Well, it’s not the end of the world for those who are using it for what it’s meant for. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a step back, shall we?
An Emotional Support Animal is a companion animal that a medical professional has determined provides benefit for an individual with a disability. These animals can come in different shapes and sizes (and types!), but in terms of air travel, most of these are dogs. An animal designated as an Emotional Support Animal not only flies for free in the cabin, but is allowed outside of their bag/crate while in the plane. One provides evidence of need for an Emotional Support Animal by providing a doctor’s note to support this.
How is this different from a pet?
In contrast, a pet is simply a companion animal that does not (necessarily) serve a medical need to the passenger. This is a notable distinction because airlines charge a fee for pets to travel on the plane (typically in the neighborhood of $100-$125 USD) and pets must remain in their travel carriers at all times during the flight.
For flights departing on March 1, 2018 or later, passengers traveling with Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) will have to provide additional proof that the animal in tow is (well) an Emotional Support Animal.
Currently, those traveling with ESAs only need to provide a note from a doctor or mental health professional, on letterhead, stating the passenger’s need for the animal. Additionally, the medical professional will have to provide his or her address and license number on the letter in the event this needs to be verified.
Going forward, Delta will be requiring passengers traveling with their ESAs to fill out a form and submit to Delta at least 48 in advance on the flight. The updated verbiage on Delta’s website is as follows:
Submit the Emotional Support and Psychiatric Service Animal documentation at least 48 hours before a flight. Currently, we require documentation that is no more than a year old (prior to the first flight in the itinerary) from a certified mental health professional indicating need for an emotional support animal, certification of the animal’s health including rabies and DPT shot verification, and a signed Confirmation of Training form. Documentation can be provided with a digital copy, and a professional license number is recommended, but not required.
The form is made up of three sections:
- Veterinary Health form – providing detail and certification from the animal’s vet that the ESA is current on Rabies and Distemper vaccinations
- Medical/Mental Health form – certification from a medical or mental health professional that the passenger is a patient and has a related disorder
- Animal Training form – certification from the passenger that the dog has been trained to behave in public, and inappropriate action on the animal’s part will be deemed means for denial of boarding or removal from the aircraft.
Once the form has been submitted, passengers will need to upload this through the Accessibility Service Request form located under My Trips of the Delta website.
I’ve been reading a lot of news articles on this and call me crazy, but writers are approaching this change as though customers will gasp and clutch their pearl necklaces at the thought of this update.
Keep calm, folks.
The new process is intended to weed out the those falsely traveling with an Emotional Support/Therapy Dog. After all, you can buy ESA/Therapy dog IDs and jackets online for a pretty reasonable price (and doctors notes too, for a little bit more money). Even with the doctor’s note on letterhead requirement today, no checks are made to the doctor to validate that the passenger is actually a patient… or that the person writing the note is a doctor at all (after all, the agent is just glancing over the letter at the check in counter). This new system is meant to give legitimacy to those who are traveling with their animals and need it. (Don’t get me wrong though, I’m sure people will find ways around these forms soon enough.)
On a side note, I’ve rarely seen animals act out on planes. If anyone’s causing a scene on a plane, it’s the humans.
Lately though, it feels like we’ve seen it all – emotional support dogs, cats, turkeys, and miniature horses (that one’s got to be my favorite). With the ever-present eye of social media there to capture any unusual flight incidents, airlines probably feel like they have to get in front of the problem before the next outrage about a pig in the cabin, thanks to a viral twitter post. I think this new process is intending to decrease abuse of the ESA system, and less stressful travel for those who are flying with an ESA. Yes, it’s a bit more paperwork, but perhaps this means a seamless flight experience. Wishful thinking, maybe (probably).
Other airlines are likely to follow suite (as was the case for basic economy fares and meals in coach on transcontinental flights), so surely it will only be a matter of time before this becomes an industry-wide standard. The need for more policy around Emotional Support Animals (and the like) have long been called for, but it will certainly be interesting to see how the change impacts passengers in practice.
Questions we don’t have answers for yet: will passengers traveling with animals still be unable to check in via mobile app (Currently you must check in at the counter)? Will airlines be contacting your medical professional every time you fly? If your ESA is deemed unfit (or unruly) to fly on your intended flight, what alternate arrangements will be made to accommodate the passenger (if any)?
What I’m hoping this won’t become: another check the box exercise that airlines implement with no real review in place on their end. More paperwork, more time.
Are you and your Emotional Support Animal frequent flyers? Drop us a note in the comments with your thoughts on this change!
Featured image credit: Delta