WASHINGTON — A fracas on a Southwest Airlines flight out of Baltimore last year had all the usual elements of a viral air travel incident: an agitated passenger dragged off a plane, a he-said-she-said dispute over what transpired and a video that captured the worst of it.
The source of the angst was also increasingly common: animals — in this case, two dogs on the plane that the passenger said could cause her allergies to flare up.
Dallas-based Southwest, Fort Worth-based American Airlines and other U.S. carriers have seen a massive uptick in recent years in the number of pets flying on board, thanks to the growing use and misuse of the ill-defined genus that comprises “emotional support animals.”
These comfort pets, while vital to some fliers, are governed in the air by open-ended rules that practically invite abuse.
So great are the airlines’ concerns over an uncaged in-cabin menagerie — and the problems that can come from dogs, cats, ducks, pigs, peacocks and monkeys hanging out in a confined space — the typically regulation-wary industry is turning to the government for help.
A Trump administration effort to perhaps tighten flight rules for emotional support animals. A new Senate bill, expected any day now, to achieve much the same. An upcoming reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration that could provide another legislative vehicle.
Anything to offer clarity on a serious disability-related issue that sometimes devolves into an airborne theater of the absurd.
“It’s beyond what most reasonable people would think makes sense,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said recently.
The predicament, a separate issue from animals shipped as cargo, traces back to two competing pieces of legislation.
There is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides strict rules for service dogs used by the blind and others with disabilities in all different kinds of public spaces. U.S. Justice Department guidelines make clear that those animals are “working animals, not pets.”
There is also the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, which applies just to airplanes. It takes a much wider berth in accommodating any animal that is “able to provide assistance to a person with a disability” or that “assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support,” according to a U.S. Transportation Department summary.
That distinction may not always be obvious. Of the dogs that set off the woman on the Southwest flight out of Baltimore, for instance, only one was a comfort pet.
Both types of animals fly in the cabin, outside of kennels, for free. Owners of emotional support animals can be required to give advance notice and present documentation from a mental health professional. Many comfort pets are well-trained, a welcome calm in a stressful environment.
“The reality is that emotional support animals exist for a legitimate reason,” said Alicia Smith, a National Alliance for Mental Illness representative who’s worked with airline officials and the federal government on the issue.
But the high-altitude herd keeps growing, in part because the lax rules for comfort pets mean that a larger swath of fliers can and do bring animals in the cabin.
U.S. carriers flew 751,000 emotional support animals last year, an 80 percent increase from the previous year, according to an informal survey by industry group Airlines for America. American Airlines recorded a 40 percent spike, counting both service and comfort animals.
The resulting problems can be measured in both bark and bite.
Untrained pets. Websites that provide, for a fee, the needed medical proof by way of cursory questionnaires instead of face-to-face evaluations. Allergic reactions. Bogus documents. Animal phobias. Fliers simply looking to avoid pet fees. In-cabin confrontations. Injuries, some severe.
Most stakeholders agree something must be done.
“We don’t want U.S. airlines to become like Noah’s ark,” said Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.
Most stakeholders also agree a happy compromise might be easier said than done.
That lesson came through two years ago when the U.S. Transportation Department convened a working group on disability rights and flying. The participants, including airline officials and consumer advocates, hashed out a number of critical issues.
Then there was the topic of emotional support animals.
“They really didn’t come to any consensus whatsoever,” said Sheila O’Brien of America’s VetDogs, one of the groups that participated in the panel.
Some groups, such as America’s VetDogs, wanted to better distinguish between ADA-compliant service dogs and comfort pets, imposing some new restrictions on the latter. That could make it harder for fliers to take advantage of the system, O’Brien said.
Others worried about crimping passengers who really benefit from emotional support animals.
Some said the standard should apply more broadly to dogs — such as Henny, the maltipoo that flew with Phoenix resident Shanir Richmond this week through Dallas. Some said dogs and cats. Some pointed to another grouping that would build upon existing limits on spiders, snakes and rats.
“It’s a grayer area,” conceded Smith, the National Alliance for Mental Illness representative.
Consider the case of Daniel Turducken Stinkerbutt, a 6-year-old emotional support duck.
The bird became an internet sensation a couple of years back when Kentucky resident Carla Fitzgerald brought him on a series of American Airlines flights. The 39-year-old suffers from PTSD and other injuries that resulted from a horse-and-carriage accident years ago.
“Daniel is a good focus point,” she said, explaining that the duck will give her kisses when she starts to get overwhelmed.
Fitzgerald said some of her fellow airplane passengers were “very, very curious” about Daniel. But she fits him with a diaper harness. The duck doesn’t make a lot of noise. If Daniel were going to cause a ruckus, Fitzgerald said, she wouldn’t even consider bringing him on board.
“If the animal is a danger or an annoyance, it has no business being there,” she said, adding that she supports tighter rules that might require certificates on animals’ health and training.
Airlines start to act
Some of these animals, however, have proved to be dangerous or annoying. And some U.S. carriers have started to act.
Delta and United airlines this year tightened their comfort pet policies, requiring fliers to offer more proof that their animals will behave. The action came after high-profile incidents, one where a dog mauled a passenger and another where a flier tried to bring a peacock on board.
An American spokeswoman said the company is reviewing its rules with aims of “protecting our team members and our customers who have a real need for a trained service or support animal.” A Southwest spokesman said the carrier is “constantly evaluating our policies and procedures.”
But the airline industry, leery of violating existing law, would really like the government to step in.
One option could be new Transportation Department regulations through a process expected to begin later this year. Or Congress could take the reins in tightening the rules, via a Senate bill expected to be soon introduced or more overarching aviation legislation.
The bottom line is that the issue “needs to be better addressed,” said Kelly, the Southwest chief.
“In substance, what you want is an animal that is trained and that we are all comfortable will be appropriate in that environment. … Hopefully we’ll have something better soon.”