Pets in airplane cabins are certainly a phenomenon you don’t see every day. Usually they’re relegated to the hold, under heavy sedatives, and when they do make an appearance with the human passengers, they’re usually small, lap-sized pets that don’t take up too much space. You can also be sure that the animal’s owner has paid a decent chunk to get them in the cabin. In 2018, however, pets riding on planes are much less unique than they have been in times past. This is due to the surge in interest for emotional support animals, or ESAs for short, which are pets with a special assignment: they care for the mental health of their owner.
For someone new to the theory, whenever mental health is mentioned in the same breath as an animal, their mind immediately jumps to therapy dogs, which are animals that require special training to assist their owners or others in need of treatment. Although the distinction can be confusing, emotional support animals are almost the opposite of therapy dogs, even though their faculty is similar. Emotional support animals receive no prior training to facilitate their role as part of a patient’s treatment plan; instead, they provide comfort and reassurance to their owner simply through being present in their lives. By doing so, ESAs can counter some of the most severe symptoms of crippling and widespread mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and bi-polar disorder. This progressive new form of health care has been gaining traction in the U.S. for the past few years, leading to increased awareness about emotional support animals in both doctors and patients alike.
Because ESAs are part of a treatment plan for people who have mental disorders, the patients can take advantage of several federal laws that protect mentally disabled people in the United States. The most pertinent (and currently controversial) one of these laws is the Air Carrier Access Act (or ACAA for short). This act allows any kind of therapy or service animal (including ESAs) to board flights with their owners for no extra charge. The animals are allowed in the cabins, and the airplane staff have to accommodate them by law. However, the difficulty lies in the loose definition of what an ESA actually is; unlike therapy dogs or guide dogs, which are, by definition, dogs, ESAs aren’t limited to one or two species. They can be any species whatsoever, as long as they give comfort and reassurance to their owner, and assuage the symptoms of their particular mental health disorder.
This hasn’t been flying well with all airlines, however – so much so that one major carrier has decided to change the way they approach emotional support animals. Air travel giant Delta recently announced that they would be adapting their policies in the wake of an influx of ESAs traveling on their aircraft. Delta claims to carry approximately 700 support or service animals daily, totalling close to 250,000 annually. As you can imagine, carrying that many animals in a cramped cabin full of people at close proximity has not always gone smoothly; Delta reports seeing an 86% increase in reported animal incidents since 2016, including multiple counts of urination/defecation, acts of aggression or intimidation, and even an attack by a 70-pound dog. The airline claims that many people see the emotional support animal laws as a loophole, and acquire an ESA letter from a medical professional just to bring their pet with them when they travel (and avoid paying another fee in the process). Delta says this detracts from the plight of genuinely incapacitated people who need their ESAs to function normally.
Of course, the underlying cause of all this furore is that emotional support animals don’t require any training. Usually therapy and service dogs are trained to the highest proficiency; it’s extremely rare that one would misbehave. This has, in essence, forced Delta’s hand – they have a point that a prevalence of false ESAs does minimize the need of real patients. In addition to a verified ESA letter from a medical health professional, the airline now requires a minimum of 48 hours’ notice, proof of good health and vaccination history, and a signed document confirming that the animal in question can behave appropriately for the duration of the flight.
If you’re a genuine patient with an emotional support animal, this should not affect you in anyway. Generally, it is good practice to give the airline as much prior warning as possible that you’ll be traveling with an ESA, and even before this new rule was brought in, many considerate owners were practicing it anyway. Also, if you’re used to bringing your emotional support animal around with you, chances are it is well-behaved and used to being out in public anyway. Delta’s new legislature isn’t surprising, and in a lot of ways, actually benefits well-intentioned ESA owners by providing them with enforced regulations and legitimizing their status. As emotional support animals become more widespread as a treatment, it’ll be interesting to see if other big airlines follow Delta’s lead.