Airlines ban emotional support animals – for now

After more than a year of lobbying by US airlines, the Emotional Support Animals (ESA) could leave the passenger cabin. On December 2, the US Department of Transportation announced that it was reviewing the Air Carrier Access Act on the transport of service animals by air “to ensure a safe and accessible air transportation system.”

Service animals trained as guide dogs for the blind will be allowed; ESA animals won’t. Instead, they will be treated like pets and their owners will have to pay pet travel expenses. The new rule will come into force early next year.

But will the new rules let down travelers with mental or emotional illnesses who can be helped by emotional support animals, especially during the stressful COVID-19 pandemic? “Unfortunately, the DOT has chosen to take the easy way out and ban [emotional support animals] absolutely, ”says Prairie Conlon, PLC, NCC.

Conlon is clinical manager of CertaPet, which connects clients with mental health professionals familiar with emotional support animals. She said, “How can they say that a person with a physical disability, or some mental disability like PTSD, can have a service dog when they have a legitimate need, but someone who has been diagnosed by a clinician with a mental health disorder and has a legitimate need for them can no longer have their pet with them? It is discrimination in the textbooks.

The rule change follows a storm of adverse publicity about emotional support animals (and by extension, their owners), the butt of many “jokes” about emotional support snakes, ferrets, hamsters and monkeys. American Airlines has banned a 80 pound support pig after screaming and defecating in the aisles. Dexter the emotional support peacock was hijacked from a United flight and later died.

Perhaps more importantly, in July 2019, an emotional support dog bit a flight attendant. The bite required five stitches and galvanized the airline industry to “take over the cabin.”

Airline pressure group Airlines to America (A4A) states that “the number of US airline passengers traveling with cabin ESAs has skyrocketed, causing a sharp increase in incidents caused by ESAs. The bad behavior of some ESAs ranges from mutilating and biting to urinating and defecating. A4A, whose members include Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United Airlines, added, “This bad behavior threatens not only the health and safety of passengers and crew, but also passengers with disabilities. traveling with trained service animals.

Airlines for America has implemented a coalition of more than 80 organizations, including dozens of disabled and service animal groups, to “show support for updated guidance issued by the Department of Transportation” regarding ESAs on commercial flights. ”

The advice that airlines sought and have now received was to narrow the definition of a service animal to “a dog that is individually trained to perform a job or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified person with a disability,” including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental handicap. It also “allows airlines to recognize emotional support animals as pets, rather than service animals.”

For many, especially the airlines that have been pushing for the rule change for over a year, the new regulations will clarify what is and is not a trained service animal. the rule change will also allow airlines to require passengers with disabilities traveling with a service animal to submit a form “attesting to the training and good behavior of the animal, and certifying the good health of the animal”.

“This news will be celebrated by every traveler or airline crew member who has seen an animal behave badly on board an aircraft that clearly has not been trained as a service animal but is posing as an animal at the request of its owner, “said The guy at the points. An earlier story Noted“Everyone is sick of seeing pets pretending to be emotional support animals on a plane. Who can forget the dog who stole a seat in first class or the woman who tried to bring her emotional support squirrel on a plane? “

The airlines, of course, are thrilled. “Airlines are committed to promoting accessibility for passengers with disabilities and ensuring their travel is safe,” said Nicholas E. Calio, President and CEO of Airlines for America. “The Department of Transport’s final rule will protect the traveling public and airline crew members from untrained animals in the cabin, and improve the accessibility of air travel for passengers with disabilities who travel with trained service dogs.” . “

Airlines believed that some of these shirt “support animals” were simply pets, the owners of which escaped payment of the tax. Delta invoice $ 125 one-way for pets traveling in the domestic cabin, $ 200 overseas. Point document on the new rules includes a comment from Paralyzed Veterans for America noting that even if a passenger’s emotional support animal is able to travel as a pet, the fee can cost up to $ 175 each way. The DOT report says the increase in fees paid by passengers traveling with ESAs will be between $ 54 and $ 59.6 million per year.

Conlon has no patience for the abuses that have led some to characterize the ESA certification process as a sham. “Online businesses that try to emulate telehealth and CertaPet need to be vetted for their process and regulated so that we don’t have things like bears, beehives and peacocks that are ‘certified’ as emotional support animals. . These fraudulent businesses need to be regulated, not people. DOT is completely misguided in its efforts to reduce the fraud it faces. “

What the airlines and their allies fail to mention is that the accommodations previously offered to ESA owners under the Air Carrier Access Act are similar to the Fair Housing Act.

“The Fair Housing Act recognizes that emotional support animals are an integral part of a treatment plan for people with mental health disorders,” says Conlon. “Because it’s something they need to help manage their symptoms, no pet fees are charged and their emotional support animals are allowed in ‘no-pet’ accommodation.”

The law also provides protections for owners, with stipulations such as “no aggressive behavior, general good behavior, no disturbance (noise complaints, do not pick up after your pet)”. If the animal damages the property is caused by the animal, its owner is responsible for the repairs.

Despite the rule change, the problem of emotional support animals could continue against hostile skies in 2021. Conlon said, “We are looking at all legal options to help protect the rights of people with mental health issues. . “

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