For those of you who missed it, The Today Show did a piece earlier this year about Emotional Support Animals on a plane. More specifically, they show how two of their correspondents registered both a dog and a pig as Emotional Support Animals. Based on our investigation, it appears they registered their animals at a site like CertaPet. We’ll dig in more on this story.
The Original Video
The Today Show provided a fairly one-sided and hollow perspective of this trend in registering Emotional Support Animals. The video was interesting, but left viewers with unanswered questions. We reached out to attorneys, mental health professionals and the airlines to get more information.
What is an Emotional Support Animal?
An Emotional Support Animal is a companion animal which provides therapeutic benefit, such as alleviating or mitigating some symptoms of the disability, to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. According to the doctor I spoke with, one of the more common uses of an ESA is to help with general anxiety. Since many people are anxious about flying or traveling, their doctor may recommend an Emotional Support Animal instead of prescribing medication.
Do the Airlines really have to let them on the plane?
After speaking with pilots at two major airlines, I received a very solid “Kinda”. If the animal is appropriately documented (the letters we saw in the video), then the airlines have a legal obligation to allow the Emotional Support Animal to accompany their owner. However, the pilot may refuse to allow the ESA on the plane if they feel that the animal represents a threat or hazard. When I probed one pilot as to what made an animal a threat or hazard, he didn’t provide details beyond saying it was a “case by case basis”.
Is this legal?
Yes. There is much more legislation related to telehealth and Emotional Support Animals than the video would have you believe. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act both directly address Emotional Support Animals and the rights and limitations associated with ESAs. For telehealth, there are a number of federal and state laws outlining the legitimacy and calling for the expansion of health services that do not require a patient to be physically present at an office.
We had a healthcare attorney review an assessment provided to us from Certapet, one of the sites offering this service. The attorney informed us that the assessment was both thorough and in line with the requirements of an in-person visit. He explained that as long as the mental health professional was licensed and following appropriate guidelines for their profession, everything was legal.
A potential to abuse this system does exist. The real question that needs to be asked is a tough one. Is the mental well-being of people with legitimate disabilities being overshadowed by people trying to have their animals fly for free? In total, my team and I log around 8 flights per week. All but our newest team member have been on flights with an Emotional Support Animal present. Except for the grumbling of some passengers, none of us has had a flight with an issue