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Have we hit another tipping point with passenger and crew interactions? The latest incident appears to involve emotional support animals and occurred on an American Airlines flight.
Many of you may have seen today’s story on View From The Wing about the premium class flyer who was booted from a Miami to Los Angeles flight last night. The alleged reason was for complaining about being seated next to a large dog. According to her story, the airline chose to ask her to leave the aircraft rather than try to make a reasonable accommodation. Then as she was escorted off the aircraft, American Airlines employees supposedly applauded her removal.
I know the frequent flyer to whom this happened. While I’m hoping more details emerge that support the story, I am familiar with her travel patterns. She is a regular premium class traveler and the type American is trying to incentivize to fly more frequently.
Last night, I told myself I would stay clear of this story due to my bias about the incident. I am allergic to some household pets. I have been ended up bitten by fleas on two separate occasions as a result of infested animals traveling next to me in a passenger cabin. And I have been appalled at the rise of the fake emotional support animals on domestic airline flights.
Trained service animals follow commands, stay close to their owner, and typically do not engage with others. Likewise, pets flying under the airlines official policy stay in their carrier and comply with rules to stay under the seat in front of them. Meanwhile emotional support animals are not subject to these regulations. They can sit on their owner’s lap, at their feet, or under the seat without being in a carrier. There are few, if any, restrictions on type or breed.
For example, here are American’s rules for any type of service animal:
- Animal must fit on your lap, at your feet or under your seat
- Animals must be clean, well behaved and under your control at all times
- If the animal is too large, it will need to be checked and travel in a kennel
- For security reasons, service animals can’t block any aisle
- You can’t sit in an exit row when traveling with service animals
- If you’d like seating, contact us before your flight
To show that an animal is a service animal, you must provide (at least one of the following):
- Animal ID card
- Harness or tags
- Credible verbal assurance
American goes on to provide further guidelines for emotional support or psychiatric service animals:
To travel with an emotional support or psychiatric service animal in the cabin you must provide supporting documentation dated within 1 year of your scheduled flight. It must be from a licensed mental health professional or a medical doctor and state:
- That you have a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
- That you need the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at your destination
- That the individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor, and you are under his or her professional care
- The date and type of the mental health professional or medical doctor’s license and the state or other jurisdiction where it was issued
You’ll also need to contact American Reservations at least 48 hours before your flight and submit the required documentation.
If we’re unable to validate your documentation or if you didn’t notify us at least 48 hours before your flight, the animal may need to be checked and travel in a kennel.
What’s the problem with emotional support animals?
If a service animal is legitimate, then that isn’t a problem. That’s protected under the law in the United States and airlines need to comply.
There is no question that fake emotional support animals are easy to slip past the airlines. I have become accustomed to hearing passengers in the TSA line traveling with their pet tell others how easy it was to go online and obtain bogus certification. Some even have no problem flaunting their emotional support “logic” (or lies) to others on social media!
One service dog organization is focused on trying to maintain for those with legitimate needs for emotional support animals. The organization, Service Dog Central, maintains a (growing) list of websites offering these fake credential services. They also report on distinctions between legitimate service animals and these fake pets. Their efforts are designed to help protect the rights of those with legitimate disabilities. They rely on trained service animals for necessary services.
The Texas legislature currently is considering a bill that would criminalize the use of fake emotional support animals and other improperly utilized service animals. Violators would face a misdemeanor sentence, a fine of up to $300, and 30 hours of community service for each offense.
There is no question that fake emotional support animals are out of control. They are a problem for people, like me – or my inconvenienced acquaintance last night, with allergies. I have no problem flying with legitimate service animals. And I cannot judge the status of the service animals in question last night. But it is impossible to talk about her issue without discussion of how rampant this problem has become.
What Would Jetsetter’s Homestead Do?
But back to last night. What would I have done? I travel with allergy medication to help with unexpected pet dander. But I too would have asked for staff to address a dog “jumping on me”, particularly in a premium cabin with lie-flat seats. I worry that I too would have been removed from the flight for not accepting an unreasonable outcome.
Based on the information presented so far, I think this was handled poorly. Like the unfortunate stroller incident a couple of weeks ago, frontline staff need to be mindful of customer perceptions, even when balancing these difficult issues.