LOS ANGELES — Gigi Griffis, a writer who travels around the world as she works, and Luna, her 4-year-old Schnauzer-Yorkie mix, are nearly inseparable. They have dined in Mexican cafes near Puerto Vallarta, navigated the Paris Metro and hiked the alpine foothills of the Matterhorn.
They rarely go anywhere apart, even on airplanes.
Luna is certified as an emotional-support animal, a designation under federal law that allows her to sit on her companion’s lap, instead of being in a cage under a seat, where regular pets must ride. And at a time airlines are flying at near capacity and charging for seemingly everything but peanuts, Luna rides free.
Classifying animals as emotional-support animals has long been permitted under anti-discrimination laws. To demonstrate the need for an emotional-support animal, the owner needs a letter from a mental-health professional.
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But such pets’ presence on airplanes is increasingly facing a backlash from flight attendants, passengers with allergies and owners of service animals, such as guide dogs, who say airplane cabins have become crowded with uncaged animals that have no business being there. The Department of Transportation does not require airlines to keep data on emotional-support animals. One that does, JetBlue, expects more than 20,000 emotional-support and service animals this year.
“It’s becoming a big problem,” said Marcie Davis, founder of International Assistance Dog Week. “I’ve seen people bring on pets and try to pass them off as an emotional-support or service dog. It’s not appropriate and it’s not safe.”
Davis, who uses a wheelchair, flies about once a month, along with a service dog, for her job as a health-and-human-services consultant.
“Assistance dogs are trained not to bark in public, not to go smelling other dogs or people,” she said. “I’ve had my dog attacked in multiple situations. Honestly, I understand that there’s some value, that people need an emotional-assistance dog. But I think a lot of this is that people love their dogs and think they feel like, if you have your dog, why can’t I have mine?”
Airline workers echo Davis’ view. “It’s out of control,” said an American Airlines flight attendant, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The attendant, a 30-year airline veteran, recalled one passenger whose dog, while not big enough to throw a saddle on, filled the entire seat area, its paws and tail spilling over the armrests. It was more hospitable than the cargo hold, though, where animals without the emotional-support or service designation must ride if they are too big to fit in a cage under a seat.
She did not approach the passenger about removing the dog because it was acceptable under the law. A cat, a monkey, a miniature horse or even a potbellied pig also would be acceptable if they were certified. The Air Carrier Access Act allowed for emotional-support animals to be taken on planes, broadening the Americans with Disabilities Act, which recognized service animals in public places, said Robert Farr of the Pacific ADA Center.
Airline employees are often reluctant to question passengers with emotional-support or guide animals for fear of violating the law or stirring a conflict, the flight attendant said. This week, for example, a blind man and his guide dog were removed from a US Airways flight after a dispute erupted over securing the dog while the plane prepared for takeoff. The airline said the passenger was removed because he had become abusive to a flight attendant. That decision caused some of the other 33 travelers to become upset, and the flight was canceled. The airline said it is investigating the incident.
Airline websites have detailed policies on animals, typically allowing for cats and dogs that can fit in a carrier (approximately 18 by12 by 8 inches) that slides under the seat. Delta says it allows rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, birds and marmots. But airlines charge fees, ranging from $75 each way on Southwest to $125 on American, Delta and United.
Emotional-support animals, by contrast, travel free, and restrictions on size and species are left to the airlines’ discretion. They are not required to be caged. And unlike service animals, which undergo extensive training, they require no training.
To serve the needs of the animals and their owners, a cottage industry of websites and doctors advertising documents that certify emotional-support animals has emerged.
Carla Black, a psychotherapist in Marina del Rey, Calif., began receiving enough requests for emotional-support animal certification that this year she began advertising on her website. For $99 she provides an hour, over the phone or Skype, and a clinical assessment, along with a prescription letter, which is valid for one year.
Black said in a telephone interview that before she issues a letter, “I make sure they qualify for depression or whatever, PTSD.”
Occasionally, the needs of passengers with support animals collide with the needs of other passengers, such as those with allergies. In those cases, courtesies such as switching seats can address the issue, passenger advocates say.
Griffis, acknowledging that more people are traveling with emotional-support animals, said it was important for the animals to be well-behaved.
As for skirting the rules?
“Shame on anybody who abuses the system,” she said.