Since 1986, you’ve been able to bring your pet dog into the cabin of a commercial flight—for free—simply by telling the airline it’s an “emotional support animal.” The ridiculously vague nature of that law—as well as a shocking level of selfishness—has lead to an incredible amount of abuse, creating problems for the truly disabled, as well as annoyances for the rest of us. Finally, the Department of Transportation may be bringing our long emotional support animal nightmare to an end.
Following actions from three major U.S. air carriers (Delta, United, and American), the DOT has announced a review of the Air Carrier Access Act, the law that allows emotional support animals to fly so freely. The agency is soliciting public comment, and indications are that it may rewrite the law to crack down on fake service dogs.
Here’s why such a change can’t come soon enough.
Why Do You Hate Froufrou?
She’s the light of your life, your only truly loyal companion, and oh, just look at her little curls. How could you not love this tiny toy dog, you awful, awful man?!
Look, I get it. I love my dogs and want to take them everywhere. But if all of America’s tens of millions of pet dogs came with us onto flights, into restaurants, and other places where pets don’t belong, we’d have a real public health crisis on our hands.
Specially trained dogs can help people with physical and mental disabilities live more normal lives. Access for those people who need dogs to guide them, alert them to health problems, or assist them with essential tasks is written into federal law. Those laws mandate a compromise in which we determine that giving the disabled equal access merits a small amount of effort and inconvenience for the rest of us. We build ramps, write signs in braille, and accept service dogs in restaurants and on flights to enable that equal access.
But that compromise crumbles when the system gets overrun with fake service dogs, who give the real ones a bad rep. Every time Froufrou piddles in the aisle, it erodes public support for the real deal. Every time Froufrou snaps at a child, someone who legitimately needs their dog to survive may be turned away from a restaurant or hotel. In any case, they’ll have to deal with your fake service dog distracting their real service dog from its potentially life-saving duties.
I’m not just making a mountain out of a maltipoo hill here. Categorical records on the total number of emotional support animals in the United States are hard to come by, but we do have some numbers from airlines, which bear the brunt of this abuse. In 2017, Delta says it transported 250,000 service dogs and emotional support animals—a 150 percent increase since 2015. United carried 76,000 ESAs alone last year. There are fewer than 200,000 real service dogs in the country. If you’ve flown lately, you’ll have noticed this problem. Flights are now commonly referred to as “barnyards.”
The Trouble with Service Dog Laws
Three federal laws govern access for service dogs.
The Americans with Disabilities Act governs access across all public places. It mandates that access must be granted to people with disabilities who need service dogs, and it provides the primary definition for service dogs: dogs trained to perform a specific task in aid of the disabled. It also says that business owners and their like may not question a disabled person’s need for a service dog; they may only ask if the dog is trained to assist with a disability and which actions it’s trained to perform.
The Fair Housing Act governs access to housing. It mandates that landlords cannot discriminate against tenants based on a disability, so they must allow service dogs. Crucially, the FHA does two things the ADA does not: It mandates access for emotional support animals and allows landlords to ask for proof both of disability and an animal’s ability to help with it.
Then there’s the Air Carrier Access Act, which governs air travel. It’s similar to the FHA in that it mandates access for ESAs and allows airlines to ask for proof. And that creates two major problems:
- It has created a cottage industry for scammers and profiteers selling ESA certificates to anybody who wants one.
- People tend to conflate it with the ADA and assume they are allowed to bring their ESA into all public places. Froufrou is peeing on the chips at your local supermarket right now because her owner mistakenly believes that they’re entitled to bring her along simply because their unethical mental health professional wrote a letter saying she can fly in their lap or because they purchased such a certificate online. And due to an overwhelming sense of entitlement and selfishness, too. Obviously.
What the DOT Is Doing About It
Delta, United, and American have all announced major changes to their emotional support animal policies this year. They’ve banned exotic animals, like emotional support tarantulas or peacocks, and have created online documentation centers that formalize the approval process for onboard animals in an attempt to prevent people from flagrantly gaming the system with nothing but a verbal promise that Froufrou is an ESA. The DOT has said it’s okay with the airlines doing this, even if it’s technically in violation of the ACAA.
That has necessarily led to a review of the ACAA itself. “The Department has heard from the transportation industry, as well as individuals with disabilities, that the current ACAA regulation could be improved to ensure nondiscriminatory access for individuals with disabilities, while simultaneously preventing instances of fraud and ensuring consistency with other Federal regulations,” states the DOT, announcing its review of the law.
A public comment period that opened on May 17 has received 1,521 comments to date. It’s open through July 9.
Identifying the need for new rulemaking, the DOT references fraud, the presence of untrained animals on flights, and the urinating, defecating, and biting that their presence inevitably leads to. Requests for this review came from both the Psychiatric Service Dog Association, which is worried about discrimination against the disabled, and Airlines for America, an airline industry lobbying group.
Justifying its request for the ACAA review, Airlines for America states, “The DOT providing a better understanding on issues like the definition of service animals, or what they mean when they direct prompt service for disabled passengers, allows our industry the opportunity to improve. We’re not trying to charge for these things or mitigate costs. We want to have a better understanding, so we can provide better service to communities that deserve every consideration.”
Solutions being suggested by industry stakeholders and lobby groups run from an outright ban on ESAs in airline cabins to a greater burden of proof on people claiming a legitimate need for their dogs. Mandating that ESAs remain confined to pet carriers, limiting the number of ESAs per passenger, and creating a formalized burden of training are also being discussed.
“Things need to change,” states Airlines for America. Whatever that change may be, one thing seems clear: It’s going to get harder to fly with a fake service dog. Thank God.