When United Airlines refused to let a passenger’s “emotional support” peacock board a flight in New Jersey last month, a lot of people laughed. But a lot of others — frequent fliers, allergy sufferers and especially flight attendants — sighed with relief.
Let Taylor Garland, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants union, count the reasons.
“Flight attendants have been bitten by some of these emotional support animals,” said Garland. “Emotional support dogs that were clearly not trained to be on a plane have bitten real service dogs who are. There’s a security issue — any kind of chaos in the cabin, the crew has got to worry that it’s a diversionary tactic for something much worse.”
And don’t forget the poop and pee. “Defecation and urination are a big issue,” added Garland. “A big issue.”
The even bigger issue is the distinction Garland alluded to, between service animals — skilled creatures like seeing-eye dogs that have been highly trained in how to behave around strangers — and emotional support animals, which are often little more than pets.
“Some of these [seeing-eye dogs] get as much as two years of training before they’re even placed with their owners,” said Atlanta attorney J. Ross Massey. “But a lot of the emotional support animals have little or no training. They’re more like pets, and like pets they bark and growl and bite when they’re upset.”
Massey is quite familiar with the distinction. He’s representing an Atlanta-area man, 44-year-old Marlin Jackson, who Massey says “has, in a very cruel way, become the poster boy for this phenomenon of emotional support animals.”
On a 2017 flight from Atlanta to San Diego, Jackson was assigned the window seat. Seated next to Jackson was a U.S. Marine with a 50-pound Labrador emotional support dog on his lap.
The dog looked unsettled even before Jackson took his seat. “Is he going to bite me?” Jackson asked, according to nearby passengers — and moments later it did, launching a bloody attack on his face that left him with 28 stitches and a set of scars that may require plastic surgery.
“Every week I get calls from people saying, ‘Are you the guy representing the man who got bitten on the airplane? I need to talk to you.’” Massey told the Miami Herald. “Mr. Jackson’s case is the worst one I’ve heard of, but I can tell you for sure, it’s not the only one.”
Airlines carried seeing-eye dogs and other service animals for years with little or no fuss. Some pets were allowed to fly, but they had to be small and confined to carrying cages.
But in 1986, Congress passed the Air Carrier Access, which required airlines to carry not just trained animals but any animals that “assist the customer with physical/emotional/psychiatric/medical support.”
That opened the door to just about anything. And when passengers discovered that emotional support animals travel free (pets usually cost $100 to $150 in the passenger cabin, $200 or more if carried in the cargo hold) and needn’t be caged, the race was on — literally.
A quarter of a million service or support animals flew on Delta in 2016, a 150 percent jump from the year before. United carried 76,000 emotional support animals in 2017, a 77 percent increase from the year before.
The airlines do little or, more likely, nothing to verify that the dog or cat or duck under a passenger’s arm is a bonafide therapeutic aid rather than just an amusing backyard pal. And even if they checked, it’s easy to buy an official-looking emotional support certificate ($36.99) or ID card bearing your pet’s holographic image ($25).
The airlines are well aware of the scam. “We have seen that some of our customers view this policy as a loophole, a way to avoid having to check in their pet and pay the fee,” concedes United spokesman Charlie Hobart.
Nor surprisingly, animal misbehavior has kept pace with the traffic increase; complaints about biting and defecation on Delta flights nearly doubled between 2015 and 2016.
And even comparatively mild misbehavior can have serious consequences for passengers like Christine, a 70-year-old quality-assurance consultant who lives in the Phoenix area. (Having received an awesome amount of hate mail in the past from her complaints about dogs, she doesn’t want her last name used.)
Christine has an allergy to fur that, when activated, can trigger serious allergy attacks. But trained service animals that lie quietly on the airplane floor don’t trouble her too much.
“Last week, though, I was flying next to a couple with a dog that they assured me was trained,” she said. “But once the plane was in the air, it was clear that the dog wasn’t trained at all — it was just a mess, jumping around, panicky. And fur was flying.
“An hour into the trip, I could feel myself getting congested. And by the time the plane touched down, I was really close to the wheezing and shortness of breath you get with an asthma attack, which believe me, is not something you want to have in a crowded airplane.”
Christine has been flying regularly for many years and says her breathing has become more and more of a problem as the number of dogs on airplanes rises.
“I was at an airport last week, picking up my bags, and I saw a young couple with a dog wearing one of those ‘service animal’ vests, though of course who knows if it really was,” she said. “There was a dog in a carrier container, and another dog just walking loose.
“That’s three dogs in one 10-minute period. Ten years ago, if you saw one dog, it would be an obvious service dog, and even that was unusual.”
Christine believes that a big part of the problem is the free travel for fake emotional support dogs. But, more fundamentally, she agrees with some observers that Americans have developed a manic obsession about their pets.
“We’ve just lost that boundary between ‘service dog’ and dog,” she said. “And where dogs belong and don’t.”
Whether emotional support animals really do anyone any good is a matter of some debate among psychologists. And, for that matter, among civilians. When Washington University in St. Louis brought in a bear cub named Boo Boo to lend emotional support to students preparing for final exams, he bit 14 of them. (It looked like this wasn’t going to end well for Boo Boo, either; school authorities announced he would have to be euthanized so his brain could be examined for signs of rabies. In the end, another test was devised, and Boo Boo survived.)
In any event, airlines are for the first time making efforts to rein in the frequent-flyer habits of emotional support animals.
At about the same time as the peacock incident — and a much sadder one in which a Miami Beach college student drowned her emotional support hamster after Spirit Airlines wouldn’t let it get on a plane with her in Baltimore — United and Delta issued stricter rules about what kind of animals will be allowed to fly in their passenger cabins.
Generally speaking, hedgehogs, ferrets, non-household birds, exotic animals, spiders and snakes are all banned. So are mice, rats and other rodents, which if they get loose can chew up electrical wiring and endanger the aircraft. And your emotional support elephant is no longer welcome on Delta, which has prohibited anything with tusks.
Even more to the point, anybody who wants to travel with an emotional support animal will have to submit a signed form from a medical or mental health professional certifying that it is necessary — though how much time the airlines will spend verifying those forms remains to be seen.
Although Garland, the spokesman for the flight attendants’ union, thinks the federal government will ultimately have to step in with uniform rules for the entire industry, she says the United and Delta actions are a welcome start.
And, she says, it might even put an end to a creaky old joke much-too-often repeated by flight attendants.
“I can’t tell you how many times,” Garland said wearily, “I’ve heard them say it’s like working on Noah’s Ark.” Oddly, though, nothing about snakes on a plane.