Animals on Airplanes

By Sara Kinder >>>

Who is that doggie in the window? The one traveling free on an airplane, I mean.

There has been recent controversy regarding the practice of people deciding to take “Max” on the plane with them, calling them “service dogs” so they don’t have to pay.

Although service dogs, originally called “therapy dogs,” have been assisting individuals as pets, companions, and in military roles for many years, it wasn’t until 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, gave the service dog a definition. Before then, we had heard of “seeing eye dogs.” These were the guide dogs for the blind that have been around since 1929, but their job description had not been well defined. The ADA definition of a service dog is “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal, individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.” The definition was revised in 2010 to determine that only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the ADA. Many would agree that these animals, with their many hours of careful training, are professionals who work every day to support the independence of their clients, and ought to be allowed and respected in public places, including airplanes.

When you examine the definition of the service animal, there are two items to note: First, the animal is trained. According to USA Service dogs, support dogs are trained not to: use the bathroom anywhere except in a designated area; engage with people or animals; react vocally or physically, or by sniffing; lose interest and “skip out on the job”; and never to pull the leash, lag behind, or circle his client. Between the ages of 8 weeks and 13-15 months, service puppies are carefully raised, usually by a person who commits to working with a trainer, being intentional and socializing the puppy in appropriate environments, without allowing distraction. A service animal will sit quietly at the feet of the client, and will remain out of the way of other people. At about 15 months, the dog will begin work with a trainer full-time for several months, and then be united with a client, with whom more training will take place for several more months.

Service animals are not pets.

The second important defining characteristic of the service dog is that he or she provides assistance to a person who is disabled. One of the biggest complaints of fellow travelers or others in public places who observe and “share space” with a dog and his client is that the person who has brought the animal on board is not disabled. We must acknowledge that we cannot always determine if someone is deaf, partially blind, or has any of a number of disabilities that would support their use of a service animal. A more recent member in this category of service animals is the Psychiatric Service Animal. This type is trained to perform or help perform a task, but it would be impossible to “see” the service the animal is performing. But again, this service animal is not a pet. It is trained, has a handler, and follows rules.

So, what’s the problem? In 1986 the Air Carrier Access Act prohibited discrimination by airlines against individuals who qualify as having physical or mental impairments. This regulation has been interpreted to allow not just service animals (see the definition above), but another category of animals access to airlines as well: Emotional Support Animals. These are employed to enable someone to function normally on a day-to-day basis, and they do NOT need to be trained to perform a disability-specific task. The National Service Animal Registry states that “All domesticated animals (dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, hedgehogs, rodents, mini-pigs, etc.) may serve as an ESA.” These animals have limited protections, including no rights to public access, but are allowed to fly with their emotionally or psychologically disabled handler in the cabin of an aircraft and they qualify for no-pet housing. This is the reason a woman traveling from Connecticut’s Bradley International Airport to Washington was allowed to bring her emotional support pig on board a flight on the day before Thanksgiving in 2014. Unfortunately, the pig had not had enough training to use the lavatory, and they were kicked off before takeoff for being “disruptive” and making a mess.

Currently, in the case of service animals, the U. S Department of Justice allows only two questions to be asked when it is not obvious what service an animal provides. They may inquire if the animal is required because of a disability, and they may ask what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. They cannot ask about the disability, ask that the dog perform a task, or require any special documentation. “Credible Verbal Assurance” and a service dog ID, vest, or certificate (or none of the above) is all you would need to bring little Max almost anywhere, as long as he behaves and will sit at your feet. It’s free to bring a necessary animal with you in the cabin, and many airports now offer “pet relief rooms” post-security to accommodate this new phenomenon.

For Emotional Support Animals, the rules are a bit different. Because they are not service animals, airlines may require (although they don’t always) a letter from your therapist, psychiatrist, or other licensed mental health professional that endorses you to have this animal to ameliorate the symptoms of your disability. And guess what? If you don’t have, need, or want a therapist, you can go online and quickly obtain an Emotional Support Animal Registration Kit and a “prescription from a licensed mental health professional.”

So, what are we to do? The number one reason for folks traveling with Max in the cabin on an airplane is that we don’t want to pay “childcare” for them and leave them at home. The cost of putting them in cargo on an airline begins at $125, and boarding pets is more expensive than the trip itself. According to the Office of Civil Rights of the FAA, the rules for the entities allowing service animals makes an exception if the animal is a direct threat, out of control, or not housebroken. If you are seated near someone whose ESA or service pet is breaking any of the above before take-off, report to flight service that little Max is breaking the rules, and you are concerned about the flight. Otherwise, yes, we all need to be ready to see more of “man’s best friend” in public places.

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