Airlines based in the United States have seen a surge in the number of passengers travelling with so-called Emotional Support Animals in the last few years. The well-intentioned Air Carrier Access Act was supposed to open up air travel for passengers who need assistance from an animal – including psychological or emotional support. Unfortunately, the law has faced significant critcism with much concern the rules are being abused by people who don’t have a disability.
When lawmakers passed the ACAA they envisioned passengers would be bringing common assistance animals like dogs and cats into the cabin with them – while that’s mostly the case, airline’s have also had to contend with a whole range of other certified ESA’s. We’ve seen pigs, ferrets, turkeys and even snakes and spiders travelling in the cabin with their owner. Only recently, United Airlines had to refuse an emotional support Peacock!
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is a fan and Delta Airlines took the bold move in March to tighten its policy on support animals. The change came about after internal records found a huge 84% increase in reported incidents involving support animals. At the time, Delta said its old policy was a “disservice to customers who have real and documented needs.”
While Delta initially had to make some amendments to its policy to accommodate passengers who need trained service animals (say for a physical disability like blindness), the change was generally welcomed. Most other major carriers in the U.S. have followed Delta’s lead, restricting the number of support animals and banning certain kinds of animal altogether.
What do flight attendants think?
“The rampant abuse of claiming a need for emotional support animals in air travel is negatively impacting all passengers. It’s a safety, health, and security issue,” explains Sara Nelson, who’s the president of the Association of Flight Attendants – a trade union which represents roughly 50,000 crew members across 20 airlines.
Nelson was speaking after AFA published a poll of its members which found 63% of flight attendants had worked a flight where an emotional support animal had caused disruption in the cabin. Worryingly, over half of those incidents (53%) involved “aggressive or threatening behavior by the animal”.
26% of the disruptive incidents involved an animal urinating or defecating in the cabin, while 13% involved passenger disputes or allergic reactions – including one example where a teenage passenger had to be administered oxygen due to an allergic reaction. One flight attendant said she had been bitten by a dog, while another said an emotional support bird managed to escape its cage and fly around the cabin for 45 minutes.
Some of the stories were even comical:
“One of the more ironic examples reported was a flight attendant who had to page for a vet because a passenger said their dog was having a breathing problem. A nurse onboard assisted and advised the owner to hold the animal tightly and talk to the “emotional support animal” because it was having an anxiety attack.”
Passengers assume emotional support animals are fake
It seems the situation has now become so bad that flight attendants think many passengers believe most emotional support animals are fake. Nelson explained:
“The widespread abuse has led many passengers to believe all service animals onboard are fake, which creates poor treatment by other passengers toward those with legitimate need. The DOT needs to take action.”
Nelson is calling on the Department of Transport to take action and set out clear guidelines that apply to all airlines. At present, the DOT does have guidelines but much of the interpretation is left up to individual airlines – resulting in quite a bit of confusion. As it stands, here are the current policies from some of the most well-known airlines:
- Passengers must provide the airline with mandatory documentation at least 48-hours before their flight.
- Documentation includes information from a certified mental health professional indicating the need for an emotional support animal, plus certification of the animal’s health including rabies and DRB shot verification.
- The animal must fit in the footprint of the floor space below a passenger’s seat.
- Certain animals are completely banned – including hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, sugar gliders, reptiles, amphibians, goats, and farm animals.
- Animals with tusks, horns or hooves are also not permitted.
- American’s advanced notice of travel requirement and list of banned animals is almost identical to that of Delta’s.
- However, on longer flights over 8-hours, American also requires passengers to certify their animal will not need to relieve itself in-flight.
- Alaska also has a 48-hour advanced noticed requirement with mandatory documentation that needs to be approved by the airline. But the restrictions go much further than both Delta and American:
- Only one emotional support animal per passenger
- Only cats and dogs are permitted
- Must be either in a container or on a leash at all times
- Psychiatric service animals can also include miniature horses.
- The policy comes into effect on 1st October.
- Again, JetBlue requires 48-hour advanced notice with documents that include Medical/Mental Health Professional form, a Veterinary Health form and a Confirmation of Animal Behavior form.
- Limited to one support animal per passenger.
- Only dogs, cats and miniature horses allowed.
- Southwest doesn’t require advanced notice but passengers must present a current letter from a medical doctor or licensed mental health professional on the day of departure.
- Emotional support animals are limited to only dogs and cats, while fully trained service animals can also include miniature horses.
- Like Alaska, the animal must be in a carrier or on a leash at all times, and only one is permitted per passenger.
- United also updated its policy earlier this year but has not specifically banned any type of animal – although passengers are limited to one animal per flight
- The animal must be trained “to behave properly in a public setting” and passengers have to provide 48-hour advanced notice.
- Required documents include a Medical/Mental Health Professional form, passenger liability and behaviour form, and veterinary health form.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.