who cannot behave onboard from flying again, and having an uncomfortable conversation like this with the pet owner is seen as bad for business, and airlines have been far too reluctant to act.

For owners of dogs who must travel with an animal, such as moving long distance, I get the quandary. Pets too large to fit in a carrier under the seat would otherwise have to go in the cargo hold, which is a dicey and not always humane choice. Between 2014-2016, US-based airlines saw 66 pet deaths in cargo – mainly due to exposure to extreme temperatures and respiratory issues. My friend recently posted to Facebook a picture of his bulldog, happily sitting in his carrier, ready for their flight from the US to their new home in Finland. The next morning I woke to a heartbreaking post mourning the very same dog, who, when I’d gone to sleep the night before, was as fit as a fiddle.

But the alternative – turning Fido into phony Therapy Fido via a quick online certification or a letter from your doctor friend – is not the fair option either, including for the pet. Frequently I work long-haul flights with a large dog sadly smooshed at the feet of his owner and in between two unrelated seatmates who are less than thrilled to have every last inch of their own legroom infringed upon by someone’s massive dog. While at least this game plan allows the pet’s well-being to be monitored by its owner the whole time, is having no room to move or walk around the cabin really fair to the animal? Shouldn’t the animal supposedly providing comfort to its owner also be entitled to its own comfort? Few passengers seem to take this into consideration.

Of course, that’s not to mention the other passengers. A scenario that plays out time and time again is this: A flight will board completely full with at least one, often multiple emotional support animals, and a passenger will get the attention of the crew to alert them of severe animal-based allergies. If we can’t move the passenger with allergies to another seat, or doing so doesn’t suffice to alleviate the situation, we would then deplane the person with the allergies instead of the phony ESAs. And the next flight on which we re-accommodate them could quite possibly have the same situation waiting!

Animal incidents had been very steadily on the rise even prior to the advent of the ESA. I’ve had to chase down escapee animals time and time again when passengers refused to comply with our rule that animals must remain fully contained in a carrier – one cat even tried to claw its way into the container holding the inflatable slide raft on the door! I’ve also had a small dog, who’d been snuck out of his carrier while I was performing first aid on a passenger I’d sworn had died, suddenly try to attack me as I was rushing more medical equipment over. Many have ruined seat cushions because the owners refused to keep the animal off of an empty seat, which is a requirement set by most if not all airlines. Owners have often – but not always – been indignant and defiant when it comes to following rules set to protect fellow passengers and the animals themselves, and in fact, pet issues have caused more trouble than any other incidents in past years. It’s no doubt still the case, just packaged differently, thanks to phony new ESA designations.

So unless Donkey is a legit healing pup – and I do hope he is, I would love to see him and his owner again – it’s time to say goodbye to the onboard zoo environments we’ve been fostering. It’s long past time we concerned ourselves not so much with the comfort of people who care only about themselves, but the rest of us who want a comfortable, but most importantly safe, flight.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

View Comments (26)

26 Comments

  1. j2simpso

    January 23, 2018 at 2:20 pm

    I wish there were actually penalties to people pulling this stunt at airports. Why is it that if I park in a handicap spot without a permit I’ll get a $500 ticket but if I bring a fake ESA dog the most I’ll get are some ugly looks?

    Don’t get me wrong, if you have a medical need and your dog is trained that’s fine, but I think we’re all getting a little sick and tired of fifi bitching while we’re trying to pass through security.

  2. perktd

    January 24, 2018 at 5:57 pm

    I wish every airline would crack down on the phony ESA’s

  3. rjlon

    January 25, 2018 at 4:32 am

    Finally, common sense prevails.

  4. see2xu

    January 25, 2018 at 4:34 am

    As seems to be the case so often in these times, individual self-interest trumps 😉 the collective well-being. We’ve toyed with using the ESA dodge to have our two, well-trained and socialized, terriers accompany us, but have dismissed it. We’d buy them seats were it offered, but the present arrangement is just too fraught with opportunity for upset, and could be disruptive of the flight.

    I recently transported a 10 week old pup from BC to FL, 10 hours with two stops on DL. They were wonderful – his (legal) carrier wouldn’t fit in the first class footwell, but we made do. The pup was quiet and had no accidents. Props to DL – they charged me $125 (CAD) on departure, but also met me in SEA with a wheeled cart, took him and his paperwork through customs, and met me after I’d cleared immigration. That alone made the fee more than worth it.

    Mixing housepets with paying vacationers and business people is not being a good citizen traveler. It’s stressful for all concerned. The puppy has made his last airborne journey, and everyone will be the better for it.

