Flying can be a pretty stressful experience, for a number of reasons. If you’re prone to emotional distress or are suffering from a mental illness, the anxiety of being on a plane can be amplified significantly. And while holding your breath to see if you’ve won at your favourite online casino is part of the fun of playing, doing the same thing because you’re stressed out on a flight is a recipe for disaster.
For a lot of people emotional support animals, or ESAs are a fundamental component of dealing with this issue, and thus avoiding possible hyperventilation and other nasty side-effects when travelling on USA-based airlines. Now, these creatures may soon no longer be available as a coping resource while flying.
The United States Department of Transportation, or DOT, has proposed a ban on these furry – sometimes even feathered – friends. Currently it is still open for public comment, which the DOT will analyse before issuing a final policy. What are the reasons for the possible ban, and what are its practical implications? Let’s unpack the issue a little more.
ESAs Are Not Service Animals
The definition of an ESA is an animal that alleviates the symptoms or effect of a disability. They’re not trained to perform specific tasks as service dogs are, and their benefits stem from the unconditional positive regard and companionship that they offer.
While no one is denying how positive having a loving pet can be in your life, for some time there has been a growing feeling that the situation on US commercial airlines is spiralling out of control. The rate of incidents involving untrained animals has surged in recent years and the type of ESAs being brought onto flights is said to be increasingly ridiculous. Ducks, turkeys, goats, pigs, frogs, ferrets, hedgehogs and even peacocks have made it into air cabins under the guise of providing emotional support. A lot of passengers have also abused the concessions by claiming that their pets are ESAs.
Ending the Airborne Noah’s Ark
Delta, Alaska Airlines and other operators had already created their own stricter policies for ESAs, as have 22 individual states. The air travel community has called for action in the past and definitely seems to be welcoming the DOT’s new proposal, with the Association of Flight Attendants’ official statement likening the current state of affairs to a Noah’s Ark in the sky.
The suggested new regulations would still permit airlines to impose their own discretionary limits on whether dogs could travel with their owners as support. Carriers will be allowed to stipulate size rules, early check-in times, 2-animals-per-person limits and specifications on where they need to sit on the plane
Cats and miniature horses will no longer be considered ESAs as they were in the DOT’s 2019 guidelines, and certifications must be supplied for all dogs. Passengers will also have to fill in forms detailing the tasks that canines have been trained in, to assist them in coping with their physical or mental disabilities.
Terms and Conditions Apply
While dogs must meet certain size requirements, airlines will be prohibited from refusing to transport a canine based on breed. If your Great Dane is the right proportions and you have the supporting documents you need, you stand a good chance of getting him or her onto the plane with you. That’s providing you satisfy the other conditions, of course.
Psychiatric service animals will still be allowed, but they will have to have specific training so that they can help with particular issues relating to a mental illness. Helping someone who is having a panic attack to perform certain breathing exercises, for example, rather than simply showering them with love and unconditional positive regard.
In other words, service dogs will still be recognised as important, but they’ll now be regulated to keep their use within reason. If you really will benefit from the duties that a dog can perform for you, the proposed legislation will allow them to travel with you. This brings the USA more in line with the United Kingdom, whose airlines do not recognise ESAs. The only question now is what will happen to all those peacocks and hedgehogs that were providing emotional support?