United Airlines grounds 'emotional support' peacock passenger tried to take on board

A United Airlines passenger who tried to take her emotional support peacock with her on a cross-country flight has had the bird turned away by the airline because of health and safety concerns.

New York City-based photographer and performance artist Ventiko says she bought a ticket for her peacock, Dexter, so he would have his own seat on Sunday's flight from New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport to Los Angeles.

A spokeswoman for Chicago-based United said the peacock did not meet guidelines for several reasons, including its size and weight.

Spokeswoman Andrea Hiller said the issues had been explained to the passenger three times "before they arrived at the airport".

The airline also noted that passengers are required to provide proper documentation from a medical professional at least 48 hours in advance of boarding that specifies the passenger's need for an animal.

The Jet Set posted video that captures the bird's arrival at the terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport, along with photos - replete with visible bird droppings, some commenters suggest - of the grounded peacock. The talk show - which plans to air a segment soon on service animals - also says the passenger was turned down in her attempt to board the aircraft despite having bought a separate ticket for the animal.

Bobby Laurie, a co-host at the Jet Set, said the photos came from a passenger at the airport who saw the United customer being denied boarding. Then another passenger supplied video of the peacock and its owner entering the terminal.

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Laurie, who is a former flight attendant, said he also has spoken to current flight attendants and airline staff who say the woman had tried on several previous occasions to fly with the peacock, including an attempt from JFK, and had been turned away. At Newark, the woman's ticket was refunded, and the airline even gave her cab fare back to the hotel, Laurie said.

"I really think that the whole emotional-support animal thing is just getting out of hand," Laurie said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. "Granted, there are the folks out there who truly do need it, but a lot of people are now, I guess, just testing the waters to see what it is you can do and what you can get away with. As a flight attendant myself, I've had someone try to board with a pig and a turkey."

In his experience, the pigs were fairly well behaved. The turkey . . . not so much.

"I've actually not had a situation where we had something go terribly awry with an emotional support animal, aside from a cat. I had a cat get loose and start running through the cabin," Laurie said. "At least it was just a cat."

Laurie suspects that things have gotten wild ever since the airlines started charging fees for everything from carry-on luggage to pet carriers. Documentation being what it is, some wily passengers figured out they could save money by rebranding the family pet as an emotional support animal that would travel for free on their laps.

Still, change could be in the air. United said its current policy on emotional support animals is under review.

Dexter's Instagram account said his "human friends" would be driving him cross- country.

But the fact that this appears to be a legitimate attempt by an ordinary traveler to take her alleged service animal onto a commercial flight points up why the time has come for airlines to tighten the rules. It's become impossible to tell the difference between outlandish stunts and people's support animals.

In a statement, United said the airline denied boarding to the passenger and the animal because the peacock failed to meet several guidelines, including those on weight and size. The airline also suggested that the passenger wouldn't take no for an answer: "We explained this to the customer on three separate occasion before they arrived at the airport." 

Rival airline Delta recently cracked down on animals on flights in the wake of a horrific mauling of a passenger by another traveller's emotional support dog last year.

To travel with an emotional support animal, starting March 1 Delta Air Lines will require a "confirmation of animal training" form signed by the passenger indicating the animal can behave and proof of health or vaccinations submitted online 48 hours in advance. The new rules are in addition to the current requirement of a letter from a doctor or licensed mental health professional.

Atlanta-based Delta said the change is due to "a lack of regulation that has led to serious safety risks involving untrained animals in flight."

But it's also worth noting that the mauled passenger, Marlin Jackson of Daphne, Alabama, quickly retained an attorney after the incident last year.

According to his attorney Ross Massey of law firm Alexander Shunnarah & Associates, Jackson is "still in recovery as facial wounds require time to determine the extent of permanent scarring."

"Our investigation into what went wrong and our desire to see a change in policy persists," Massey said.

The issue has grown as passengers order doctor's letters and vests online to validate their pets as emotional support animals and avoid fees for travelling with a pet. Emotional support animals also do not have to be kept in a kennel during a flight, while pets do.

It's recognised as a problem: An advisory committee convened by the U.S. Department of Transportation aimed to address the issue. Yet the panel failed to come to a consensus on how to improve regulations.

At issue is a struggle to strike a balance between the privacy and rights of disabled passengers to travel with the assistance they need without being unduly challenged, versus the risks of being too permissive and allowing abuse of the system that puts passengers at risk and only increases skepticism of disabilities.

Delta said it carries about 700 service or support animals daily, or nearly 250,000 annually — up 150 percent since 2015.

"Customers have attempted to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders and more," according to Delta. The airline has seen an 84 per cent increase in animal incidents since 2016, including "urination/defecation" and biting. Last year, Delta said its employees reported more barking, growing, lunging and biting from service and support animals, "behavior not typically seen in these animals when properly trained and working."

"The rise in serious incidents involving animals in flight leads us to believe that the lack of regulation in both health and training screening for these animals is creating unsafe conditions across US air travel," said Delta's senior vice president of corporate safety, security and compliance John Laughter in a written statement.

Laughter said the airline worked with its decade-old advisory board on disability and that the new policy "is our first step in better protecting those who fly with Delta with a more thoughtful screening process."

Delta is also creating a "service animal support desk" to verify documents are received. The company said it "does not accept exotic or unusual service or support animals."

A major flight attendants union said it supports the move by Delta.

"We are seeing more and more animals in the cabin and it appears there is growing abuse of the system," said Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson in a written statement. "We are hearing a public outcry to stop the abuse. We are especially concerned that if it is not put in check, those who legitimately need the animal support will not have access to it."

Nelson said she hopes other airlines will consider similar policies and that the DOT will provide guidelines for "curtailing abuse while protecting the needs of those with disabilities and veterans."

The Washington Post/TNS

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