Are people abusing the system to get free flights for pets?
PITTSBURGH – Marcia Sokolow Spitz takes her Morkie, Cocoa, almost everywhere she goes.
“She’s such a good girl. She’s used to traveling all the time,” said Sokolow Spitz.
Cocoa even flies with Marcia.
“It’s very calming. I was never a fan of flying. I always had my husband’s hand to hold. I’d squeeze on takeoffs and landings or any of the turbulence,” she said.
However, Marcia’s late husband isn’t here anymore to hold her hand. So, her therapist recommended Cocoa become an emotional support animal to help her deal with the loss and help her fly.
“She really helped me get through everything. There was a reason to get up every day. Because she needed me. She could not survive without me,” said Sokolow Spitz.
“Only licensed health care providers are supposed to write these letters,” said Licensed Professional Counselor Ellen Freise-March.
Freise-March has written a few of these letters for clients.
“I won’t write a letter unless they’re: One, my client and two, the animal is well-trained and behaved,” said Freise-March.
She said there are certain guidelines a licensed professional must follow when writing an ESA letter.
“In the letter you have to state why the animal is there, what the animal does to support the client. They usually want to know some sort of diagnostic DSM diagnosis for having the animal,” said Freise-March.
Freise-March said the airline also requires a signature on the letter and a license number.
On March 1, two airlines tightened their policy even more. United is one of them.
“They have to provide confirmation the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting so they have to check that box. Additionally, we’re asking that they provide us with health and vaccination records signed by the animal’s veterinarian,” said United Airlines spokesman Charlie Hobart.
Delta is another airline cracking down. According to Delta’s website, the airline has had customers who tried to fly with comfort turkeys, snakes, spiders and more. They said ignoring the true intent of ESA animals does a disservice to customers who have a real need for them.
So, how easy is it to fake it?
KDKA’s Amy Wadas decided to see how the process works, so she logged onto a website for a company called Certapet in hopes that she could get her 5-year-old cat, Simba, certified to become an ESA animal.
The site is one of several where a licensed medical professional will write an ESA letter for you if you pay a fee. Wadas had to answer a bunch of questions involving her mental health, like whether she felt down or had anxiety in the past week.
She answered honestly, then paid the $149 fee. In just a few days, she got an ESA letter in the mail, written and signed by someone named Luanne Rossi. The letter said she has a license in Pennsylvania.
When you search her name on Google, it appears she graduated from Pitt and is a licensed clinical social worker. However, it looks like her office is in Florida.
The letter is good for a year, in line with airline policies.
To find out if it really worked, KDKA-TV booked a ticket to Miami on American Airlines, told them that Simba was an ESA animal, emailed the airline a copy of Wadas’ letter and went to the airport.
Simba was in a carrier that fit under the seat in front of Wadas. When she got to the gate, the airline attendant didn’t even glance at Wadas’ letter and said she was okay to fly. Wadas and Simba boarded the plane and she flew with Simba a good portion of the way on her lap, which you’re allowed to do with an ESA animal.
Wadas and Simba made it to South Beach in Miami, so they decided to check out some sights while they were there. Simba got to experience the sand for the first time, hear the ocean waves and do a little sightseeing.
On the way back, they got to their gate without any problems. This time, the airline attendant in Miami did look at Wadas’ letter before boarding. She and Simba had an uneventful flight back home.
What about the ESA letter Wadas got online? Should it really have been that easy for her to get one?
“In our opinion, that is not a legitimate document. If a customer’s medical professional has not signed off on it then we’re not going to be able to accept that document,” said Hobart.
In fact, Freise-March suggests people stay away from these types of websites.
“These individuals that are writing it don’t have a therapeutic relationship with the person. They don’t know anything about the animal,” said Freise-March.
Sokolow Spitz agrees.
“I think that makes it more difficult for people like myself who really have a legitimate need to have an animal with them and it’s not really fair to the animal either,” said Sokolow Spitz.
Certapet sent a full statement stating:
Thank you for reaching out. We are glad that you had a good experience flying with your Emotional Support Animal. We understand that you have some concerns regarding the process of the assessment and evaluation for an ESA. We have found our assessment to be very thorough, and in cases where a client already reports an established diagnosis and treatment plan in place, we look to come alongside that treatment as a supplement. In cases where a client may be making contact with a therapist for the first time, we approach things differently. More importantly, our therapists make their decisions based off what our clients are telling them by giving them full respect and genuine attention rather than suspicion. We find it unfortunate that some may be scamming the system or pretending to have a disability in an effort to get a free flight for their animal, have pet rent fees waived, or to get a story. Thankfully, this is being cracked down on as well.
In issuing letters to our clients, we make sure to abide by current legislation. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, this is what is required to qualify for an emotional support animal.
We meet all requirements above as our clients are matched with a therapist who is licensed in their state and who is available to thoroughly assess them for the clinical necessity of an ESA, as well as being available to them to help them improve their described symptoms. We think of the evaluation as a starting off point for creating meaningful change in people’s lives. We are committed to further legitimizing the Emotional Support Animal evaluation process in order to assure that these letters are provided only to individuals.
A number of states are working to curtail fraudulent medical verifications for individuals who are faking a disability. The Colorado General Assembly adopted changes to its state code, now prohibiting and criminalizing fraudulent disability claims. Florida has a similar law, prohibiting the false representation of a service animal and making the offense punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Furthermore, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s a federal crime to use a fake service animal to take advantage of privileges reserved for those who genuinely need the assistance of such pets.
Airlines may require documentation that is not older than one year from the date of your scheduled initial flight that states:
- You have a mental or emotional disability that is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM);
- You need your emotional support or psychiatric support animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at your destination;
- The individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional and the passenger is under his/her professional care; and
- The licensed health care professional’s; Date and type of professional license; and Jurisdiction or state in which their license was issued.