Our Flight Attendant Weighs in on Emotional Support Animals

Travel with pets

Flyertalk’s Brian Cohen and I had a chat about his recent piece on emotional support animals. (Let’s just go ahead and call them ESAs, ok?) The topic had been on my list to write about for a while, and we thought a crew perspective might be an interesting addition to the debate.

First let me say, yes, ESAs are annoying to flight attendants (“Betty” helped confirm that with her Fed Up Flight Attendant article just this week). It only took a few short months on the job for me to feel certain that the policy was being abused. The seeming ubiquity of ESAs becomes quickly obvious, and my annoyance was two-fold.

Personally, I just got a clear feeling that every Joe and his cousin was using this excuse to bring Fifi in a way that she could ride in her owner’s lap (for free). It just didn’t seem fair to the rule-abiding passengers or people with legitimate emotional disabilities. Professionally, flight attendants care because we are stuck in the middle of ESA-claiming passengers and those whose space is being invaded when a ridiculously sized and/or behaved animal is involved. We empathize to the extreme, but there is literally nothing we can do – which is what the airlines might say (which is mostly right, but I’ll get to that).

I can confirm that few of these animals, in my experience, exhibit the demeanor of one with service training; however, ESAs are not required to have training. Their “mere presence” can be the therapy, according to the powers that be. This is why, when Brian inquired if I’d ever had a situation where we literally “knew” the ESA claim was bogus, the answer has to be no. We are well-trained to know that not all disabilities are visible. Between that very real fact and the situation that the bar for a “legitimate” ESA is actually so low (it’s down to a prescription, basically), there is literally no way to know, short of passenger confession, that a particular ESA claim is fake.

The latter part, I suppose, is the root of the problem. Why can’t we (as airlines) tighten up the requirements? As I read the regulations, I think we can. Brian covers the policies nicely in his column, but I would like to highlight that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) only governs service animals trained to preform a specific task. As such, it does not cover ESAs without training. That is down to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which does say airlines can require documentation, of which it doesn’t not specify.

Here’s where the airlines come in – and the reason my opinion on ESAs has evolved a bit over the years. I have developed a spot of empathy, too, for certain cases. For the last 12 years, a dear friend who lives far away has been wanting to spend a holiday with my family. She never has, all down to the problems of traveling with her sweet, quiet, tiny little Shih Tzu. The fees for his carry-on can be so high that the dog’s ticket turns out more than her own! On top of that, like many dogs, he doesn’t fly well and tranquilizers are not recommended. Even a friendly stroke inside his bag helps, but she’s had problems with crew members for doing that (as they are instructed). The dog is not allowed on Amtrak, nor on buses and she doesn’t own a car. All she wants is to not have to kennel her dog every time she travels, yet also not pay what feels like an extortionate fee for the honor of giving him a heart attack being disallowed to physically console him.

I can’t help but recognize – that’s a legitimately frustrating net of policies for a well-behaved pet. So when a neighbor (who admitted to claiming her dog as an ESA for similar reasons) suggested it, I empathized with the temptation. Airlines can be a bit more flexible about your carry-on pet’s confinement if they want, and they do not have to charge so much for a breathing carry-on. It costs almost nothing for them to process a small animal in the cabin. It just comes off as greedy to charge $125 each way for a carry-on that happens to breathe. In this sense, I feel airlines deserve some of the blame for the explosion of ESA animals, too.

I think the only way to rein in the problem is for airlines to tighten up ESA-acceptance. Some form of training (even if it just certifies appropriate public behavior) would be helpful, as would restricting the size or type of animals accepted. Airlines lose fees on ESA scammers, and passengers and crews are both annoyed, so I don’t really understand why they haven’t already done this – unless there’s some complication that I haven’t seen spelled out. So far, I’ve been told it’s simply “not high on the priority list.” Unless someone can demonstrate that airlines are losing revenue through the ESA claims or unless another passenger gets hurt by (and inevitably sues) a non-trained ESA animal, the problem will get little more action than eye rolls.

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Comments (Showing 3 of 3)

  • BearX220 at 10:14pm May 15, 2014

    In an airplane cabin, the behavior difference can be stark and damning between a legitimate, trained service animal and a fake “emotional support animal.” People who love their dogs, ferrets, or porcupines do not have the right to inflict them on others in an enclosed zero-privacy space, especially when they freak out from boredom, turbulence, etc. If the rules are being abused badly enough they ought to be banned, period, except for ultra-legit cases like seeing-eye dogs (who IME are amazingly well-behaved and serene inflight).

    Lots of people have animal allergies. This is a lot more serious than in-cabin peanuts.

    The head cases who claim to need “emotional support animals” seem to me to be pretty haywire and melodramatic even with their animal around. So leave ’em home.

  • miffSC at 3:23am May 16, 2014

    I have to agree with Sarah on this one. This country has too much of an ‘anti-canine in public’ attitude. I’ve just returned from a trip to Austria and Germany… there are well behaved dogs everywhere. On trains, on buses, on the metro and even in restaurants. Did they bother me or anyone else? No.
    And I don’t believe we can say that one type of allergy is worse than others, but I tend to see a lot less people with animal allergies (with cat allergies being the highest) than with food or seasonal allergies. An animal can be moved far enough away so as not to pose a serious ‘threat’ to someone who claims to have animal allergies.
    Let them travel in small kennels… reduce the outrageous fees. I agree.

  • riphamilton at 4:26am May 16, 2014

    this really is becoming an area where we probably need federal regulations (a) certifying ESAs and (b) providing penalties for those who falsely claim their pet is an ESA – how pathetic is that?

    i have no sympathy for people who avoid traveling due to pets. we all make life decisions (i.e., whether to have kids) that affect our flexibility. if one can’t afford to travel with a pet and is unwilling to leave it with a friend, then don’t have a pet. flouting the rules by claiming the pet is an ESA is an incredible disservice to those who actually need seeing-eye dogs, etc.

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