While walking to his gate in an airport, a frequent Delta Air Lines flier snaps three pictures of passengers with animal companions meant for people with disabilities.
One woman, who appears to be in her late 20s, sits at an airport cafe table. She wraps her right arm around her brown dachshund, which sports a pink vest to show it is an “emotional support animal” (ESA for short).
A second woman, perhaps in her 40s, walks towards the gate in a pink-collared shirt and even brighter pink sneakers. Her Pomeranian doesn’t have any sort of vest indicating it is a service dog (the term used to cover guide dogs for the blind or hearing-impaired, support dogs for people with mental illness, diabetes or limited mobility).
The third woman sits in a seat at the gate, hands folded across her belly and a black and white dog lying across her lap.
Eric Goldmann of Atlanta, in the US state of Georgia, tries to find out if they are faking a disability to travel without paying a pet fee.
“When I see a dog in the airport, I befriend them,” says Goldmann. “I like dogs. I’m allergic, but I like them.”
He says he has been travelling several times a week for business for about 15 years, but only in the last handful of years has he seen so many pets in airports. Goldmann took 142 flights in the first 10 months of this year and says he saw “emotional support animals” on about 40 per cent of the planes.
“It’s the cool, new trend to travel with a pet,” he says.
Delta Air Lines spokeswoman Ashton Morrow said she couldn’t disclose the number of service animals on flights by year.
“Delta complies with the Air Carrier Access Act by allowing customers travelling with emotional support animals or psychiatric service animals to travel without charge in the cabin,” Morrow says. “We reserve the right to review each case and make every effort to accommodate our customers’ travel needs while also taking into consideration the health and safety of other passengers.”
But people travelling with fake emotional support animals is a growing problem for flight attendants, frequent fliers and people with disabilities who have service animals for medical reasons.
Goldmann says people have admitted to him that they pay about US$49 for an official certificate from a licensed therapist and another US$149 or so for the service animal vest.
Jennifer Schwenker is the mother of twin boys with autism and her family has a service dog, Barkley.
“We worked hard to provide Barkley for our boys,” she says. “We work hard yearly to keep him properly trained, make sure he has veterinarian care and is certified yearly through 4 Paws for Ability.”
She said people who pretend to need an animal for support just to travel without paying fees are being disrespectful of those with disabilities.
“When someone says to me, ‘I wish I could bring my dog with me everywhere,’ I ask, ‘What disability would you like to have in order to do this?’ That response always ends that conversation.”
Jen Williams, who has been a flight attendant since 1996, says she’s seen an incredible increase in support animals in the past year.
“It’s definitely gotten carried away to the point where people are taking advantage of the system,” Williams says.
The ticket counter agents are responsible for ensuring that a dog has its proper paperwork as a service animal, Williams says. By the time the animal gets to the plane, there is little a flight attendant can do or legally ask.
For Hong Kong-bound flights, the only animals Hong Kong government regulations permit airlines to allow into the cabin are disability assistance dogs, and these need its prior approval.
Williams says things are getting ridiculous where she works. “A co-worker saw a ferret wearing a diaper that was supposedly an emotional support animal.”
She’s seen dogs get loose and use the aisle as a lavatory. A co-worker told Williams a so-called service dog once bit a passenger and medics had to meet the flight when it landed.
“A lady on a flight was allergic, so we moved her away, but she broke out in hives,” Williams says. “A nurse on the flight gave her Benadryl that we wouldn’t have had if she didn’t happen to be on the plane.”