By: Jennifer Weiss, J.D. Candidate, December 2018, St. Thomas University School of Law.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, in struts a peacock named Dexter, ticket in hand (or shall I say beak), ready to board his United Airlines flight at Newark Liberty International Airport. United refused Dexter entry into the main cabin due to his size and weight, despite his owner’s owner claim that Dexter is her emotional support pet.

It isn’t just peacocks who show up at airline terminals with their owners. Thembi, an emotional support hedgehog, flies frequently with his owner Jennifer to comfort her because she suffers from depression. Daniel, an emotional-support duck, boarded an American Airlines flight wearing red shoes and a Captain America diaper.

It’s not just exotic pets as emotional support animals that are raising the eyebrows of many skeptics.  Passenger Marlin Jackson boarded his Delta flight, and squeezed past an 80 pound emotional support dog who was sitting in the middle seat. Seconds after Mr. Jackson sat down in his window seat, the dog attacked him, mauling his face and leaving him with facial wounds that required 28 stitches and scars that are still visible today.

In the United States alone, the increase of emotional support animals flying in the main cabin of commercial airlines has dramatically increased in the last year. United reports an increase of 76,000 requests for emotional support pets from passengers in 2017, which is a 75 percent increase from 2016. Delta reports about 700 service animals fly per per day—a 150 percent increase since 2015. Delta also reported incidents of biting, urinating, and defecating had nearly doubled since 2016. The situation is stricter with UK airlines, however. Virgin only allows dogs on board for emotional support, while British Airways has banned emotional support pets completely.

Emotional support animals fall under the umbrella of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) definition of “service animal.” However, they are not defined the same as service animals. Service animals are trained in specific tasks to assist people with disabilities. The ADA considers trained dogs, miniature horses, pigs, and monkeys as service animals. Emotional support animals, however, offer support for passengers who suffer from extreme flight anxiety, phobias, or panic attacks.

The Air Carrier Access Act (“AACA”), which the airlines are bound by, allows free travel for “any animal” that is trained to assist a person with a disability or that provides emotional support. The AACA permits airlines to use discretion, and may decide on a case-by-case basis according to factors such as the animal’s size and weight, state and foreign country restrictions, whether or not the animal would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others, or cause a fundamental alteration in the cabin service.

Airlines can require passengers to produce a letter from a physician or mental health professional, but the documents can be easily forged or obtained from websites that provide simplistic questionnaire-style exams. Anyone claiming an emotional need who has access to the internet, and pays a one-time fee of $150, can apply for certification. That’s about the same amount as most passengers pay to travel — each way –for their pets who are not considered an emotional support. Moreover, the effectiveness of emotional-support animals “is poorly substantiated through studies but widely embraced by the public.”

Scrutiny of service animals is also sharpening on the ground; nineteen states now have laws that criminalize passing off pets as service animals. Airlines have pushed for new federal rules to reduce fraud, and the transportation agency plans to begin taking comments on proposed regulations in July.

While it is true that some people have an emotional condition that an emotional support animal solves, there are more people who do not have a bona fide emotional condition who are simply trying to game the system so they can fly with their pets for free. The growing amount of skepticism among the public and airlines has been warranted, as many instances of completely healthy passengers try, and usually succeed, in getting their beloved pets on flights for free.

Pets flying in the main cabin of commercial jets is far from one of the country’s biggest problems right now. However, it is one of many trends of acceptable mass cheating, and how people are making decisions based on their personal preference to travel with their pet, rather than overall communal well-being and the safety of others.

Ironically, the ADA manual found online is dedicated to the memory of Pax, a seeing eye dog, who faithfully guided his blind owner through busy streets and intersections in many cities for over ten years. Conversely, the majority of today’s emotional support animals lack such a noble purpose, and moreover, are fraudulently labeled “emotional support” simply so the owner may sidestep sensible health and safety laws so they can fly with their pet for free.