emotional support animals

Blame the peacock: United Airlines’ new rules for emotional support animals.

Just days after refusing to let a woman fly with what she claimed is her emotional support peacock, United Airlines has issued notice that, starting March 1, there will be new rules for bringing emotional support animals onboard.

United’s policy for those traveling with service animals (guide dogs and other animals trained to perform assistive tasks) currently does not require advance notice or documentation and is not changing.

The new rules will apply to emotional support animals.

Right now, customers with emotional support animals are required to give United’s Accessibility Desk 48-hours’ notice AND a letter from a mental health professional.

Starting March 1, in addition to 48-hour notice and an enhanced letter from a mental health professional, the airline will require anyone traveling with an emotional support animal to also provide additional documentation including:

  • The customer must provide confirmation that the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting and acknowledge responsibility for the animal’s behavior.
  • The customer must also provide a health and vaccination form signed by the animal’s veterinarian. The veterinarian must also affirm that there is no reason to believe that the animal will pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others on the aircraft or cause a significant disruption in service.

Today United also reminded travelers that  hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, reptiles, sugar gliders, non-household birds, exotic animals and animals not properly cleaned or those that are really smelly are not allowed in airplane cabins.

“Year-over-year, we have seen a 75 percent increase in customers bringing emotional support animals onboard and as a result have experienced a significant increase in onboard incidents involving these animals,” United said in a statement. “We understand that other carriers are seeing similar trends. The Department of Transportation’s rules regarding emotional support animals are not working as they were intended to, prompting us to change our approach in order to ensure a safe and pleasant travel experience for all of our customers.”

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) said in a statement that is it thrilled with United Airlines’ announcement:

“United has taken a very thoughtful, responsible approach to this issue. The airline’s increased requirements for emotional support animals will reduce fraud and protect the legitimate need of animal assistance for passengers with disabilities and veterans,” said Sara Nelson, international president of AFA. “This is about maintaining safety, health and security for passengers and crew, while ensuring accessibility for those who need it.”

Delta Air Lines recently announced that, starting March 1,  it will be changing its rules for passengers flying with service dogs or emotional support animals.

Expect other airlines, including American Airlines, to update their rules on flying with service animals and emotional support or ‘comfort’ animals soon.

Debate over Delta rules on service & emotional support animals

Many travelers are cheering Delta Air Lines’ new, stricter rules for those flying with service or emotional support animals.

But many long-time guide dog users and organizations that advocate for blind Americans and others with disabilities say the guidelines, which require added documentation and pre-planning, are over-reaching, discriminatory and illegal.

Noting that it has “long been concerned with the abuse and fraud of animals purporting to be service or support animals,” the American Council of the Blind said Delta’s revised policy discriminates against those passengers with legitimate service dogs and makes travel more difficult for individuals who rely on their service animals for travel.

The National Federation of the Blind believes elements of Delta’s policy, which goes into effect March 1, violate the Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Access Act.

“We are particularly troubled by the requirement that guide dog users submit paperwork to Delta forty-eight hours before flying,” the NFB said in a statement, while “Travelers without guide dogs are not required to plan their travel forty-eight hours in advance.”

The 48-hour ‘intent-to-fly’ requirement means guide dog users will no longer be able to fly on Delta for family, medical or other emergencies,” said the NFB and adds an unnecessary layer of inconvenience for some passengers.

“We stand with NFB,” said Eric Lipp, Executive Director of the Open Doors Organization, “People with properly trained service animals are being punished by Delta.”

Citing a significant increase in the numbers and types of “comfort” animals passengers bring on planes and an 84 percent increase since 2016 in reported animal incidents such as urinating/defecating, biting and attacks, Delta announced last week that certification of a flyer’s need for an animal and proof of an animal’s training and vaccinations will be required for both service and emotional support animals.

