ATW Editor's Blog

Pigs might fly, but they shouldn’t do so as service animals


Two US airlines, Delta and United, have issued stricter guidelines on what is required before a passenger can bring onboard an animal in an “emotional support” or “therapy” role.

Given the soaring growth in the number of passengers who bring onboard these “support” animals, it seems likely that more airlines will follow suit. You can see the new Delta rules here and United’s here. They are common sense, practical and easy to comply with where an animal is a genuine, trained service animal. They include proof of health or vaccinations 48 hours in advance, a letter signed by a doctor or licensed mental health professional, and a signed document confirming the animal is trained not to act aggressively.

Delta says in a press release that it has seen an 84% increase in reported animal incidents since 2016, including urination/defecation, aggression and biting.

United makes clear the distinction between trained and certified service animals and “therapy animals”. It’s an important distinction and it lies at the crux of this growing problem of more animals being brought onboard that have the potential to disrupt flights and cause discomfort to other passengers. As United explains, therapy animals are pets that have been trained and registered by a therapy organization to visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools and other facilities; they are not considered to be service animals.

Trained, certified animals are licensed to work with their disabled owners to mitigate their disabilities. Delta, United and most airlines permit a trained and certified service animal to accompany its disabled owner on a plane at no extra cost (just as shops, restaurants and hotels that typically do not permit animals do allow service animals). Even then, the service animal must sit under the seat in front of its passenger owner and it is not allowed on a seat. A trained service animal will readily obey such rules.

Where someone is bringing onboard a pet, not a service animal, there are usually restrictions on the animal’s size and weight. It needs to be in a container that fits under the seat, advance notice is required and there is a fee.

But many pet owners are abusing the genuine service animal exemptions to bring their non-trained animals onboard as “support” animals, avoiding fees and airline rules. This is both broadening the types of animals that are being brought into the cabin—without even a crate or cage—to Monty Pythonesque proportions. Pigs, peacocks, possums, snakes and spiders are among animals that passengers have insisted are essential to their health.

I am a huge animal lover and have been an owner and foster to dozens of rescue dogs and cats. I cannot imagine life without my pets. But I also recognize the difference between a trained service animal, which is a working animal dedicated to its role, and a pet. This lunatic spread of emotional support animals is an insult to the time and experience of those who have trained service animals, and which would never be aggressive or disruptive. It also potentially harms the reputation of registered service animals and could limit the availability of a space to a service animal whose work is essential to a disabled person.

Specific to the airline industry, there are very real and practical limitations as to how many animals can safely and comfortably be accommodated in a narrow tube at 30,000ft. It is common for people to have animal allergies—especially to cats and dogs—or real fears of certain creatures. Some people may not like the idea of eating in close proximity to an animal—and none of us, not even the animal lovers, want a urinating, defecating pig or possum as a dining or sleeping companion.

This should all be common sense. But sadly, as this New York Times columnist points out, there seems to be a growing number of people who are happy to cheat the system, even at the expense of the comfort of others (and, in some cases, at the expense of the comfort of their own “support” animals).

I was at a concert in a local club last year. It’s a well-established club with large, shared tables around the stage to which drinks and bar food are served through the performance. A young woman came and sat opposite me, bringing a small dog that she said was her therapy dog. As the music got louder, the dog was clearly agitated. The woman pointed to my glass of wine and said “he’s upset because he knows I’m very allergic to alcohol”. Yet she brought herself and her dog into the very center of a nightclub.

I’m not one for piling more regulations on the airline industry, but on this issue I think there should be some government rules and standards. There are health and safety implications for the flying public and flight crews beyond the needs of these “support” needy passengers. And, personally, I think pigs and possums are happier on the ground.

Karen Walker

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