Delta Air Lines announced this morning that it is tightening the requirements for passengers traveling with on-board service and emotional support animals. This comes after an increase of animal-related safety incidents that have occurred during the past few years.
New policies will go into effect on March 1, and will require “that all customers traveling with a service or support animal show proof of health or vaccinations 48 hours in advance. In addition to the current requirement of a letter prepared and signed by a doctor or licensed mental health professional, those with psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals will also need to provide a signed document confirming that their animal can behave to prevent untrained, sometimes aggressive household pets from traveling without a kennel in the cabin. These measures are intended to help ensure that those customers traveling with a trained service or support animal will no longer be at risk of untrained pets attacking their working animal,” per Delta’s public statement.
Delta says it transports more than 700 support animals daily and that passengers have “attempted to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders and more.” The airline has seen an 84-percent rise since 2016 in reported pets incidents, including pets pottying inside the plane, biting of passengers and other service animals, and one serious mauling of a passenger by a 70-pound support dog.
“The rise in serious incidents involving animals in flight leads us to believe that the lack of regulation in both health and training screening for these animals is creating unsafe conditions across U.S. air travel,” said John Laughter, Delta’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Safety, Security and Compliance. “As a leader in safety, we worked with our Advisory Board on Disability to find a solution that supports those customers with a legitimate need for these animals, while prioritizing a safe and consistent travel experience.”
On a Delta flight last week, I was on board with a medical student who had a small white emotional support dog. Before the flight, a number of us were admiring the dog who was dancing around the student’s feet and was clearly excited to be boarding a plane. Some passengers asked the student why she needed the dog and she told the group that she is a medical student and under a lot of stress. The dog, she explained, helped with her anxiety.
Anxiety is a common reason for people have to emotional support animals, even though a PsychCentral article states, “…we assume being in the presence of animals has a therapeutic effect on people, ‘an assumption that does not appear to have substantial foundation in science.'” Researchers at at least two universities might disagree though. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “pet owners were happier, healthier and better adjusted than were non-owners.”
But as far as emotional support animals on planes go, how does a business like an airline balance the benefit, and maybe need, of one passenger with the wants, needs, and potential safety of the others? Many businesses struggle with giving a client or customer what he or she wants with what may be the best outcome for that person, the business itself, and the other customers.
For example, in January 2016, a passenger brought a pig to Boston’s Logan Airport and as the other passengers watched it snuffle oats from the ground, one eyewitness said, “you could see jaws tensing up, people straightening their backs”; clearly one person’s emotional support animal was causing stress and anxiety for other passengers. And I’ve been aboard flights where people with cats in carriers have taxed my emotional, mental, and physical health. (I carry an Epi-pen at all times because cats cause me anaphylaxis, but unlike peanuts they are not banned from planes due to people’s allergies.)
The best and usual ways for businesses to balance the “for the good of one” and “for the good of many” paradigm are by creating limits or clear guidelines, and by having stellar customer service.
In our example of Delta, a number of guidelines have been created. First, the federal government, under the American with Disabilities Act has spelled out the difference between a service animal (for psychiatric reasons or otherwise) and an emotional support animal. (The first is covered under the ADA, the other is not.)
And Delta itself has established these guidelines or limits to what it will permit on its planes: “Customers traveling with an emotional support animal or psychiatric service animal will be required to submit a signed Veterinary Health Form and/or an immunization record (current within one year of the travel date), an Emotional Support/Psychiatric Service Animal Request form which requires a letter prepared and signed by a doctor or licensed mental health professional, and a signed Confirmation of Animal Training form to Delta’s Service Animal Support Desk via Delta.com at least 48 hours in advance of travel.”
Airlines have also limited the number of non-support or service animals that may be on a flight, and all airlines have rules about where animals of any kind can sit on planes (not in exit rows).
Delta is also increasing its customer service presence by creating a Service Animal Support Desk which will confirm customers’ travel plans with their animals, collect the necessary paperwork, and “improve their travel experience.”
Of course, only time and analysis of future customer-emotional support pet interactions will determine if this is the right balance of support for those who have emotional support animals and their fellow fliers.
Photo by Ferlinka Borzoi (Deb West)