Opinion: The Department of Transportation should approve denying ESAs on planes

“Fake service dogs and ESAs are not fair to the legitimate animals who really are trained, who provide a service, who expand the world.”

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The U.S. Department of Transportation has passed stricter rules for what qualifies as an emotional support animal. Credit: Francesca McKernon

Last semester, I wrote an article about the differences between Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and service dogs, and the laws that pertain to them. In case you need a refresher, service animals are task trained to assist with a disability, whereas ESAs are prescribed to provide comfort and motivation to somebody with a mental illness. While only service dogs are allowed in public places such as the movies or a restaurant, ESAs and service dogs are currently both allowed to live in no pet housing and fly in the cabin of a plane – however, it looks like this may soon change.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on Jan. 22, proposing stricter regulations around assistance animals by amending the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The department said in a statement that it “recognized the integral role” that service animals provide for people with disabilities, and hope that proposed changes will help prevent people from “falsely claiming their pets are service animals.”

The 94-page NPRM was summarized as an attempt to “address the appropriate definition of a service animal and include safeguards to ensure safety and reduce the likelihood that passengers wishing to travel with their pets on aircraft will be able to falsely claim that their pets are service animals.” Amongst other things, it “proposes to allow airlines to recognize emotional support animals as pets rather than service animals” meaning that it is up to individual airlines to decide if ESAs have to fly in the cargo with pets, or share the cabin with task trained service animals.

This change is the result of fraudulent ESAs and service animals and untrained ESAs, a problem that has been rising exponentially. Complaints about assistance animals have more than tripled in the past five years. Additionally, unusual animals have been brought on airplanes as ESAs of dubious legitimacy that cause many problems, such as a pig, peacock, marmoset, and turkey, to name a few. These fraudulent and misbehaving animals have a direct impact on both the reputation and safety of legitimate working animals.

I talked to my dad, a captain for American Airlines, about the subject. He said, “what exists today is awfully vague. Passengers don’t know what to expect. Having more common rules is going to be a good thing for everybody, especially those with legitimate animals who are following the rules.”

Regarding why the issue came about in the first place, he commented that “fake service dogs and ESAs are not fair to the legitimate animals who really are trained, who provide a service, who expand the world” and that unusual ESAs make things even more difficult on both airlines and people with service dogs. He said half-facetiously, “forget about having one as an ESA, I didn’t even know you could own a peacock. I think that’s just redonkulous.”

I’ve flown with guide dogs in training before, and it’s stressful. Going out in public with a dog is anxiety inducing enough, and flying commercially is it’s own host of problems — combining the two is something I would never want to do again unless necessary. The planning ahead it takes, the constant awareness of everything around you, the inconsistent treatment by TSA, making sure she’s comfortable at my feet and doesn’t get stressed during the flight… All this made even worse by scanning for the ESA I’m guaranteed to see while walking through the terminal, who likely isn’t prepared for this long and stressful journey and may act out towards my working animal.

I feel awful for the ESAs who get brought aboard. It takes about two years to fully train a service dog, and most of that time is spent simply getting them used to going out in public. It takes months of dedicated training to prepare a dog to work as a service animal, and people bring ESAs from a life where they usually never leave home, straight to one of the most stressful things a dog can do without proper preparation.

Considering the problems caused by fraudulent or untrained ESAs, the vague nature of the current laws, and the welfare of the animals, I’m personally in favor of the proposed changes.

The NPRM can be found at regulations.gov, docket number DOT-OST-2018-0068, and is open for public comment for 60 days from its original posting before the agency makes an official decision if you want to make your voice heard.

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