photo by Emmett Tullos
It isn’t just you; some airports are looking more like menageries these days.
Dexter, the “emotional support peacock,” made the rounds on social media this month when the bird’s owner tried, and failed, to board a United Airlines flight at Newark International Airport with Dexter in tow. A few days later, United announced it would change its policies for emotional support animals effective March 1, a move it had reportedly considered since last year. Delta Air Lines announced similar changes in January. American Airlines has said it is reviewing its policies on comfort animals as well. While Dexter the peacock was unusual enough to go viral, the increasing number and variety of emotional support animals on commercial flights is a pervasive issue.
First, it is worth taking a moment to define what we’re discussing. Service animals, more specifically service dogs, receive specific training to help individuals with disabilities to live more independent lives. They are defined fairly specifically by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most people think of guide dogs for those with visual impairments, but the service animal category also includes dogs trained to assist those with hearing impairments, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism or a seizure disorder, among other conditions.
Neither I nor, to my knowledge, much of anyone else is seriously concerned about service animals. (The law generally limits service animals to dogs, though it does provide some exceptions to include trained miniature horses in certain circumstances.) Service dogs are exceptionally well-trained and, more often than not, many passengers on a flight may not even be aware of their presence if they don’t happen to be sitting nearby.
Emotional support animals are another matter. In the United States, there is no federally recognized process to certify such animals. Some psychiatric professionals do genuinely recommend animal therapy for their patients, and there is some evidence that pet ownership and animal interaction can have positive health benefits (though the degree of animals’ effect on mental health remains disputed). But well-intentioned rules designed to accommodate emotional support animals have undeniably led to widespread abuse of the system.
The Air Carrier Access Act mandates that support animals, as well as service animals, be allowed on planes, though it does allow airlines to refuse certain classes of animals, including reptiles, spiders and rodents. Yet because no formal certification system exists for emotional support animals, many for-profit companies are happy to sell pet owners a letter certifying that their pet, of more or less any species, is necessary for the owner’s mental health. Such operations generally do not require any proof of a diagnosis other than the applicant’s claim, and many merely require the applicant to complete an online questionnaire – and, of course, pay a fee.
The way the rules are supposed to work is that an individual currently receiving treatment for a mental disorder obtains a letter from a physician or other licensed mental health professional certifying the animal’s therapeutic necessity. As Dr. Hal Herzog observed in a column for Psychology Today, however, this can put psychotherapists in an uncomfortable position. Herzog cites the example of a colleague who treated a patient for anxiety; the patient asked for a letter to allow her dog to accompany her on business trips as a support animal. Although the patient’s request was sincere, the psychotherapist did not feel the dog’s presence on the flights would facilitate her patient’s treatment. She decided to deny the letter, which angered the client to the point where the professional worried she might terminate her therapy. A less conscientious medical professional might not want to take the risk of losing the client over such a disagreement.
The combination of relatively lax regulation and relatively high costs for flying with nonsupport animals has led to fairly predictable results. Most of the major airlines allow passengers to carry on small pets whose kennels fit under the seat in front of them, but all of them charge fees for the privilege. These range from $95 to $125 each way for a domestic flight – not a trivial amount, especially for someone who travels frequently. And certain flights do not allow pets in the cabin at all.
Airlines often deserve criticism for needless nickel-and-diming and overly harsh restrictions, but these rules are not irrational. One of my daughters is allergic to all sorts of cats and certain types of dogs. As the Federal Aviation Administration points out, there is no way to be sure there will be no animals at all in the passenger cabin on a flight. That said, there is a distinct difference between a small pet securely stowed under a seat in a pet carrier for the duration and an animal loose during the flight. (This is not to mention people with phobias of various animals, who are taking the opposite of emotional comfort from their presence.)
An extreme example of the potential consequences of unclear and inconsistent policy made headlines late last week. A student preparing to fly home from college checked with Spirit Airlines ahead of her flight that her dwarf hamster, certified as an emotional support animal by a letter from the woman’s doctor, would be allowed in the cabin. However, when Belen Aldecosea arrived at the airport, Spirit refused to allow her hamster on board. Aldecosea had no friends or family in the area, and she urgently needed to get home to deal with a medical issue. Out of desperation, she flushed her hamster down an airport toilet. (Aldecosea claims a representative from the airline suggested this extreme measure; the airline denies this.)
No one wants a situation in which anyone feels they must harm or destroy an animal. Clearer and more consistent rules might have saved Aldecosea and her hamster from needless anguish.
If emotional support animals are truly therapeutically necessary, there should be a more robust regulatory apparatus. Both certifications from medical professionals who are actually treating the patient and veterinary assurances of the animal’s health and behavior are reasonable requirements to institute. The Transportation Department would be perfectly positioned to step in, but the current DOT is generally looking to cut regulations rather than add them. In the meantime, airlines are justified in tightening their own requirements for allowing animals the run of the cabin. As Delta pointed out in its announcement, “Ignoring the true intent of existing rules governing the transport of service and support animals can be a disservice to customers who have real and documented needs.”
As for Dexter the peacock? He got a cross-country road trip and his 15 minutes of fame. And the other passengers on the Newark flight got the gift of a peacock-free trip.