Lisa Unleashed: Delta Airlines Leads The Way On Service Animal Restrictions

Published: January 28, 2018 at 12:00 am


Well, it's happened. Too many owners who wanted to fly with their pets, mostly larger dogs, in an airline passenger cabin instead of checking them as baggage, have spoiled it for those who really need a service animal.

We've all seen them, "official" service animal vests you can buy on the internet. People saying they have a need or disability when they don't. These canine con artists have ruined it for those with real disabilities, like needing a seeing eye dog or seizure-alert dog.

I know what you are thinking, there really are those who need emotional support dogs, like veterans with PTSD. Yes, there are. Others with live-saving needs, like the Belgian Malinois who alerts her owner when there is gluten in food, since she suffers from celiac disease. There are also wonderful organizations surrounding the careful and responsible breeding of dogs that help the sightless, the shellshocked, and all emotional needs and diseases in between.

But the proof is in the pudding. The New York Times reported on January 19, that, "Effective March 1, Delta, the second largest US airline by passenger traffic, said it will require passengers seeking to fly with pets to present additional documents outlining the passenger's need for the animal and proof of its training and vaccinations, 48 hours prior to the flight.… This comes in response to what the carrier said was a 150 percent increase in service and support animals - pets, often dogs, that accompany people with disabilities - carried onboard since 2015.… Delta said that it flies some 700 service animals a day. Among them, customers have attempted to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums, snakes, spiders, and other unusual pets."

I had to look up gliding possum. It's a small marsupial.

Let's break this down a bit further. Currently, the American with Disabilities Act allows service animals, who do not pose a threat to others, to accompany owners into certain situations like eating at restaurants and transportation without needing proof of the disability.

I once studied the law when I was asked to come up with proposal to ask Amtrak to allow pets, in addition to service animals, to travel on the nation's trains. I learned that conductors could not ask passengers what disability they had or why they needed the service animal. At the time, I read an internal railroad document that advised conductors on how to approach passengers with dogs with a list of questions to determine if they were service animals versus "just pets" which were banned from the trains.

It is hard to qualify, what is a disability. A disabling condition to one individual is not to another. And then you start to go down the rabbit hole.

Those who really need service animals, really need them. We should not be asking people to "prove" their disability. I come from the dog show world, where I'm embarrassed to say, that I know people who have lied about their show dog as being a service animal just to fly in the passenger cabin rather than put them in baggage below. Some do it to save money, others because they don't like the environment below for their dog. It's louder, darker, colder. Airlines take the care of animals in their possession very seriously. They have rules about the temperature being at certain levels at the departure and arrival cities. If it's too hot or too cold, they won't fly animals.

Some airlines have bad records of animals dying in the cargo hold, so I get it, that some might not want to fly them there. But if your dog is bigger than what can easily fit under the seat in front of you, and it's not a service dog, then you need to check your dog like a suitcase or don't fly.

This sentence is ludicrous: Delta is requiring "proof of its training and vaccinations." Proof of training, what will that look like? An obedience certificate? A signed waiver attesting that the dog is well behaved?

Once again, these documents, along with letters from doctors, can all be manipulated, and in some cases forged. Proving your dog is trained is nearly impossible, because every dog can react differently when stressed, as in a new situation, especially one that is in a small, confined space, with lots of strangers. The main carriers of American and United are also reviewing their policies. I understand you can't make a list of "acceptable" disabilities that need a service animal. No one should be trying to ban service animals from places already protected by federal law.

But come on people, those who abuse this system for your own personal comfort level about your dog's travel conditions or financial savings, shame on you. The airlines could also do better than to create more red tape for genuine service animal owners.

They could launch a public service announcement or ad campaign showing the true costs of fake service animals. Like the blind person who got bumped from a flight because there were already too many pet dogs on board or the man who got mauled because someone brought an untrained, and obviously dangerous dog, on-board and didn't have control of the animal.

Showing pet owners that taking the high road and respecting the true need and duty of a service animals is better than trying to fly the friendly skies with Fido.

Lisa Peterson writes about history, horses and hounds at lisaunleashed.com. You can reach her at lisa.peterson@barngirlmedia.com.

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