Flying With Emotional Support Animals: Where to Draw the Line

Flying With Emotional Support Animals: Where to Draw the Line

In the most recent column by contributor Joe Sharkey, he dives into the blurred lines of traveling with support animals and more recent travel news. 

Over the years, I’ve had to share my meager coach-seat area with a lot of personal-space intrusions on airplanes — from the very large man in the adjacent seat who seemed to be practicing the butterfly stroke in a swimming pool of his imagination, to the toddler on mama’s lap who licked my arm most of the way from Denver to Chicago.

But horses? Don’t get me wrong, I like horses. I ride horses. I groom them. But to me, a horse traveling more than 35 miles or so belongs in a nice trailer or in the capacious cargo hold of one of those big 747s outfitted to fly expensive thoroughbreds from Abu Dhabi to Kentucky.

Still, there she was in August – Flirty the Miniature Horse, a 28-inch high, 135-pound emotional-support equine on an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Omaha.

Flirty (who incidentally behaved better than some passengers) was traveling with her owner, Abrea Hensley, who explained to reporters that she — Abrea, that is — suffers from depression, anxiety, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress. Flirty, she said, is her constant, valued emotional-support companion.

Most airplanes have been flying full for many years, and we’ve all – business and leisure travelers alike – accommodated ourselves pretty well to cramped spaces with limited room to move. We’ve also come to accommodate fairly, so far anyway, the growing number of emotional-support animals, along with certified service animals, that some passengers are bringing along.

Mostly it’s dogs, little ones that fit snugly under seats in carriers or bigger ones that spread out by owners’ feet but sometimes encroach into adjoining space. As the hellish holiday air-travel season approaches and tolerance gets a little thinner, it may be useful to consider that federal law, and airline policies, generally permit people with disabilities to fly with service or emotional-support animals – no questions asked. Any animal can function as a service or emotional-support animal “regardless of species,” according to the Department of Transportation, with a few exceptions like rodents, snakes and other reptiles. Airlines have some latitude to reasonably prohibit very large support animals (sorry, no elephants) or those that reasonably would “pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others” (this would probably rule out an emotional-support crocodile).

There is the unresolved issue of cheating. “Many airlines have indicated that they believe passengers wishing to travel with their pets may be falsely claiming that their pets are service animals so they can take their pet in the aircraft cabin or to avoid paying a fee,” says a 41-page rulemaking notice on service animals by the Department of Transportation.

The notice also worries that “the use of unusual species as service animals has also added confusion. Passengers have attempted to fly with peacocks, ducks, turkeys, pigs and iguanas and various other types of animals as emotional support or service animals.” It adds, quite sensibly, “disability rights advocates have voiced alarm that these animals may erode the public’s trust, which could result in reduced access for many individuals with disabilities who use traditional service animals.”

Airlines, while careful to avoid violating federal disabilities law, have begun tightening policies on flying with service animals, as more cabins fill with critters. Delta Air Lines, for example, has a fairly clear set of regulations. Meanwhile, complaints from frequent fliers about the influx of animals on airplanes continue.

As for me, starting just before the holiday crush, I’m hoping to avoid business and leisure air travel till January. I don’t want the hassles. Besides, my horse hates crowds.


About the Author: Joe Sharkey
Joe Sharkey’s work appears in major national and international publications. For 19 years, until 2015, he was a columnist for the New York Times — for 16 years doing the weekly “On the Road” column on business travel, and before that the weekly “Jersey” column for three years. He is currently a columnist with Business Jet Traveler magazine, and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. A Vietnam veteran, he has written five books, four non-fiction and a novel. One of his nonfiction books, “Above Suspicion,” has been adapted as a major motion picture starring Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Thora Birch and Johnny Knoxville (and directed by Phillip Noyce), to be released soon. In January 2017, a new, revised edition of his book “Above Suspicion” was published in print and as an e-book by Open Road Media. Penguin Random House also released an audio book version in January. Open Road also published revised editions in e-book format of his true-crime books “Death Sentence” and “Deadly Greed.” In January 2018, the revised edition of “Death Sentence” was published in print by Open Road Media. In his newspaper career before the New York Times, he was an assistant national editor at the Wall Street Journal; the executive city editor of the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union; and a reporter and columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer. On Sept. 29, 2006, while on assignment, he was one of seven people on a business jet who survived a mid-air collision with a 737 at 37,000 feet over the Amazon in Brazil. All 154 on the commercial airliner died. His reports on the crash appeared on the front page of the New York Times and later in the Sunday Times of London Magazine. He and his wife Nancy (who is a professor of journalism at the University of Arizona) live in Tucson — where he is also working on a new novel about the exploits of an international travel writer who hates to travel. .