  5. tafawke

    January 25, 2018 at 4:38 am

    My husband flies with an ESA … he is a pug… he never travels anywhere without him and they have never spent more than a night apart… We had to fly DXB – IST – BKK and BKK – IST – AMS as I was moving jobs internationally and Turkish allowed us to fly him in cabin… we paid for Business class for the room for all of us and he never left his bag… he could poke his head out for a pat and an ear scratch though… he is the best traveler ever… Flight attendants loved him too as he was a better behaved traveler than some… I am living in China and husband is in UK with said pug as we refused to subject him to quarantine in China so we would rather live apart than let the dog suffer… I now have OWE due to the number of flights I make to UK from China … I understand the reasons but not all ESAs are fake and not all are badly behaved… so it was nice to read a balanced review …

  6. wdchuck1

    January 25, 2018 at 4:49 am

    Amen, amen and amen

    the abuse of this privilege is rampant and downright wrong and i applaud Delta for standing up to this

    I only hope that other airlines follow suit….

  7. AlohaDaveKennedy

    AlohaDaveKennedy

    January 25, 2018 at 5:10 am

    Damn – just when I was going to bring my 2,000 emotional support crickets aboard my next Delta flight they go and change the rules!

  8. eventmgr

    January 25, 2018 at 5:22 am

    So long overdue, now for the rest of the airlines to step up. Considering a plane with several hundred people why the excess concern for a few people who are inconveniencing many.

  9. TEM3

    January 25, 2018 at 5:47 am

    I agree 110%. People need to take a train, boat, or drive if they have an animal. Maybe they should have to buy an extra ticket and a cover can be put on the seat.

  10. jrpallante

    January 25, 2018 at 6:07 am

    Unfortunately, the article does not mention the actual steps taken by Delta, but I hope they result in putting an end to this silliness. If you cannot leave the house without your damn animal, then you are probably not qualified to leave the house at all. I think this all started with that Hilton skank carrying her dog in her purse, which apparently some people thought was just the cutest thing.

  11. Pete838

    January 25, 2018 at 6:30 am

    In cabin animal travel should be limited to actual service animals such as those that serve the blind; not emotional support animals that perform no function other than to sit there and be something soft for their owners to stroke and feel better. The Americans with disabilities act does not recognize emotional service animals as service animals like it does seeing eye dogs, or other animals that provide a real service to the disabled person. It’s a completely different class of protections that has been abused far too long by people that are taking advantage of protections provided for people that truly need assistance.

  12. Dublin_rfk

    January 25, 2018 at 7:08 am

    Once again we see that there is NO one size fits all law. There’s ‘donkey’ and ones like it and there are real ‘esa’s’ and then there are the other 98 out of 100 non humans brought on board because their owner doesn’t care about rules, laws, or other people’s safety.

  13. dddane

    January 25, 2018 at 7:22 am

    As someone who has paid $1000s to United for my well-behaved little one to fly with me, this fake ESA thing annoys me to no end.

  14. misdirected baggage

    January 25, 2018 at 8:16 am

    I totally understand the problem with ESA’s. My personal peeve is with them in restaurants. However, this would be a much smaller issue if airlines better managed their pet operations. I once watched my Hawaii bound (I was moving and it was unavoidable for an older pet) dog summarily dumped on the 100 degree LAX tarmac with other cargo awaiting a still inbound flight. The gate agent was too busy with “challenging” seat assignment issues to do anything, calls went unanswered and it wasn’t until i could frantically flag down a compassionate cockpit crew that any action was taken. To this day, the airline never even responded to my complaint (with photos). The loss of 66 pets raies the odds of a disaster high enough that PAX will resort to any alternatives. This toxic stew is sadly incentivizing airlines to drop pet transport altogether.

  15. RUAMKZ

    January 25, 2018 at 8:17 am

    Yes, indeed, they need to be regulated……most of the ESAs are absolutely phony. OK, airlines are losing money on this, by not having them as pets. But that is not the issue………the real issue is them not being trained………..too often, they take a dump in the terminal…..or bite passengers or otherwise behave badly. We have enough problems already.

  16. Disneymkvii

    January 25, 2018 at 8:41 am

    #1, I can’t stand the phony ESA’s. Really, I don’t care for ESA’s at all… If your emotional stability is teetering on the fact that you have your dog or not, I don’t know that I want you to be flying at all.
    That said, I had a great experience with one in LAS during a layover. These progressive young women had their horrible little ESA with them and it decided that I looked friendly and tried to crawl up my leg. I reacted by flinging said ESA off of me and these Millineal MIsfits CUSSED ME OUT!! I mean, stuff that would make Eddie Murphy blush. It was unreal. Their dog tries to hump my leg and i’m the asshole for it.

    #endESA

  17. nycityny

    January 25, 2018 at 9:26 am

    I am glad that Delta is doing this. I am not a “dog person” and so don’t like the idea of traveling next to one, particularly if it is hostile or poorly behaved.

    That said, I did travel next to one for the first time a couple of weeks ago and it was a very pleasant experience, albeit in Business class on a United transcon. The woman next to me had the cutest very small dog that she kept on her lap during most of the flight (I suppose that was a breach of the rules since the dog was not in its container). The dog behaved better than any child or baby and was completely content during the entire six hour trip, as was I. Waking up from naps to the stare of the cute dog was rather pleasant.

