Emotional Support Animals ‘Growing Problem' on U.S. Flights

How a dog and a tortoise helped NBC5 Investigates expose an increasing problem in air travel

If you dread the prospect of sitting next to a small child on an airplane, you may want to think again. 

There’s an increasing likelihood that your next seatmate could be a dog -- or a cat -- or a turtle -- or a chicken or a pig or even a kangaroo – and there’s really not much you can do about it.

They’re called Emotional Support Animals – ESAs. Almost anybody can bring one, or two, or three -- or even more - on board a plane, and virtually all species (other than snakes) are allowed. All you need is a letter from a licensed mental health professional, saying that you would benefit by having an ESA during plane travel. That allows your animal sit with you for free, and you don’t have to pay the $125 fee that you’d otherwise likely be charged to bring your pet on board.

NBC5 Investigates has learned that some flight attendants are concerned with the growing number of ESAs on flights, to the point that they fear the animals could potentially pose a safety hazard – especially in the event of an emergency evacuation.

And NBC5 has also found an online cottage industry of websites where doctors are willing to write ESA letters, for a fee. In fact, an NBC5 producer easily obtained her own ESA letter by answering a few questions and paying a fee, which allowed her to take two flights accompanied by her dog Bailey -- plus a Sulcata Tortoise named Xena, on loan from AnimalQuest in north suburban Lake Villa, a company whith offers exotic animal exhibitions and educational presentations to local schools and organizations.

“It really is getting to the point where it’s become uncomfortable for other passengers,” says Laura Glading, National President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. “And flight attendants are getting put in the middle.”

Glading adds: “We’ve had over fifty documented cases … dozens of instances where planes have returned to the gate; passengers have unruly pets; dogs maybe snapping at other passengers, or barking at other dogs and causing disruption.”

“A couple of weeks ago I was on a delayed flight because a dog had relieved himself in the bathroom,” she says. “We took a delay so the service people could come on and clean the toilet with their hazmat materials.”

ESAs are not service animals, which provide specific and much-needed assistance to people with physical, emotional, or mental disabilities. Service animals are highly trained and protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensures they have full access to accompany their companions anywhere – including planes. It is against federal law to misrepresent an animal as a service animal.

Glading points out that true service animals are consistently well-behaved on airplanes, and provide real help in the event of an evacuation, by assisting their companion as needed.

In contrast, ESAs are regulated by the Air Carrier Access Act – which does not grant them the broad range of access allowed by the ADA. It simply allows them on a plane – provided the passenger provides has a letter.

Another flight attendant and union representative tells NBC5 that these ESAs could truly jeopardize an emergency evacuation, because they are not trained for an emergency, and could get in the way of passengers – especially as their numbers increase. (She says she sees at least one ESA on nearly every flight she works.)

That same attendant tells NBC5 that her airline discourages attendants and gate staff from challenging the validity of an ESA or an ESA letter, for fear of a lawsuit.

“The same people who ‘game’ the system are also the same people who are most likely to make a scene if you try to challenge them on their animal or animals, so we are strongly encouraged to ‘just deal,’” the attendant says.

She does not want her name used by NBC5 because she does not want to reveal the airline she works for.

A spokeswoman for the airline industry takes issue with the idea that more people are flying these days with ESAs, but at the same time she says the industry does not keep track of the numbers. “We trust our passengers are honest in communicating their need for service assistance animal support,” she said in a statement.

The two flight attendants who spoke to NBC5 say that individual airlines track ESA – and ESA problems – internally.

But NBC5 Investigates has examined the few figures that are on file with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which show that complaints about assistance animals in general have risen steadily over recent years, and nearly nine out of every ten of those complaints now relate to animals traveling with people with “unspecified” disabilities – not any of the variety of disabilities commonly associated with true service animals. Although it cannot be confirmed that these “other” animals are ESAs, it may indicate a trend.

Here’s the breakdown of the assistance animal complaints to U.S. airlines in 2011 – the most recent year these reports have been tracked:

• Animals with vision-impaired passengers – 9 complaints
• Animals with hearing-impaired passengers – 8 complaints
• Animals wheelchair-bound passengers – 9 complaints
• Animals with passengers with other assistive devices – 11 complaints
• Animals with mentally-impaired passengers – 17 complaints
• Animals with passengers with allergies – 1 complaint
• Animals with passengers with “other disabilities” – 411 complaints

And here’s how assistance animal complaints have increased over the most recent eight years of reporting by U.S. airlines. Note that those complaints related to people with “other disabilities” now account for most all the complaints each year:

That’s an increase of more than a thousand percent, for problems reported concerning animals who are traveling with people not with sight or hearing problems, or seizures or mental issues, but passengers with “other” disabilities.

The flight attendants who spoke to NBC want a crackdown on the dozens of websites marketing ESA letters. They also would like to see airlines reduce the fee to travel with pets in approved containers, so that more people would be willing to go through the regular process of flying with their pets on planes.

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