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Americans Want A Shorter Leash On Emotional Support Animals On Planes

Americans Want A Shorter Leash On Emotional Support Animals On Planes

Airline pilots and flight attendants responded furiously after an emotional support dog bit an American Airlines’ flight attendant July 22, requiring five stitches. The flight attendant union immediately called for “action in regards to setting standards for emotional support animals.” A large number of airline pilots, flight attendants and other concerned airline personnel echoed this sentiment. Captain Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who successful landed a crippled airplane in the Hudson River saving all 155 lives, stated on LinkedIn, “Passengers too often bring aboard flights animals that should not be on an airplane. This must stop.” There followed a number of airline pilots and other flight crew who concurred that this was a major safety problem that needs to be addressed immediately.

It is not my belief that any airline pilot is saying that mental illness is not real, nor that emotional support animals (ESA), which provide comfort to the handler who may experience depression, social anxiety, PTSD, panic disorder, bipolar, etc., should be completely banned. The complaint appears to be that: a) it is too easy to get a doctor’s note attesting to the need for a therapy animal; under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines are forbidden from discriminating against consumers who have documented disabilities. Getting this ESA letter is as easy as going online, filling out a questionnaire, chatting over the phone with a therapist, and then waiting for your letter; b) there are too many types of animals that are allowed; and c) the animals are not always trained to handle commercial airplane flights in the same way as service animals (e.g. guide dog for a blind person). In their opinion, this creates a safety hazard that is unacceptable on commercial flights.

Public opinion on this topic is mixed. My research shows that about 78% of 1,200 Americans surveyed in an online study agree that mental illness requiring ESAs is real. Another 81% believe that ESAs should be allowed on commercial airplanes, while only 40% believe that airlines should be allowed to ban ESAs for safety reasons. However, 72% of these respondents agree that some people pretend that their pets are ESAs in order to avoid the usual pet carrier fee of $150 or more, and 46% agree that it is too easy to get a doctor’s note for an ESA. Around 68% of respondents agree that ESAs should be limited to only certain kinds of animals. Surprisingly, only half of the respondents knew that ESAs typically do not receive the same training as service dogs, which go through 1-2 years of training before they’re certified, learning how to behave properly in social settings, avoid being the cause of unwanted attention, eat only the food offered by the handler, and stay quiet, among other things. Some 71% believed that ESAs should be required to go through the same training.

Clearly, when ESAs are biting flight attendants, not to mention the amount of added stress they put on flight crew even when they behave appropriately, then we have a problem. On the one hand, we want to help those who need help. There is no doubt that ESAs provide benefits to some people who need their companionship during an already stressful event. However, many Americans feel that the rules are too lax and that too many people are faking it to avoid the airline pet fee. One might argue that we should require ESAs to go through the same training as service dogs. However, this creates new problems of training time requirements and financial burdens. Not everyone can afford this route.

Many airlines seem to be taking the path of least resistance, although some are banning certain types of animals. Perhaps they are reluctant to fight current policies due to potential blowback on social media. However, they risk alienating their own pilots and flight crew if they don’t do something. What are your thoughts on how this problem might be resolved?

Americans Want A Shorter Leash On Emotional Support Animals On Planes

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