  18. dju

    January 25, 2018 at 9:27 am

    I have flight attendant friends with pictures of alleged ESA parrots, monkeys, etc., and it is way out of hand. The solution is simple: You can no longer simply apply online. Rather, require a psychiatric evaluation to determine that the animal is truly essential, and require the owner to carry and show it when entering a flight. For those who really need it, the stigma will be worth it. For those who don’t, perhaps they will think twice. People with PTSD and other conditions for which ESAs are truly helpful are being hurt by the clods abusing this privilege. We don’t let non-disabled drivers park in a handicapped spot, and it is time we create an environment where fake ESAs are equally taboo rather than accepted with a wink.

  19. CEB

    January 25, 2018 at 9:46 am

    Totally agree. One of the main issues is that, I believe we all understand, that there will always be people who scam any system whether it be medicare/medicaid, welfare, handicap parking, whatever. The question always comes down to the level of abuse we as a society are willing to tolerate. Unfortunately today, IMHO, we are seeing an intolerable level of abuse of the FAA’s ESA policy combined with a complete lack of enforcement on the part of airlines. I fly regularly and have yet to observe any gate agent for any airline ask for or review paper work to validate an ESA claim by a passenger.

    Further, the airline policy of rebooking a passenger or passengers with allergies is totally absurd. The person traveling with an ESA should be just as liable to rebooking as a passenger with allergies. Full disclosure, I have moderately severe allergies to dogs and severe allergies to cats, so clearly I do have some bias even though I try to be logical and tolerant in these discussions.

    Bottom line is that ESA abuse has gone to far IMHO and it is time for the airlines to step up and actually strictly enforce policies regarding ESAs including calling the person’s psychological provider to ensure they are both under current treatment and the ESA is a current prescription, which is the policy required by the FAA.

  20. Spec1alk

    January 25, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    Rather than requiring a psychiatric evaluation, I think a better approach would be that ESA’s have no special rights (housing or flying). If someone ***truly*** needs the emotional support provided by an animal (likely as a result of a psychiatric evaluation), then they can get a “Service Animal” as defined by the ADA. A “Service Animal” has undergone special training to not only help the person with their medical condition, but has also been trained to be in tight spaces with large crowds.

    While I agree there is an additional cost to this that could be burdensome, it is better for all involved, including the animals.

    As for transporting animals that are not ADA Service Animals, their options would be checked luggage, FedEx/UPS, or a speciality transport provider.

  21. retiredandhappy

    January 26, 2018 at 12:32 am

    Easy solution:

    1. Ban all critters that don’t fit in a cage that can be placed under the seat.
    2. Airline provides an assortment of stuffed animals for those in need of emotional support. The assortment should include most dog breeds, most cat color/marking classifications, and the occasional monkey, parrot, macaw, pig, etc.

  22. KRSW

    January 28, 2018 at 3:25 pm

    Think about it… ALL PETS are ESAs! There is NO non-emotional reason to own one.

    ESAs have NO place in common indoor public areas, especially confined ones such as an airplane. If the plane loses its pressurization and the oxygen masks drop, Fido isn’t going to be helping you put on an oxygen mask in the middle of your panic attack. Worse, if you have to evacuate the aircraft, just how are you going to get your animal out of the aircraft safely? These slides were designed for humans, not animals. If you are that mentally unstable, you should be required to have or hire a HUMAN companion to take care of you. When the stuff hits the fan and seconds count, pets are a liability.

    Lastly, I have no issue with true medical service dogs. They are extremely well-trained, extremely well-behaved, often far better than humans riding on the aircraft, to the point that you’d never know they were there.

  23. QDDawg

    February 1, 2018 at 7:50 am

    I love everything about this article and Delta taking a stand #stoptheesamadness

  24. TiberiusOnTime

    February 1, 2018 at 2:14 pm

    This article fails to leave out the fact that those 66 deaths occurred is an extremely low number, seeing that approx. 2 million pets flew on US carriers over that same time period. All things being equal, that means your pet would have a 0.000033% chance or 1 in 30,303 that they will die in plane cargo. This is not taking into account how vulnerable these pets were before taking the flight. You have a much higher chance of losing your luggage than losing a pet on flight. In fact I’m betting the normal death rate for pets is much higher than the odds they will die in a cargo hold.

    Leaving some facts out, while trying to paint a false emotional picture is a prime example of how this got out of hand in the first place. IMO for this story to work you need better numbers to back up the argument that these pet owners had no other choice. One anecdotal story on FB doesn’t cut it. It’s extremely difficult to sympathize with (mostly) selfish pet owners that decided they would make everyone else extremely uncomfortable, just because they felt like it.

    To be fair the link to get the full statistic of 66/2,000,000 was shared. However it doesn’t help as most people are going to read 66 and further fuel their emotion instead of getting the real facts.

  25. ioto1902

    February 6, 2018 at 9:07 am

    USA. Please continue with ESA. Keep us making laugh. (us = non US countries)

  26. fivenue

    February 8, 2018 at 10:16 pm

    i hope they won’t do it anytime soon, i plan to bring my support godzilla or king kong next time i fly

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