According to a poll from 2015, the vast majority of Americans - 95% - regard their dogs, cats, and other pets as animal members of the family. Why are airlines still treating them like luggage, then?
Emotional Support Animals are Frequent Fliers
The Department of Transportation estimates that airlines transport 2 million of our fur babies each year in the cargo holds of their planes. This figure is only for those animals whose family is flying with them - inside the cabin of the aircraft - and doesn't count unaccompanied animals, such as those that are being sent to laboratories. While the majority of these pets are family pets, emotional support pets are an increasing share of these furry little fliers.
If a support pet is little enough - usually around 20 pounds or less - then many airlines will allow passengers to confine it to a tiny crate tucked under the seat as a carry-on.
Animals that don't meet these airline restrictions are often permitted only in the hold. This mistreatment could cause our furry friends to suffer severe anxiety, injury, or even death. Then, your emotional support pet might need some emotional pet support themselves.
Traveling is Already Difficult for Emotional Support Animals and Their Humans
The arbitrary size and species restrictions airlines have imposed make traveling "ruff" not only for pets but also for their owners - so much so that some may find this problem insurmountable and need to either give up their little companions or forgo air travel altogether.
Both four-legged animals and their two-legged guardians already have to navigate the stress of being in large crowds, enclosed spaces, and new or strange places. They shouldn't have to ALSO struggle with finding affordable accommodations or worry about separating.
Airlines are somewhat more responsive to animals assisting passengers with emotional difficulties or physical disabilities, however.
Airline Policies are Increasingly Requiring Emotional Support Animal Certification
The National Service Animal Registry, a site where human guardians can obtain emotional support animal certificates, reports that the number of animals registered has increased by 200% since 2015. Delta Air Lines has released new figures showing that emotional support animals on their aircraft have increased by 86% between 2016 and 2018.
Despite claims of fake support animals by some critics, this rate of increase is in line with the significant jump in the number of Americans who struggle with mental health or other serious psychological conditions.
And it's no wonder that those who are struggling turn to help from animal companions. The many health benefits of owning a pet (even for those without mental or physical health issues) are common knowledge.
Airlines May Refuse Non-ESA Certified Support Animals
In August, the Transportation Department announced that airlines cannot refuse to carry an animal based on flight length, weight limits, the number of other service animals on the plane, breed, or species - so long as that animal is ESA certified. This does not hold true for other animal passengers.
Neither are airlines in the United States allowed to charge fees to passengers traveling with a properly certified and documented ESA companion, according to the NSAR.
This may soon change, however. A new rule change is under review that would allow airlines to refuse to fly emotional support animals altogether and let airlines put new restrictions on passengers flying with them, such as making them check in earlier. The Department of Transportation is seeking comments. Those that feel strongly that this puts undue stress on those who already struggle with a mental or physical illness should make their voices heard.
And in the meantime, airlines should stop treating our furry family members like things and begin to cherish them as we do. Airlines should provide affordable accommodations for those animals who can handle the busy atmosphere of airports and airplanes so that all the members of the family can stay safe together in the cabin of an airplane.
Register your Emotional Support Animal
Until then, make sure that your emotional support animal is properly certified! Documentation will help provide proof of your need to bring your animal companion where animals wouldn't usually be allowed - whether it be while traveling, seeking a new home, or even simply out and about in town.