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Emotional Support Animals and Aviation Safety

For many reasons, a certain percentage of travelers choose to bring their pets with them on airline flights. While traveling with a pet can be soothing, a new phenomenon has taken the practice further. Flight attendants are noticing an increase in the number of passengers bringing emotional support animals onto flights. The flight attendants worry that the practice could become a danger, particularly if the plane needed to be evacuated in an emergency.

United Airlines and Delta each charge $125 each way for domesticated cats, dogs, rabbits and birds to ride in the aircraft cabin. Owners must transport their animals in a pet kennel and that kennel must fit under the seat in front of the passenger. The fee does not apply to trained service animals or to emotional support and psychiatric assist animals. The type of animals passengers can designate as emotional support animals is also broader than what is considered a pet. Other than snakes, almost any animal can be an emotional support animal, provided the passenger has the proper documentation. 

Emotional support animals are allowed if they are a necessary part of treating the passenger's mental health or emotional disability. Licensed medical and mental health professionals must provide documentation acknowledging the necessity of the animal for a passenger to be allowed to bring one onboard. The ease of obtaining that documentation is a matter of consternation to some. An NBC producer was able to get the documentation relatively easily, and not as part of ongoing treatment for a mental health condition.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants has registered concerns about the impact on other passengers. Service animals generally have extensive training that reduces the risk of an incident when riding on a plane. Emotional support animals have no training requirements and may be unable to ride safely. The president of the APFA reported numerous instances of delayed flights and disruptions caused by poorly behaved emotional support animals.

Airlines should carefully consider policies that could potentially impact the safety of passengers. Policies surrounding emotional support animals must make passenger safety the top priority.

Source: NBC Chicago, "Emotional Support Animals 'Growing Problem' on U.S. Flights," by Phil Rogers, 27 July 2015 

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