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The 'Emotional Support' Debate is Tougher Than You Think

TravelPulse logo TravelPulse 2/9/2018 Katherine Vallera

A service dog gets an ear rub: PHOTO: A service dog gets an ear rub. (photo via Flickr/DoD News) © Flickr PHOTO: A service dog gets an ear rub. (photo via Flickr/DoD News) Some of us might have gotten a good chuckle when a woman tried to bring her “emotional support peacock” on a flight.

All humor aside, however, the incident served to reveal an elephant in the cabin and a far more complicated debate about how airlines treat animals, disabled passengers and those who abuse either.

In response to negative publicity surrounding alleged emotional support animals, (including the attack of a passenger), airlines like Delta and United are revising their policies with regards to who flies inside the cabin. Via statement to the Washington Post, Sara Nelson, President of The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, claimed the changes will reduce fraud and protect passengers with disabilities.

Yet, it appears that individuals with disabilities—as well as the organizations that advocate for them—disagree.

Toni Ann Earns, President and Founder of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), released a statement predicting the revised policy will cause a great deal of harm to travelers with legitimate service animals. Another statement released by Christine Benninger, President & CEO of Guide Dogs for the Blind, explains how requiring people with disabilities to present a health certificate for their service dogs 48 hours before flying is discriminatory.

It denies them access to last-minute travel, which can be crucial for business or in an emergency.

“If somebody is traveling with a legitimate service animal, there should not be any additional hoops that they have to jump through,” contests Benninger, who believes the changes cause undue hardship and are in violation of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)—the statute that protects people with disabilities during air travel, which is exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“If my father has another sudden need for heart surgery, I wouldn’t be able to get on a plane today or tomorrow to get to see him,” laments fellow traveler Alexandra Harper, who requires the assistance of her service dog, Otto.

Service Animals vs. Bad Ideas

The new policy will not only make flying less accessible for people with disabilities requiring service animals, but it will also make it more expensive: Veterinarians will charge for the certificates, which must be submitted at least 48 hours in advance and will only be valid for two weeks.

This means round-trip itineraries will often require two vet visits: one in each direction.

Traveling with disabilities is already challenging enough. Harper notifies the airline about her service dog in advance, at which time they guarantee reasonable accommodation as is stipulated by the ACAA (Title 14 CFR Part 382). Yet all too often, when she arrives at the gate, the airline is unprepared to accommodate her disability as required by law.

Sometimes, it’s because they’ve already reached the maximum number of animals allowed inside the cabin. (There’s no priority for service dogs when it comes to this allowance; It’s determined by when the passengers booked.) While the popularity of flying with pets keeps growing, this allowance hasn’t been raised to meet the demand, thus posing an accessibility obstacle for people with disabilities.

Harper is also denied boarding when there’s a stroller necessitating the same space that she’d need for her service dog: “Half the time, the agent says there’s nothing they can do."

The alternative solution is hardly better: The airline forces another passenger to give up their seat. This upsets other passengers, who direct their anger at the service animal owner.

“I think the airlines don’t believe me over the phone,” Harper says, “When I show up at the airport, they consider me a problem they put off dealing with until the last minute.”

Case in point: Harper was recently denied access to the first four flights she wanted because they’d reached the maximum animal allowance. She was then denied access to another because of a stroller. To make matters worse, her purpose for flying was to seek medical treatment for her disability:

“A theoretical piece of baby gear had priority over me," laments Harper.

Right Idea vs. Wrong Placement

But then there's the counterpoint: Healthy passengers who take advantage of accommodations intended for people with disabilities so that their pets can be in the cabin.

“People will fake disability because they don’t want to fly [animals as] cargo,” counters Earns. “It’s not 100 percent safe, and they don’t want to lose their pet.”

“I don’t blame them one bit!” says travel agent Ruth Demuth, “There’s no way I’d subject my fur babies to flying in cargo. There is always that risk of injury or death due to severe conditions and poor handling.”

“It’s important for travelers to understand that flying animals in [the] cargo area is extremely dangerous,” discloses Colleen O’Brien, Vice President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), “It’s not uncommon for them to be lost, injured or even killed”.

The potential for tragedy is even higher when flights are delayed and the cargo hold experiences extreme temperatures. Combined with loud noises and the lack of pressurization, flying cargo can cause animals to experience distress. There’s also the risk of suffocation when cargo shifts and their carriers are crushed.

“It doesn’t surprise me that people would go to great lengths to avoid putting their animals in cargo,” says Christopher Barry, attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF).

He explains how the minimum standards outlined by the Animal Welfare Act fall well below what most Americans would consider acceptable for transporting their pets. Worse yet, he describes the enforcement of these standards by the Department of Agriculture as “notoriously lax”.

Last month, the Department of Transportation (DOT) released an updated Animal Annual Incident Report. Utilizing this information, I attempted to calculate the risk by percentage. While they report an average of 47.25 deceased, injured or lost pets per year, I couldn’t find any figures for total number of pets flown, which were necessary in order to complete my assessment.