“I sympathize with the airlines,” said Pat Pound a disability consultant who is blind and travels with a guide dog, “More people are cheating. Airlines are trying to maintain the system. But I don’t think Delta’s new policies will address the problem. And, as a person with a disability, I’ll end up being penalized.”

An on-line petition with more than 75,000 signatures is asking Delta not to make it harder for people to travel with emotional support animals, but other airlines are exploring following Delta’s lead.

“We agree with Delta’s efforts,” American Airlines said in a statement, “We are looking at additional requirements to help protect our team members and our customers who have a real need for a trained service or support animal.” The carrier said from 2016 to 2017 it saw an almost 15 percent increase the number of customers traveling with emotional support animals.

United Airlines is reviewing its existing policy on service and emotional support animals, said airline spokesman Charles Hobart. “This is something that is important to our employees and to our customers, including those with disabilities and those who do not have disabilities,” he said, “We understand this needs to be resolved soon.”

The Department of Transportation had planned to draft new rules on service animals by July 2017, but those guidelines have yet to be released.

Going forward, “I suspect there will be legal challenges to Delta’s policy on service dogs from individuals and from organizations,” said disability consultant Pound, “This is how an airline is deciding to interpret the law, but a court may have a different idea about what that the law intended.”

(My story about the debate of stricter rules for flying with service and emotional support animals first appeared on NBC News in a slightly different format.)

Pushback on Delta’s decision to regulate emotional support animals

 

Last week Delta Air Lines announced that, come March 1, it would be changing the rules on the documentation required for bringing emotional support animals on planes.

“Customers have attempted to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders and more,” Delta said in a statement, “Ignoring the true intent of existing rules governing the transport of service and support animals can be a disservice to customers who have real and documented needs.”

While recognizing that some passengers do abuse the rules, there are some groups that are not comfortable with Delta’s actions.

The National Federation of the Blind, for one,would have liked to be consulted.

“Blind people have safely and successfully used guide dogs for decades, but this policy fails to make a clear or practical distinction among guide dogs, other  ‘service and support animals’ (as Delta puts it), and pets,” the group said in a statement, “Onerous restrictions on guide dog handlers do not resolve anything and violate the principle of equal access for passengers with disabilities. Furthermore, we believe that elements of Delta’s policy, as currently articulated, violate the Air Carrier Access Act.”

The group says it is particularly troubled by the requirement that guide dog users submit paperwork to Delta forty-eight hours before flying.

“Travelers without guide dogs are not required to plan their travel forty-eight hours in advance. Furthermore, guide dog users will no longer be able to fly Delta in family, medical, or other emergencies. We believe that this forty-eight hour requirement is both unnecessary and unlawful.”

The group is asking for a meetingwith Delta to work out a better system.

If it looks like a duck…

The debate about emotional support animals on planes may heat up again after a recent Instagram posting by TSA about what was referred to as a passenger’s service duck.

 

“The traveler assured us there was no “fowl” play afoot and that this was simply her service duck. Our officers at Charleston (CHS) were overheard saying that this duck was pretty chill. Not lame at all…” TSA wrote on the Instagram post, while encouraging travelers to contact their airline about service animal policies before going to the airport because “It’s good to have all your ducks in a row.”

Cute, right?

But, as Charleston’s  Post and Courier  noted, the Instagram post is making feathers fly.

In addition to a wide range of duck puns along the lines of “I’m quacking up!,” are comments pointing out the difference between service animals and emotional support animals – “Ducks could count as emotional support animals but only dogs and is miniature horses are able to serve as legitimate service animals. There’s an important distinction between the two.”

Other readers commented on the trend of stretching the definition of service and emotional support animals to pets in order to skirt the fees airlines charge to take an animal on board.

Doing so will “dilute the important role that actual service animals perform for those with disabilities,” one reader said, “Individuals who encounter this animal are less likely to take a legitimate service animal seriously, leading to discrimination of those with disabilities.”

Feel free to wade in with your comments…