By: Jesse Ochoa, J.D. Candidate, May 2019, St. Thomas University School of Law.

If you had to pick between a screaming seven-year-old sitting behind you, kicking your seat, or a peacock perched beside you, stealing every peanut from your hand that you are about to eat, which of the lesser two evils would you pick? Now, I know what you are thinking: “What kind of question is that?” Well recently, a traveler by the name of Ventiko was attempting to fly from Newark, New Jersey to Los Angeles, California with her emotional support peacock accompanying her.  Yes, I said it: an emotional support peacock.  However, close to boarding time, she and her peacock, Dexter, were told by United Airlines they could not board the flight because Dexter was not allowed on the plane. United Airlines reasoned that Dexter did not meet the requirements for an emotional support animal to be on a flight because of its weight and size and that the airline feared it would attack another passenger.

United Airlines is not the only airline that has cracked down on the denial of unusual emotional support animals. In November 2017, Spirit Airlines denied a college student’s emotional support hamster on her flight home to Florida although earlier a representative told her there would be no issue with the hamster on the plane.  A lawsuit resulted after a Spirit Airlines employee allegedly suggested the student flush her hamster down the toilet leaving her to fly home alone.

The real question is: have some people taken advantage of this accommodation to the point it is ruined for those who really need it? Do airlines really have to tell customers that a peacock is not allowed on a plane even though the person claims it is an emotional support animal? Some airlines, like Spirit Airlines and Southwest Airlines, specifically have rules against allowing certain types of animals, like hamsters and snakes, on their planes.  But this does not stop people from trying to bend the rules to get their emotional companion onboard.

It is because of recent policy abuse that Delta Airlines announced starting March 1st of this year, the airline is going to thoroughly examine emotional support animal flight applications. Now applicants will have to provide proof of the animal’s training and a letter signed by a doctor or other health professional, certifying that the animal will behave itself on the flight.  Because of the peacock incident, United will be reviewing its policies as well which is strange because their policy already says that they are not required to accommodate “certain unusual service animals” and that they have the discretion to determine whether there are any factors that would “pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others.” Typically, when an emotional support animal is allowed to board a flight, the animal must behave and not cause a ruckus that would disturb the flight experience of the other passengers and the airline’s employees.  As far as seating goes, the animal is supposed to sit in the floor space in front of the passenger, the passenger’s lap, or even the seat next to them so long as they do not wander around the cabin or lay around in the aisles. Some people voiced their opinions on Twitter regarding whether emotional support animals are legit or a scam by starting the trending hashtag #ESAoftheday.

Requiring proof that an emotional support animal is trained prior to boarding a flight is something that will benefit every single person who checks their bag in curbside, scans their boarding pass, and buckles themselves in for a four-hour, non-stop flight to California.  This may ruffle the feathers of some causing them to caw in anger, but in the long run it is a policy that will ensure the people who actually need an accommodation on a flight are not completely deprived of it as a result of abuse.