In search of answers, I called the Aviation Consumer Protection Division and was told they don’t keep track of the total number of animals that fly cargo. The “over two million” estimate published on their website isn’t substantiated by any actual data. It’s impossible to accurately assess the risk of flying cargo without this figure, which means there’s no telling how safe or dangerous it really is to our pets.

The discrepancies don’t stop there.

According to Berry, the DOT’s report doesn’t “paint a complete picture” because they only count commercially flown pets in their figures. The report doesn’t include incidents involving animals en route to wildlife conservatories, zoos and research facilities. Furthermore, airlines aren’t required to report incidents that involve pets if they suspect it had a preexisting condition.

“Every business should be held accountable,” declares travel agent Connie Riker, who specializes in special needs travel. “People’s pets are part of their family; They rely on the promises made by airlines when making the decision to entrust their family member with them.”

“Without a proper dedicated team taking care of these animals and proper shipping conditions, there will always be risk involved,” adds DeMuth.

Service vs. Support vs. Imposters

Meanwhile, Delta reports that the number of passengers traveling with emotional support or service animals has increased 150 percent in the past three years.

Due to the influx of imposters, passengers with legitimate disabilities face even more challenges. This is especially true for those who have invisible disabilities that are not immediately apparent.

“People misjudge us, harass us and interfere with our service dog’s ability to do its job,” Harper says. “They think the handler isn’t really disabled [and] is trying to get away with something.”

So why not require people with disabilities to clearly identify themselves?

“[That] would be illegal,” counters Harper, which I confirmed with a call to the Department of Justice, “Plus, do you really want to create a society where disabled people are singled out and required to flash a special form of identification?”

“Requiring paper will not yield any desired outcomes,” Earns mentions. “The online fake service animal industry will benefit by making more money than they already do cranking out certificates, vests, ID cards and other fake gear.”

“Health certificates do not ensure any kind of behavioral qualifications,” adds Benninger, who suggests that Delta policy changes fail to address the issue of ill-behaved animals and the negative impact they have on travel experiences for everyone onboard.

Everyone I spoke with who uses services dogs agreed: It’s for lack of training that an animal may pose a threat to public safety, and that’s not going to be annulled by a trip to the veterinarian.

Riker asserts that anyone who is planning on bringing their animal around other people should know how it will behave in public. Harper agrees, describing how Otto has been attacked by wayward emotional support animals on multiple occasions.

“I do not think that they are bad people, either,” says Benninger, who describes the motive of not wanting to subject their pets to flying cargo as noble. “I actually think this is done with good intent. The problem is that most pets aren’t trained for travel, and when those animals become stressed, they act out.”

This is problematic not only in terms of safety, but it undermines the confidence of legitimate service dogs and impacts their ability to assist people with disabilities.

Earns speculates that most doctors don’t even meet the emotional support animal before signing off on letters, let alone evaluate their potential to be a public hazard. Service animals, on the other hand, receive extensive training. (Otto, for example, underwent 2.5 years of training (that’s 23 dog years) to become a service dog.)

“Our dogs start training when they’re three days old,” notes Berringer, whose nonprofit organization provides guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired.

“A true service dog stays directly with the handler,” says Riker. “Not way off at the edge of a lead trying to get the attention from passersby and barking at other dogs.”

Talk vs. Action

Instead of punishing passengers traveling with legitimate service dogs, Earns suggests an assessment of emotional support and service animals by security to determine if they are fit for public transportation. Denying access for ill-behaved animals would protect other passengers and deter pet owners who abuse accommodations intended for people with disabilities.

“An animal that is being given access to public transportation needs to be able to demonstrate that it can be well behaved,” asserts Riker.

Then there's a second solution that would alleviate the problem without discriminating against people with disabilities: “Make a huge effort to make cargo safer; really put in money!” says Earns.

“Airlines have an ethical obligation to keep all their passengers safe,” adds O’Brien of PETA, “which cannot be guaranteed as long as they continue to treat living, breathing beings like suitcases by stowing them in the cargo hold.”

“We need to see a marked response from the airlines,” says Berry. “People want to be safe. They want their pets to be safe, and right now they’re not satisfied with the options.”

Benninger uses the hospitality industry as an example, underscoring how hotels have evolved and become more pet-friendly after recognizing four-legged family as a new social norm: “We’re moving away from the time when pets lived in our backyard. Part of what’s going on here is that more people love their pets and want them to be a part of their life.”

DeMuth thinks it’s the airlines’ responsibility to find a resolution that doesn’t endanger animals or infringe on disability rights. If they don’t do so willingly, then it will be up to lawmakers to design and enforce more acceptable policies.

Harper, on the other hand, is less optimistic. She’s concerned that people with disabilities are too disenfranchised and under-represented to be considered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and liability lawyers that shape the rules. Then there are animals that literally cannot speak for themselves—particularly vulnerable because they don’t have the legal value given to human life.

Combine apathy for animals with the lack of justice for one of the most overlooked minority groups in the country, and it’s a potential recipe for future calamity.

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