FLYING can be a stressful and nerve-wracking experience. For those with mental-health issues it must be doubly so. One way in which vulnerable travellers deal with their anxiety on a plane is to take on board an “emotional support animal” (ESA). Such creatures provide succour for their owners. Unlike guide dogs, they “do not require any kind of specialised training,” according to CertaPet, an organisation that provides such services. “In fact,” reckons CertaPet, “very little training is required at all, provided that the animal in question is reasonably well behaved by normal standards.”
That sounds like an easy and effective way to help sufferers. It was distressing to read, therefore, of the emotional support dog that mauled a passenger on Delta flight from Atlanta to San Diego earlier this week. Reports suggest that the dog, a labrador-pointer cross-breed, was accompanying a military veteran, who was sitting in a middle seat. The animal apparently snarled at the passenger sitting by the window, who asked several times whether it was about to bite him. It duly did, leaving the unfortunate victim bleeding profusely from the face and in need of hospital treatment. The animal’s owner was later seen in the terminal, reportedly weeping, concerned that the dog would be destroyed. In fact, both the owner and the canine were later allowed onto another flight, though this time with the dog in a travel box.
In order to fly with an ESA, passengers need a letter from a licensed mental-health professional. But one organisation, Service Dog Central, thinks that there is still some discrimination, compared with people who travel with guide dogs, for example. According to the organisation “it is not fair that people with PSDs [Psychiatric Service Dogs] are treated differently than those with other sorts of service dogs but they are and this is written into regulatory law.”
Interestingly, the organisation blames “fakers” for the problem. The issue came to prominence a couple of years back, after an “emotional support pig” (the beasts do not have to be canine) caused havoc on a US Airways flight, “relieving itself in the aisle and grunting while the woman tried to stow her carry-on” as the Chicago Tribuneput it. The paper says that there had been a large increase in the number of service animals on planes because owners were buying phony certificates online. Those with a genuine need are thus viewed suspiciously.
Other than enforcing the requirement of a letter from a doctor (or similar) the solution probably is to insist that all flying animals are kept in pet-boxes (one might except guide dogs, which can be needed to navigate around the cabin and the gate). That would no doubt be stressful for the creature involved, which itself might need some succour as the plane roars down the runway and jets into the sky, but it is better than having beasts roam the plane unrestrained. Whether that box should be kept in the hold is another matter. Owners will no doubt be particularly wary of doing this after the well publicised fate of a giant rabbit, which died while in the care of United Airlines earlier this year, possibly having frozen. In 2015, the latest year for which America’s Department of Transportation has figures, 35 animals died on airliners. Nearly half of those were on United flights, though the airline did transport around 100,000 pets in that time.
Still, for traumatised pooches there are compensations. Later this month JFK airport is set to open a $ 48m “luxury” pet terminal, incorporating, according to the T+L website, “a bone-shaped splash pool and flat screen TVs for dogs, climbing trees in a feline-focused Cat Adventure Jungle, massage therapy and paw pedicures for both, and webcams so owners can check in on four-legged friends from afar,” If only human travellers could live such a dog’s life.