The friendly skies are about to get a lot less furry and fuzzy. This summer, several airlines including United, Delta and American began cracking down on passengers who seek to take advantage of the carriers’ loose rules regarding emotional support animals. That may frustrate the thousands of Americans who bend the system to fly with their pets. But it’s good news for those who care about maintaining and protecting the needed accommodations that make air transit possible for those people with serious mental and emotional health issues.
If you’ve flown anywhere recently, you’ve likely seen a dog in the aisle sporting an orange or yellow vest indicating it provides emotional support for a traveling human. But there’s also a good chance that that human simply bought the vest and letter of certification from a shady online business rather than obtaining it from a licensed mental health professional who conducted a thorough evaluation.
There are real gains to be made from falsely claiming that one’s pet is an emotional support animal. Travelers with emotional support animals can take pets onboard that exceed the size and weight regulations imposed on other in-cabin animals; they don’t have to keep their pets confined in traveling carriers required of other animals; and they avoid having to pay the additional fees charged for other pets who fly (usually around $125 per flight).
The new guidelines vary by airline, but in general they specify what animals will now be allowed onboard and put in place a more thorough reservation process meant to discourage those trying to take advantage of this accommodation, including giving the airline the right to verify with a passenger’s mental health professional if they really require an emotional support animal to travel. For those flyers who have had to share travel space with some of the more outlandish animals brought onboard recently, these new regulations will provide welcome relief. United Airlines recently stopped a woman from taking a flight with her emotional support peacock, but other animals including turkeys, penguins, ducks, spiders and snakes have been allowed on flights under the guise of providing emotional support to their owner.
Still, the value of these new rules is not merely in what comfort they provide other passengers or in how they protect airline companies from lost revenue and unwelcome hassles. Rather, their importance is in how they help push back at Americans’ gross exploitation of accommodations specifically created for designated groups, particularly those with mental and emotional health issues.
In a nation that does not adequately acknowledge and address mental health, the abuse of accommodations for people with emotional or mental health issues both delegitimizes those conditions and undermines efforts to bring them out of the shadows. When Americans view things like emotional support animals on flights as perks they can use to their advantage rather than as accommodations made for specific groups that need them, they contribute to insidious and persistent attitudes that do not take mental illness seriously, even suggesting they might be a joke or scam.
This attitude extends far beyond the pressurized cabins of domestic and international flights. It can be seen, in just one example, when wealthy parents pay doctors to write notes asserting their child has a psychological diagnosis they may or may not have in order for them to get extra time on the SAT and other exams, an allowance originally created for students with documented learning disabilities. It’s not far from the position some white Americans hold that affirmative action gives racial minorities an unfair advantage rather than recognizing it as a necessary adjustment to correct historic inequalities.
New rules such as those put in place by the airlines and stricter enforcement of existing regulations can help guard against such abuses. They are needed. Just last year, United Airlines said it carried 77 percent more emotional support animals than it did the year before, a drastic increase unlikely driven by legitimate usage alone.
As someone who flies frequently with my dog, I almost always have “helpful” people approach me in airports to let me know that I wouldn’t have to buy a ticket for my pet or keep him in his travel bag if I just went on the internet and bought him a vest and letter of certification. I imagine these folks are well-meaning and believe they are trying to help. But their actions ― and those who falsely claim their pets as emotional support animals ― jeopardize the continuation of such programs. If airlines ― or testing companies or the federal government ― decide the misuses of these accommodations outweigh their benefits, they may decide to seriously diminish or even eliminate them altogether.
In the case of emotional support animals for flights, that outcome could inconvenience many Americans who have grown used to freely walking onboard with their animals. Yet if Americans care about taking mental and emotional health issues seriously and about providing adequate resources to those who have them, it will require understanding that for those who truly need them, emotional support animals are not just a question of convenience. They are a vital and sometimes even lifesaving support that some people need to make their way through the world, on the ground or up in the air.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”