Uptick in emotional support animals has airline staff saying enough

BOSTON -- Airline staff members tell Boston 25 News that "flying the friendly flies” has become more like a trip to the zoo, and they’ve had enough.

In a letter to the Department of Transportation, Airlines for America says after seeing an 85 percent increase in incidents involving untrained emotional support animals, they need clear regulations on how to deal with them.

“Our crew is being put in untenable situations,” said Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for Airlines for America. “Animals need to be trained. They also need to be of a size where they're not blocking the aisle or the exits in case of a needed emergency evacuation."

Pinkerton said there's also a serious danger to passengers.

Around Valentine's Day, an emotional support dog reportedly bit a little girl in the forehead on a Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix to Portland, Oregon.

Cameron Matthews from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA has dealt with his share of scary incidents involving emotional support animals.

“The non-trained emotional support animals, they don't know how to behave, especially with other people in a very crammed, tight space," Matthews said.

Emotional support animals are typically untrained pets, prescribed by a doctor to treat an emotional or psychological issue.

Airlines have no real way to verify they're legitimate. Boston 25 News started investigating the issue last September to see just what went into certifying an emotional support animal.

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After a surge in the number of emotional support animals on flights over the holidays, Delta and United have implemented their own polices. United's went into effect March 1 and calls for:

  • A letter from a licensed medical/mental health professional
  • A veterinary health form documenting the health and vaccination records for the animal
  • Documentation confirming the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting.

Delta flyers also need to sign a voucher themselves saying their pets can and will behave on the flight.

But airlines say they also need federal support and enforcement.

In January, a woman attempted to bring her emotional support peacock on a flight out of Newark's Liberty International Airport.  United Airlines reportedly denied her request 48 hours before the flight, but she brought it anyway.

The Department of Transportation told Boston 25 News, it's now asking for public input on service animals in the air, including what they call "an appropriate definition." The department is also planning to issue an enforcement statement soon.

On the DOT website, there's some guidance under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) that basically defines a service animal as any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a person with a disability; or provides emotional support.

It also says airlines may require documentation and 48-hour advanced notice while pointing out that airlines are never required to accept snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents or spiders.