Too many air passengers fly with phony support pets, critics say

Jennifer Dixon , Detroit Free Press , WTSP 11:09 AM. EST December 28, 2016

How do airlines know whether these pets are true service animals and not impostors wearing an official-looking vest bought online for $39.99? Detroit Free Press

With the holiday travel season now here, many air passengers are boarding the plane with service dogs and emotional support animals — a practice that critics say is open to fraud.

How do airlines know whether these pets are true service animals and not impostors wearing an official-looking vest bought online for $39.99? The answer is, they don't. Critics say many travelers claim their pets are service or emotional support animals because they don't want to pay for them to travel.

While many of these animals are dogs, passengers have also gotten on board with birds, including a peacock, cats and other animals.

"I see more violations than legitimate use of service dogs in public. A drastic majority of what I've observed in airports is misuse of the service dog law," said Brian Skewis, executive officer of the California State Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind, the only state agency in the nation that regulates guide-dog schools and individual instructors.

Rod Haneline, chief programs and services officer for Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester, says he too believes fraud is a problem.

“The law is so ambiguous the airlines don’t know what side to come down on. Everyone is afraid of the ramifications of not allowing someone equal access,” Haneline said.

He said blind people fought hard to get public access for their dogs, and that right is "diluted" by a proliferation of questionable service and support pets.

Deb Davis, community outreach manager for Paws with a Cause of Wayland, outside Grand Rapids, said it's easy to spot the impostor service dogs: those carried in a purse, or those that growl, bark or act aggressively. In other words, the pretenders often lack good public manners, she said.

"We know there is fraud because our clients see it very frequently when they travel," said Davis, whose nonprofit annually places about 65 trained dogs with people who have a disability.

But it is such a vexing problem that not even a committee of experts appointed by the U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this year could agree to a solution. It voted in November to discontinue discussions because further talks seemed unlikely to reach a consensus.

The ACCESS Advisory Committee members included representatives of the airlines, aircraft manufacturers, flight attendants and disability rights groups. At one point, some committee members favored recognizing as service animals only dogs and miniature horses, which are the only animals covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Like dogs, miniature horses can be trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, according to the ADA. They can be used as guides for blind people or to pull wheelchairs. These animals, which can be house-trained, typically range in height from 24 to 34 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 70 to 100 pounds. Businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and other entities covered by the ADA must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable.

A DOT spokesperson said the department is now considering rewriting the rules for service and emotional support animals on its own, but a timetable has not been set.

DOT said the rules would "address the concerns that have been raised with the department regarding the definition of a service animal" under federal law, and "instances of passengers falsely representing that their pets are service animals in order to avoid pet fees that airlines may charge for pets to travel in the aircraft cabin."

DOT said U.S. carriers are required under the Air Carrier Access Act to transport all service and emotional support animals with a few exceptions, such as snakes, ferrets, rodents and spiders. Airlines must evaluate unusual animals such as the miniature horses, pigs and monkeys on a case-by-case basis. A single passenger can have two or more service animals.

Among the service and emotional support animals prohibited by Delta Air Lines, the largest carrier at Detroit Metro Airport, are hedgehogs and farm poultry such as chickens or turkeys.

"It's the Wild West," Haneline said. "Animals are much more connected to our daily lives, and the last thing people want to do is put their dog into a pet carrier and put them in the hold of an airplane. This is kind of an easy way to (avoid that) without paying."

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