I have noticed a trend in air travel that gives me some concern: the prevalence of dogs accompanying passengers on flights. On recent flights there have been at least two or three such animals on the plane with us as we traveled. Why the increase?
Most people realize that service animals, such as for a blind or otherwise physically disabled passenger, are allowed in places that most animals are not, such as restaurants, stores, and public transportation. The assistance the dog gives is obvious and therefore unquestioned.
Recently, however, there has been an upsurge in people claiming their dogs as Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), which airlines are required by law to permit free of charge on flights. Normally a passenger wanting to bring a dog or cat on a flight would need to pay upwards of $100 extra and keep the animal crated at all times on the plane. ESAs, however, may sit at a passenger’s feet or even in a lap.
I have to wonder how many people who claim the need for their service dog really just want to have their pets with them. Airlines vary in the amount of documentation needed to permit someone to bring an animal on board in this capacity. In many cases, airlines simply rely on customers’ verbal assurances that they need the comfort of their dog.
Such a system is ripe for abuse. How hard would it be to get a doctor to write a note insisting you required an ESA? How tempting would it be to save a little cash or have Fido nearby instead of left at home or stuck in the cargo hold? And many people have intense anxiety about flying. If they all brought animals on the plane to ease their anxiety, we would have a menagerie on board.
Other passengers’ rights also need to be considered. Not everyone loves dogs, notwithstanding how ubiquitous cute animal pictures are online. And more seriously, many people have severe allergies to animal dander. I have read numerous accounts of people having serious asthmatic attacks on planes due to the presence of a dog or cat. Isn’t a pet allergy a disability too?
I realize that you can’t tell by looking at someone if he or she has a mental illness or other psychological disorder. But on a recent flight, the woman in front of me with two “service dogs” seemed pretty self-possessed, drinking wine and chatting amiably with her seat mates. The dogs were not wearing service dog harnesses either, which apparently is not required of ESAs.
I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon, but I predict a backlash against people bringing animals on airplanes. That backlash may hurt people with real disabilities who absolutely need their service dogs by their sides. (Service dogs, by the way, are not pets, and strangers are not allowed to pet or engage with them while they are working.)
The FAA and the airlines need to develop more stringent rules about bringing animals on board planes. It will require a balance between the legitimate rights and needs of all passengers, lest the airlines “go to the dogs.”