On Monday, Delta announced that it will no longer allow emotional support animals on board flights that are longer than eight hours. Furthermore, all emotional support animals cannot be younger than four months old. The rules will go into effect on December 18, just before the Christmas rush. Regardless of when a passenger booked the flight, if their journey happens on or after that date, the new regulation will be applied to them.
This announcement comes at a time when emotional support animals are rampant and hotly debated. Delta says it saw an 84 percent increase in reported incidents involving service and support animals in 2016 and 2017. According to the trade group Airlines for America, airlines in the US saw a 74 percent increase overall in emotional support animals from 2016 to 2017. This increase has caused other major airlines including American and United to tighten their policies.
Even if you haven’t encountered a nonhuman passenger on your own flight, you’ve probably heard one of the viral stories about one, which seem to surface every few weeks. In January, a woman was barred from bringing her emotional support peacock on a United flight, even when she offered to buy the bird its own seat.
In October, another passenger was removed from her Frontier Airlines seat when she attempted to fly with her emotional support squirrel; a bystander video shows a crowd at the gate applauding the woman as she flips off the Frontier staff while being wheeled off the premises. And, of course, there was the defecating pig of 2014, who was deplaned after pooping on board.
Delta says that the new age minimum reflects the CDC’s vaccination policy, and the time limit is consistent with the US Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Access Act, which states that “airlines may require documentation stating that your animal will not need to relieve itself, or can do so in a sanitary way.”
Although they’re both allowed on planes, there’s a difference between emotional support animals and service animals; the latter have much more stringent regulations. Registering your pet as an emotional support animal can take little more than a few clicks on a certification website like therapypet.org or esaregistration.org, and this ease has undoubtedly led to a rise in registrations.
Emotional support animals are also not regulated by the Americans With Disabilities Act. (They do fall under the jurisdiction of the aforementioned Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits discrimination against air travel passengers with disabilities.)
Service animals, however, are regulated by the ADA, which defines them as either dogs or miniature horses that are specifically trained to do work for people with disabilities, and requires far more training.
For example, a seeing-eye dog must pass a four-month course with a sight instructor before being paired with someone who is visually impaired. Service dogs are trained to remain calm in crowds and unfamiliar terrain, whereas emotional support dogs don’t need to meet any set standards. In fact, getting a pet emotional support certification is a common tactic used to skirt lease or travel limitations, although of course this isn’t the case for all such pets.
The benefits of emotional support animals also aren’t proven. Jeffrey N. Younggren, a clinical professor at the University of New Mexico, told the New York Times that data on emotional support animal benefits is “spotty and inconsistent.” There’s not a lot of evidence that such pets, for example, can ease a person’s anxiety or help with depression.
Still, service animals and emotional support animals are often lumped into the same group, and when an emotional support animal acts out (such as 50-pound canine who mauled a passenger’s face so intensely he had to get 28 stitches), it can look bad for all animals on planes. Some fear that if emotional support animals create too many problems, airlines will ban animals altogether and those who sincerely need assistance will no longer be able to obtain it.
According to MarketWatch, Delta’s senior vice president John Laughter is aware of the difference and the ban is meant to “protect the rights of customers with documented needs — such as veterans with disabilities — to travel with trained service and support animals.”
On Twitter, many readers appear to agree with Delta’s new rule. Some replies to the AP’s article on the ban read “Good. Take a Xanax or NyQuil like everyone else,” and “Good. This nonsense has to stop. Thank you, @Delta.”
However, some responses expressed concern about how this will affect those protected by the ADA (although service animals are still allowed on Delta flights if they are more than four months old). One woman replied, “This is wrong. As a civilian who worked on an Army base in Germany and flew to the US at least once, sometimes twice a year, I needed my support animal. This hurts military families.” But as more and more flyers try to game the system, the rules will probably only get more stringent.