Free and uncaged, pets supply emotional succor on airplanes

But some passengers, staffers and service animal advocates say the practice is abused.


Luna can ride in Gigi Griffis’ lap on planes because she has been certified as an emotional support animal.

AGNES DHERBEYS — The New York Times

LOS ANGELES - Gigi Griffis, a writer who travels around the world as she works, and Luna, her sprightly 4-year-old Schnauzer-Yorkie mix, are nearly inseparable. They have dined in Mexican cafes near Puerto Vallarta, navigated the Paris Metro and hiked the alpine foothills of the Matterhorn.

They rarely go anywhere apart — even on airplanes.

Luna is certified as an emotional support animal, a designation under federal law that allows her to sit on her companion's lap, instead of being in a cage or carrier under a seat, where regular pets must ride. And at a time when airlines are flying at near capacity and charging for seemingly everything but peanuts, Luna rides free.

Classifying animals as emotional support animals has long been permitted under anti-discrimination laws, allowing owners to take them into restaurants and shops or to residential buildings that have no-pet policies. To demonstrate the need for an emotional support animal, the animal's owner needs a letter from a mental health professional.

But their presence on airplanes is increasingly facing a backlash from flight attendants, passengers with allergies and owners of service animals, like guide dogs, who say that airplane cabins have become crowded with uncaged animals who have no business being there. The Department of Transportation does not require airlines to keep data on emotional support animals. One that does, JetBlue, expects more than 20,000 emotional support and service animals this year.

"It's becoming a big problem," said Marcie Davis, founder of International Assistance Dog Week. "I've seen people bring on pets and try to pass them off as an emotional support or service dog. It's not appropriate and it's not safe."

Davis, who uses a wheelchair, flies about once a month, along with a service dog, for her job as a health and human services consultant.

"Assistance dogs are trained not to bark in public, not to go smelling other dogs or people," she said. "I've had my dog attacked in multiple situations. Honestly, I understand that there's some value that people need an emotional assistance dog. But I think a lot of this is that people love their dogs and think they feel like if you have your dog, why can't I have mine?"

Airline workers echo Davis' view. "It's out of control," said an American Airlines flight attendant.

The attendant, a 30-year airline veteran, recalled one passenger whose dog, while not big enough to throw a saddle on, filled the entire seat area, its paws and tail spilling over the arm rests.

She did not approach the passenger about removing the dog from the cabin because it was acceptable where it was under the rules.

For that matter, so would be a cat, a monkey, a miniature horse or even a potbellied pig, if they were certified. The Air Carrier Access Act allowed for emotional support animals to be taken on planes, broadening the American Disabilities Act, which recognized service animals in public places, said Robert Farr of the Pacific ADA Center.

Airline websites have detailed policies on animals, typically allowing for cats and dogs that can fit in a carrier (approximately 18 by 12 by 8 inches) that slides under the seat. Delta says it allows rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, birds and marmots. But airlines charge fees, ranging from $75 each way on Southwest to $125 on American, Delta and United.

Emotional support animals, by contrast, travel free, and restrictions on their size and species are left to the airlines' discretion. They are not required to be caged. And unlike service animals, which undergo extensive training, they require no training. Their task is to provide comfort to their companions.

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