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‘Service’ Animals: Why Are Crews Complaining?

If you’ve flown anywhere lately, chances are you’ve had a furry seatmate, or at least one nearby. It’s an open secret that in order to transport one’s beloved pets on a flight, it’s no challenge to have them designated a “service” or “emotional support” animal. Many flight attendants consider themselves animal lovers, and I am definitely no exception to this. So why the nearly universal pushback from crew members?

Based on personal experience and the chatter of my colleagues, the problems onboard are almost universally caused by the attitude of the owner and not the behavior of the animal. Let’s start from square one: getting the pet to qualify as an assistive animal. My airline, for instance, requires no written documentation for a service animal (one that is helping to provide tasks on behalf of a person with disabilities, and obviously this definition is vague to encompass a range of disabilities and needs). An emotional support animal, on the other hand, does require the paperwork. All the passenger needs in order to acquire this documentation is an ability to use a search engine and around $70.

I was irritated (but not surprised) to find that without even really paying attention and blindly clicking through two pages on sites like this one, I was able to get through most of the process of registering my non-existent pet to become an emotional support animal. I just had to say that I suffer from any disability ranging from autism to stress, and that “Fido” wouldn’t poop in the aisle or bite the passenger next to me. Given that registration is so easy and required absolutely no thought or education on my part, and getting to the final step — payment — happened less than 30 seconds after I’d started, it’s no surprise that many owners certify their pet unaware of what is required of them and their animal onboard.

Like anyone with a heart, I couldn’t imagine keeping an animal onboard in a carrier for an entire long-haul flight. It’s more humane than being kept unmonitored in the cargo hold (which my carrier refuses to do), where they are likely frightened and any number of things can and do go wrong. However, many flight attendants can share plenty of stories of when an animal caused trouble on a flight, or, more likely, the owner was not adhering to rules and caused a ruckus when reminded of them. So what is the answer for passengers with animals too large for a carrier that fits under the seat but needs to travel long distance?

Owners do need to keep in mind why a lot of rules exist onboard — it’s a small environment to be in for so long, for the animal and for people who may not want to be with one in the cabin. So there needs to be absolute reassurance that the animal will be well behaved, and when people falsely acquire certification for their pets and don’t adhere the rules, neither the crew nor fellow passengers can trust that any of them will act as properly trained service animals. Real paperwork and training become meaningless. Accordingly, advocates for people with disabilities and legitimate service animal groups are gaining traction in the fight against those acquiring false documentation for untrained pets, with laws being passed making service animal fraud a crime.

When the “service” and “emotional support” animal designations are so widely abused, it does a major disservice to those who really do require it. It’s rare to have a crew briefing anymore when we don’t roll our eyes when we hear the words “service animals” because so often they are not truly performing a service and become a nuisance we have to deal with later. I’m all for legitimizing pet travel onboard as long as the rules are strictly adhered to, proper training is required, and we stop calling these pets what they are not. Requiring a certificate from an obedience school might be a good first step … maybe for pet owners as well!


Comments are Closed.
Rksue August 2, 2016

I get both sides of the coin-- Children/Pets. I have taken care of many disabled travelers in the past years. I have traveled with my blind Mother who is turning 88 in a couple of months. We have used a wheel chair to get her around the airport as she cant walk as far as she wishes and because we have had people knock her over in the airport. She has a 16 lb dog that will be traveling with her this month. I will not be with my Mom. Her little dog keeps her emotionally de-stressed. I moved her up to first class and a window seat so that she will not be far back in the plane and her soft sided dog carrier wont be in anyone's way. She may unzip the carrier top to pet the dog from time to time but I can assure you she will not be taking the dog out of the carrier. I am paying the pet fee. In all the years of flying and taking care of handicapped people I have seen younger people of late more willing to pretend they are disabled etc. so they can board the plane first. I have had Global Plus Passengers with their rude 15 year olds literally knock me out of the way (I had Global Plus on this flight) because they wanted to be the first 4 people boarding. Why??? who knows. I have never had someone with an Animal knock me out of the way, treat me nasty or cop such a bad attitude. As the generations change, and people have less and less respect for each other, less sportsman like conduct and no empathy, the airlines and the ADA will have to come up with something new to stop the amount of fraud that has gained momentum in our society as a whole. We cant challenge someone on these statements that they make because we can be seen as being discriminatory. We cant ask if they are handicapped because its not politically correct. I cant understand why people think that they should have the right to bring their pet inside a restaurant. I just had this happen at the 4 Seasons in Palm Beach. The manager said they are not allowed to challenge a customer if they say the dog is for their health in anyway.

horseymike July 29, 2016

this whole "service animal " has become a joke. everywhere you go out to eat, the grocery store, and last but not least the airport , all these people are basically bringing their pets along. you never saw this a few years back. the topper was the turkey on the delta flight.

Live4Upgrade July 20, 2016

I was on a UA domestic flight where the owner had a long (15 feet or more) leash and allowed her dog to wonder at will up and down the aisle. I took a picture, send to United from the plane's WiFi and got an immediate response that the FA's would be met upon arrival by Manager to be reprimanded. The owner was a 20-something blond lady. Her only disability looked to be that she was a IDIOT.

lamphs July 19, 2016

I see what seems to be a greater number of dogs traveling on airplanes. Some are simply in a carrier that fits under the seat and are well behaved. And I have no issue with service dogs. These dogs serve a valid purpose. If I was sitting next to someone with a true service dog, I would do everything that I could to ensure the comfort of the passenger and the dog. But it seems that I am observing a greater number of emotional support-type dogs, walking through airports with their handlers or on airplanes. During my short layover at ORD on Saturday morning, I observed at least 1/2 dozen. When I see a 20-something person, with a medium-size dog, with no special harness identifying the dog's purpose; having a friendly conversation with other passengers; carrying a backpack with her water bottle and yoga mat and hiking boots, suddenly leave her group and jump in front of group 1 as soon as boarding is called for "passengers needing a little extra time", I think abuse of the privilege. I have also observed a case that a passenger, sitting in a row with a dog, stated that he had an allergy to pet fur. He was told that he would have to move from the seat he purchased, rather than the person with the dog. I'd be highly irritated if I were in that situation. It is unfortunate that folks can game the system to their advantage and the airlines seem to be able to do little about it.

weero July 19, 2016

While I sympathise with the author, the reality is different and bleaker than depicted. The crew must not interfere with ESA owners or holders of service animals. The airlines are pretty clear on that the crew and other pax have next to no say when it comes to those creatures. The safely of real allergies and real kids is subordinate to the demand to bring an ESA as the former would have to prove real damages in case something happens whereas the ESA holder just has to assert it. Their 'needs' always trump real needs for the time being. I hope this will change to a compromise that will supports everyone to some degree, say that ESAs have to pay the pet fee and have to stay in a form of cage or confinement but are allowed in the cabin.