61% of Flight Attendants Say Emotional Support Animals Misbehave In-Flight

Sep 15, 2018

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A new survey revealed that 61% of flight attendants said onboard emotional support animals (ESA) have caused some sort of in-flight disturbance. More than half described these disturbances as aggressive or threatening behavior by the animal.

The Association of Flight Attendants surveyed 5,000 flight attendants across 30 airlines between July 20-August 6, 2018 and found that ESAs pose safety, health and security issues on flights. Survey responses indicated that one in four flight attendants has dealt with ESAs urinating and defecating in the cabin. Additionally, the flight attendants reported they’ve had animals snap at their heels, bark and lunge at other crew members and passengers.

The AFA survey also noted flight attendants’ concerns over the discrimination and bias against passengers traveling with service animals. The organization recently urged the Department of Transportaion to take action to protect the rights of passengers with disabilities and limit the abuse of “emotional support animal” designation in the system. Of all the survey respondents, 82% believe the airline industry needs to establish a consistent policy and define requirements supporting passengers with disabilities and veterans.

“The DOT really needs to act here because this is under the Air Carrier Access Act, which is essentially aviation ADA,” said Taylor Garland, an AFA spokeswoman. “The way the regulation is written based off that act, it defines a service animal as both a working service animal and as an emotional support animal.”

Garland explained that because of that, the airlines are somewhat limited in what they can require of passengers for these animals, such as paperwork and documentation. Unlike service animals, which go through specific training to help individuals with disabilities, emotional support animals are not required to have any specialized training — and are not limited to dogs. One passenger even tried to bring her emotional support peacock onboard a United flight earlier this year.

After seeing an increase in the number of and types of these animals on board their aircraft, many US airlines, including Jet Blue, Delta, Southwest, have tightened their ESA policies this year. Many carriers have limited emotional support animals to dogs and cats only. Delta said that since 2015 it’s transported 150% more service and support animals and has seen an 84% increase in the number of reported onboard disturbances.

But the patchwork of policies between the different airlines can be confusing for passengers.

“The problem is only growing and is something that needs to be addressed on an industry-wide level through regulation instead of individual airline policies,” Garland said.

The AFA suggests the DOT should require ESA owners to provide a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating that the passenger is under his or her care for the condition requiring the animal, like anxiety and depression. Moreover, the organization thinks ESAs should remain in a carrier that can collect urine and feces.

“We’ve really reached a point where there is clear abuse in the system, and it’s affecting first, passengers with disabilities and veterans who have legitimate needs for these animals and a reason for these animals to be traveling with them,” Garland said. “And, it’s also threatening the health and safety of the other passengers.”

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