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Air Travel With Service or Support Dogs

Delta Airline's new regulations will add extra challenges
By Karen B. London PhD, January 2018, Updated June 2021

Recently, there has been an increase in the number of animals who have caused problems on flights. One dog bit a passenger on the face in such a serious attack that it required 28 stitches and left permanent scars. Less damaging incidents involved cats urinating on the seats, dogs defecating in the aisles and blocking beverage carts and a duck freely wandering the cabin. There have been reports of some unusual animals flying as emotional support animals, including turkeys, sugar gliders, snakes and spiders. Faced with a true menagerie of misbehaving animals on their flights, Delta chose to take action to improve the situation.

Beginning on March 1, 2018, new regulations require passengers flying with service or support animals to upload required documentation 48 hours in advance of flying. The paperwork for service animals is proof of up-to-date vaccinations. For emotional support animals, people must provide that same proof of vaccinations as well as a signed statement from a mental health professional that the person is under their care and has a mental health disability and a statement that the animal is trained to behave in a public setting. The person must acknowledge that they understand that animals who misbehave will be denied boarding or removed from the plane.

Working animals fly for free (rather than at a cost of $100 or more) and are allowed to be outside of a pet carrier while in flight. For medium or large dogs, cargo is typically the only option, so there is an additional incentive for dishonest people to cheat. Many people have clearly abused the system, trying to pass off their pets as service animals or emotional support animals.

People with service dogs have rights protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, including access to public places in which pets are not allowed. Another protection is that they may not be asked what their disability is or why they need a service dog. They may be asked if their dogs are service dogs and what task or tasks the dogs perform for them. Regulations are deliberately vague to allow service animals for a wide range and degree of disabilities. That makes it especially easy for other people to lie and get away with it by pretending a pet is actually a service animal.


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The new regulations have pleased many passengers who have dealt with animals on flights who clearly did not meet the criteria for flying in the cabin. Similarly, the Association of Flight Attendants approves the new regulations, which is not surprising given the many extra challenges these workers face when people lie about their animals in order to fly with them.

One of the main problems with the new rules is the burden imposed on people with disabilities who have service animals. People who have flown with their service animals or who advocate for people with disabilities claim that the new policy is illegal and discriminatory. The issue is that people with service animals must now plan at least 48 hours ahead, unlike people without disabilities that require service dogs. The result is an inability to fly on Delta for family emergencies, medical emergencies or work trips with short notice. There may be legal challenges to Delta’s new policy, although other airlines may soon follow with similar regulations.

As in so many other areas life, a few people who game the system ruin it for everybody else. People who claim their pets are service animals or emotional support animals have long been making it less pleasant—and sometimes more dangerous—for other passengers. The response by the airlines will make it harder for people with disabilities, people in need of emotional support animals, and their dogs to travel. The dishonesty of some people has adversely affected many others, and that damaging, cheating behavior should continue to be called out.

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life