Flying With an Emotional Support Animal Isn't Just About Coping With the Stress of Travel

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“Emotional support animals (ESAs) are no longer covered by the Air Carrier Access Act,” I heard on the local news playing in the background. As soon as I caught a glimpse of the headline to confirm what I’d heard, I stopped everything I was doing and grabbed my phone to call my mother, who travels with an ESA wherever she goes. Worries filled my head as the phone proceeded to ring. “What if something happens to her on the flight and our dog isn’t there? How will she ever fly safely and comfortably? Will we have to do all our traveling by car now?”

These are major concerns that people with ESAs are currently grappling with in light of the most recent revision to the Air Carrier Access Act. In this revision, which will take effect 30 days after it’s published in the Federal Register, the Department of Transportation states that airlines are “not required to recognize emotional support animals as service animals and may treat them as pets.” This comes in response to the increase in service-animal fraud – when airline passengers claim their house pets as certified service animals in order to avoid extra fees. Flying a pet in the cabin can get expensive, as it requires you to pay $125 or more (depending on the airline) for each leg of your flight. The easiest way to get around this is to claim your pet is a service animal, and people unfortunately get away with doing so all the time. Purchasing “official” documents and service vests from websites like CertaPet is easier than ever, and it’s reached a point where people have brought pigs, ostriches, and Shetland ponies with them on their flights. It’s an exploitation of the Air Carrier Access Act, and because the Department of Transportation is now cracking down on its regulation, it hurts passengers like my mother who have a legitimate need to fly with a support animal.

Video: US Department of Transportation revises rule on emotional support animals on flights (ABC News)

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For as long as we’ve had our dog, she’s also been my mother’s ESA. Through years and years of behavioral psychotherapy, hospitalization, and constantly going in and out of the suicidal ideation ward, a certified emotional support dog has been by my mother’s side through it all – a dog who has been just as essential as any prescription drug, who can keep her safe when no other family is around to understand the unpredictable nuances of her behavior.

Service animals undergo different training than emotional support animals, but both are equally indispensable to their handlers, and both provide necessary and often lifesaving assistance. Not every disability is visible. Just because somebody doesn’t “look” disabled doesn’t mean they aren’t. Because my mother suffers from a mental disability rather than a physical one, I worry airlines will (and legally can) deny her the right to travel with the ESA she has legitimately been prescribed and has proper documentation for.

When there are people who literally buy service vests for their pets on Amazon and get away with bringing an emotional support rattlesnake on board with them, it makes sense that the Department of Transportation would want to tighten up the loopholes defined in the Air Carrier Access Act. But it would’ve made a lot more sense to establish stricter regulations and clearer guidelines for certification, rather than exclude ESAs entirely from the Air Carrier Access Act. People don’t need emotional support animals simply “to cope with the stress of flying,” as the Department of Travel continues to naively comment. I can say for a fact that my dog does way more for my mother than relieve her stress, and frankly, it’s ignorant to assume that’s what an ESA is all about. ESAs provide support in every part of their handler’s life, and for my family, airline travel happens to be part of it.

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