By Daniel R. Zim, Esq.
People who love to travel as much as they love their pets face a dilemma whenever they travel by air. They can either board their pets for the duration of their sojourn or they can bring their pet with them. Owners of non-travelling pets have no shortage of local boarding options (there are even Airbnb substitutes like rover.com). But the focus of this column will be on the travelling canine and the type of information that travel agents should provide to clients when such inquiries are made.
Cargo or Carry-on
Checking a pet as cargo can be quite expensive. Depending on the size and breed , prices for shipping a dog as checked luggage can exceed the cost of transporting a human on a domestic ticket by as much as five-fold. Aside from the expense, many passengers are uncomfortable with the idea of keeping man’s best friend in dark, unfamiliar surroundings next to piles of luggage. Additionally, airlines do not offer encouraging words to make pet owners want to check their pet on the baggage conveyer belt. Airline policies typically decline all liability, expressly disclaiming any guarantee that your pet will arrive at its destination safely. And the media strikes fear in the heart of dog owners whenever reports surface of pet DOAs.
Fortunately, most airline policies allow passengers to bring their dogs as carry-on luggage if the dog can fit in a carry bag that can be stowed under the seat in front of them. Delta, for example, has a one-way carry-on dog, cat or bird fee of $125 but the under-seat compartments – as you can imagine – are quite small. So, by process of elimination the carry-on option is limited to Chihuahuas, yorkies, toy poodles or similar breeds and sizes. Anything larger than a tiny or toy breed must go in cargo, unless the four-legged friend qualifies as a service dog or an emotional support dog.
Since a large number of dog owners or their immediate family members have qualifying physical or mental impairments, it could be comforting for them to know that their dog might eligible to travel with them in the cabin, free of charge, if they need the dog to perform particular tasks or provide emotional support. First, it is important to know the difference between service and emotional support animals and that there is a low standard of proof required for getting a service dog or emotional support animal in the cabin.
A service dog is recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. The types of work or tasks that service dogs perform include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure or calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack. Service dogs are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.
Because the airlines are limited, under the ADA, to asking just two questions regarding a passenger’s need to travel with a service dog there is a low legal threshold for getting such a qualifying animal in the cabin. The two questions are: (1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?; and (2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Airline staff are prohibited from asking about the passenger’s disability, requiring medical documentation, requiring a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or asking that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task. Sometimes the service performed by the dog is obvious to airline employees such as a seeing eye dog for the blind, many times it is not. Notwithstanding the only evidentiary burden that the passenger must climb is that he or she must offer a credible answer to questions 1 and 2. And, barring any evidence of fraud or foul play, the airline must take the passenger’s word for it.
Differences Between Psychiatric Service and Emotional Support Dogs
The ADA makes a clear distinction between dogs that perform services for people with psychiatric disabilities (psychiatric service animals) and emotional support animals. The “psychiatric service dog” is a subset of the general service dog category. They are service dogs that provide assistance to people with psychiatric disabilities, such as severe depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By contrast, emotional support dogs are primarily used to provide comfort and therapy to the dog’s handler. Unlike psychiatric service dogs, emotional support dogs are not trained to provide a specific service since the emotional support that they offer is not a trait they derive through training. The companionship of an emotional support dog is also believed to provide genuine therapeutic benefits for individuals with less severe mental impairments. As a result they are often recommended for people who have suffered trauma or those who do not adapt easily in social situations.
Emotional support dogs are not covered under the ADA. They are instead covered by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) which requires commercial airlines to allow emotional support dogs, as well as psychiatric service dogs, to accompany qualified passengers with a disability in the cabin. Airlines cannot require that a passenger traveling with a service animal provide written documentation that the animal is most types of service animals, but that is not the case for an emotional support dog or psychiatric service dog. The airlines are not required to accept the animal for transportation in the cabin unless the passenger provides you current documentation no older than one year from the date of the passenger’s scheduled initial flight on the letterhead of a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, including a medical doctor specifically treating the passenger’s mental or emotional disability. The letter must state the following:
(1) The passenger has a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—Fourth Edition (DSM IV);
(2) The passenger needs the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at the passenger’s destination;
(3) The individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional, and the passenger is under his or her professional care; and
(4) The date and type of the mental health professional’s license and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued.
Significantly, the emotional support dog may help the traveler get to their destination but it may not help them stay in desired lodging at their destination. Since hotels are not covered by the ACAA and the ADA only extends protection to service dogs and not emotional support dogs, hotels can refuse pet stays on emotional support grounds but not ones declared under the service category. However, some state or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places, so hotels in those regions may be required to allow emotional support dogs in their premises under such additional legislation.
Legitimate Disabilities that Evade Detection
A doctor’s letter evidencing an emotional support use for a pet should not be difficult to obtain. In fact, American Airlines makes it easy for passengers and doctors by providing a form letter for medical professionals to simply fill out and sign.
The idea that a dog provides emotional support or critical services that treat disabilities is not as far-fetched as it seems. Dogs and humans have evolved together for 14,000 years or possibly longer. Over the millennia, dogs have been trained to perform a broad spectrum of services which runs the gamut from simple tricks, to hunting skills, to lifesaving, rescue and recovery.
Additionally, any dog owner will attest that it lifts their spirits when he or she returns home tired from a long hard day at the office and is greeted by a bouncy and excited pup. Dogs fulfill a certain nurturing instinct in humans. It is, therefore, hard to deny that the emotional support that dogs and humans provide is not mutual.
However, the emotional support aspect is only half of the test for legal airline cabin travel. The emotional support must be coupled with some sort of cognitive or mental disability or condition. Yet, such disabilities are difficult for the average person to detect since they only exist within the depths of the mind.
Potential for Fraud and Abuse
With low standards of proof and a high percentage of the population diagnosed some sort of mental illness it is surprising that there would not be more service or emotional support dogs in airline cabins. Since this is an area with the potential for becoming rife with fraud and abuse, travel agents should refrain from actively encouraging clients to declare their dog a service or emotional support dog. They should similarly refrain from helping arrange paperwork for obtaining such recognitions, as it borders on giving unauthorized legal or medical advice.
Instead, they should offer basic information to inquiring clients about the possibility of travelling with a service or emotional support dog if the client qualifies for such special accommodations. Travel agents should keep these conversations brief recommending that they consult a doctor or lawyer for more information. Since travel agents are considered fiduciaries under many state laws, they should keep any conversations with clients regarding service or support uses of a dog private and confidential. In keeping with a travel professional’s high ethical stewardship of the travel industry and to discourage fraudulent claims, agents should emphasize that special accommodations are only available for people who need, rather than want, the accompaniment of a service or emotional support animal.
If pet accompaniment is something the client merely wants then it is best to recommend that he or she pay the fee to transport the animal as cargo. Despite the high price and the occasional horror stories which make headlines, Department of Transportation (DOT) data shows that airlines have a very high success rate in moving pets to their destinations by air safely. The data also shows that “animal issues” is the category for which DOT receives the lowest number of passenger complaints.