The golden age of scamming airlines out of pet fees may be coming to an end.
On Wednesday, the Department of Transportation released a proposed rule that would vastly restrict who and what counts as an emotional support animal for the purpose of flying. Currently, all you need to qualify is a letter from a therapist (or therapy mill) stating that your emotional support animal brings you emotional support. (You know, like a pet.) And then, with this letter—which can be purchased online for less than $200—your emotional support pet flies for free.
If this sounds insane, well, it is, but it started out as a noble effort. Federal law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, and the Air Carrier Access Act states that "any animal" that assists a passenger or provides him or her with emotional support must be permitted to fly at no cost. The idea wasn't to pack airplanes with pets, it was to accommodate people who use trained service animals like seeing-eye dogs. But while the law may have been well-intended, it also prevents airlines from questioning people about their alleged disabilities and why they need to bring their animals on a plane. If you have a letter, your animal gets a free pass and no gate attendant can say shit about it.
As word of these policies spread—and as the letters, thanks to the internet, have become easier to get—the number of ESAs on airplanes has grown. And so have the problems. Delta, for instance, says they saw an 84 percent increase in “reported animal incidents" between 2016 and 2018, including "urination/defecation, biting and even a widely reported attack by a 70-pound dog.” Other airlines have reported similar trends, including emotional support dogs biting both passengers and staff. (And it's not just dogs that get this designation: ESAs have included turkeys, sugar gliders, snakes, spiders, and, in 2018, a hamster whose owner flushed it down an airport toilet after being told—wrongly—it wasn't allowed on her flight.)
Some airlines have made attempts to crack down on ESAs, including requiring 48-hour notice and banning certain species. In 2018, Delta banned hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, reptiles, amphibians, goats, non-household birds, and animals with tusks, horns, and hooves. Other airlines followed suit, and this week, some in the industry cheered the proposed policy change from the Department of Transportation, which would define a service animal as "a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability." That means no more emotional support peacocks on American flights—and, they hope, fewer fakers.
"The increased availability of fraudulent ESA credentials has enabled people who are not truly in need of animal assistance to abuse the rules and evade airline policies regarding animals in the cabin," Airlines for America, a lobbying group for the industry, said in a statement. "This has led to an increase in incidents by untrained animals threatening the health and safety of passengers, crew, and passengers with disabilities traveling with legitimate service animals."
I suspect, however, that it's not just frauds and fakes trying to get free airfare for their pets that have lead to the spike in ESAs on planes. Rates of anxiety and depression have been going up, and so it makes sense that as more people experience mental health issues, more people would want their emotional support animals to comfort them. The question is, does it actually help?
Turns out, we don't really know. While there is ample evidence that interacting with animals can relieve anxiety and depression temporarily, in the long-term, the evidence just isn't there. In fact, the anthrozoologist Hal Herzog (yes, we are related) looked at 30 studies assessing depression rates in pet owners and non-pet owners, and he found that, while the pet industry has been remarkably successful at convincing people that pets make you happy, the results are decidedly mixed: Some studies found that pets owners are less depressed; others found they're more.
As Herzog wrote wrote on the website Psychology Today, "Despite media headlines extolling the curative powers of dolphins, dogs, horses, and Guinea pigs, there is little evidence of the long-term effectiveness of emotional support animals for the treatment of mental problems. Indeed, it is possible that they can sometimes have an enabling function which actually prolongs an individual’s psychological issues."
In other words, ESAs can possibly become a kind of crutch that, in the end, impedes some people from developing a sense of resilience. It's like carrying a blankie or sucking your thumb, which may be soothing but doesn't actually make people better able to handle life when things start to go south.
The DOT proposal is, at this point, just that. There's a 60-day comment period, after which a rule will be formally issued (or not). And if it does go forth, anxious travelers, take heart: the DOT might crack down on emotional support animal, but they can never take away your pre-flight Xanax.