Getting ready to travel? Bags all packed? Toiletries, bathers, pet goanna? In Australia this just won't fly.
Qantas and Virgin Australia make no bones about it. The only pets permitted in the cabin are authorised service/assistance dogs. All other pets must be transported in the cargo hold, and the only pets that will be uplifted are dogs and cats. No ifs, no buts, no exceptions. But on a domestic flight in the US you just might get away with having your goanna, your koala or whatever other animal soothes your fears right alongside you.
The list of weird and wondrous beasts that have accompanied their owners on scheduled flights in the US includes a turkey, a kangaroo, a duck by the name of Mr Stinkerbutt and a miniature Appaloosa horse. A peacock, however, was turned away, while Hobey the pot-bellied pig took a pre-takeoff dump in the aisle of an American Airlines flight and both pig and owner were ushered off - proof that pigs really can't fly.
In this, the good citizens of the US have the law on their side. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Noble in its intent, the purpose of the law is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. Including equal rights of employment, housing and also the same rights to transportation aboard public entities such as airlines. If a disabled person requires the assistance of a service animal – a seeing eye dog for example – the airline must accommodate the service animal, but there's more to it than that.
Since a disability in this context covers the emotionally as well as the physically impaired, they, too, have the same rights under the ADA rules. Further, the ADA does not specify what constitutes a service animal.
If you should decide that you have an emotional condition that is alleviated by the presence of an animal, be it a racoon, an alpaca or a boa constrictor, and if you can find a certified psychologist or psychiatrist to substantiate your claim, bingo – you are legally entitled to take your friend along when you fly. No mental health provider? No problem. Go to the website of Certapet ("Get an Emotional Support Animal Letter You Can Trust For Less Than $1/day") or ESA Doctors, fill in the form and you're good to go. Thus was born a subset to the service animal genre, emotional support animals (ESAs).
Adding yet more righteous muscle power to those who seek to fly with their ESA, while the ADA stipulates that an airline or any other entity is allowed to ask if the animal is a service animal and ask what tasks it is trained to perform, they are not allowed to ask the service animal to perform the task nor ask for a special ID of the animal. Nor can they ask what the person's disabilities are.
ESAs also fly free. They can't occupy a seat. They're meant to sit peaceably beneath the seat of their owner, although in the case of an Appaloosa this is problematic.
Cashing in on ESAs
As the phenomenon of flying with your best beastie has caught the popular imagination, the ADA legislation has spawned a mini industry. ESA Registration America, "Register your dog, cat or other animal, get therapist letters, IDs, vests & more!" is a fee-for-service website that gives pet owners all the authority they need with which to substantiate their claim that their ESA is essential to their emotional well-being.
For this and other certifiers, the ADA legislation has been a licence to print money. In 2011, the National Service Animal Registry, which also sells official-looking vests and certificates for owners, had 2400 service and emotional support animals in its registry. Today the number is nearly 200,000.
Airlines fighting back
Close to 3000 air passengers will board a flight somewhere in the US with their ESA. That's today, and every day throughout this year. Between 2016 and 2018 the number of passengers taking their ESA on a flight in the US has increased from 561,000 to more than 1 million.
As the traffic has increased, so too have the number of incidents involving incidents of ESAs pooing, peeing or biting other passengers and cabin crew. Delta Air Lines reported an 80 per cent surge in animal incidents between 2016 and 2018.
Airlines are calling time on some ESAs as they become more numerous, more unruly and more a source of disputation between their entitled owners and fellow air passengers. Delta has now banned ESAs from flights over eight hours. The airline banned pit bulls after a reported attack from a 30kg canine. In March 2019 another ESA pit bull attacked a five-year-old girl waiting to board a flight in Portland, Oregon, causing shocking injuries to her face. That's now the subject of a $US1 million ($1.5 million) lawsuit, with Alaska Airlines named as a defendant.
In 2018 American Airlines issued fresh guidelines banning specific animals from the cabin, including amphibians, ferrets, goats, hedgehogs, insects, reptiles, rodents, snakes, spiders, sugar gliders and any animal with tusks, horns or hooves.
Although they won't say so for fear of offending self-righteous ESA owners, airlines are sick and tired of the whole ESA charade, but regulatory authorities disagree.
In August this year the US Department of Transport (DOT) ruled that it would continue requiring airlines to allow passengers to bring emotional support animals on commercial flights. This followed representation from the Airlines for America trade group, advocating the DOT adopt the definition of a service animal used by the Department of Justice and the Americans With Disabilities Act, which includes no provision for ESAs. The saga is set to continue.