Flight attendant Steffanie Rivers has seen it all: dogs pooping in the aisle, a cat clawing a pregnant woman, and even a chimpanzee running through the plane.
For several years, passengers have been reporting unruly animals making noise throughout flights or lounging on tray tables.
But these uncontrolled animals, which have even included pigs and turkeys– are allowed to ride in the airplane cabin. They’re “emotional support” animals, and they can accompany their owners on flights with very little restriction.
With reported incidents of disruptive plane pets on the rise, on Wednesday, the Department of Transportation (DOT) convened its ACCESS Advisory Committee, to examine whether there should be limitations on the type of species permitted on board and how to deal with fliers who may be lying about an illness to gain access for an emotional support pet. Although the Committee did not reach a consensus, the DOT says the discussions yielded a “wealth of information” on the issue, which will assist in drafting a forthcoming new rule on service animals.
But nothing has been decided yet and frequent fliers say they’re seeing more of these animals than ever, which leads to the question: Are all those emotional support animals really there for support, or are people who don’t really need them gaming the system to bring their pets on board for free?
What is an emotional support animal?
According to the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, U.S. airlines must permit dogs and other service animals used by qualified individuals with a disability to accompany them on a flight. In 2003, the DOT refined the definition of a service animal to include not just guide dogs and signal dogs, but also animals that provide emotional support for a mental or emotional disorder.
But unlike seeing-eye dogs or guide dogs, which receive training specific to their owner’s disability, emotional support animals require no training. The DOT allows, but does not require, air carriers to request 48 hours’ notice and a letter from a licensed mental health professional verifying that the passenger has an emotional or mental disability and needs an emotional support animal. The airlines are not allowed to impose fees for bringing these animals on board. The only thing the DOT requires is that the animal “be trained to behave properly in a public setting.”
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