After mauling, Delta tightens emotional support animal restrictions

Susie Aga, founder of Atlanta Dog Trainer, communicates with a variety of different dogs using a training ramp within her facility. Credit: Chad Rhym

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Susie Aga, founder of Atlanta Dog Trainer, communicates with a variety of different dogs using a training ramp within her facility. Credit: Chad Rhym

In the wake of a horrific mauling of a Delta passenger by another traveler's emotional support dog last year, Delta is tightening restrictions on emotional support animals in flight.

To travel with an emotional support animal, starting March 1 Delta Air Lines will require a “confirmation of animal training” form signed by the passenger indicating the animal can behave and proof of health or vaccinations submitted online 48 hours in advance. The new rules are in addition to the current requirement of a letter from a doctor or licensed mental health professional.

Atlanta-based Delta said the change is due to “a lack of regulation that has led to serious safety risks involving untrained animals in flight.”

But it's also worth noting that the mauled passenger, Marlin Jackson of Daphne, Ala., quickly retained an attorney after the incident last year.

According to his attorney Ross Massey of law firm Alexander Shunnarah & Associates, Jackson is “still in recovery as facial wounds require time to determine the extent of permanent scarring.”

“Our investigation into what went wrong and our desire to see a change in policy persists,” Massey wrote in an e-mail to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The issue has grown as passengers order doctor’s letters and vests online to validate their pets as emotional support animals and avoid fees for traveling with a pet. Emotional support animals also do not have to be kept in a kennel during a flight, while pets do.

It's recognized as a problem: An advisory committee convened by the U.S. Department of Transportation aimed to address the issue. Yet the panel failed to come to a consensus on how to improve regulations.

At issue is a struggle to strike a balance between the privacy and rights of disabled passengers to travel with the assistance they need without being unduly challenged, versus the risks of being too permissive and allowing abuse of the system that puts passengers at risk and only increases skepticism of disabilities.

Delta said it carries about 700 service or support animals daily, or nearly 250,000 annually — up 150 percent since 2015.

“Customers have attempted to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders and more,” according to Delta. The airline has seen an 84 percent increase in animal incidents since 2016, including “urination/defecation” and biting. Last year, Delta said its employees reported more barking, growing, lunging and biting from service and support animals, “behavior not typically seen in these animals when properly trained and working.”

“The rise in serious incidents involving animals in flight leads us to believe that the lack of regulation in both health and training screening for these animals is creating unsafe conditions across U.S. air travel,” said Delta’s senior vice president of corporate safety, security and compliance John Laughter in a written statement.

Laughter said the airline worked with its decade-old advisory board on disability and that the new policy “is our first step in better protecting those who fly with Delta with a more thoughtful screening process.”

Delta is also creating a “service animal support desk” to verify documents are received. The company said it “does not accept exotic or unusual service or support animals.”

The DOT said it will monitor Delta’s policy “to ensure it preserves and respects the rights of individuals with disabilities who travel with service animals.” Airlines are not required to accommodate unusual service animals like snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders, and can refuse animals too big for the cabin or are a direct threat, the DOT noted.

The agency said it plans to start a process in July 2018 to establish new rules on the definition of a service animal and to reduce false claims of service animals, and will take public comments on the matter.

Psychiatric Service Dog Partners, an advocacy group, said Delta’s new policy will create “additional burdens for those who use service animals to mitigate their mental health disabilities.”

The group said it “is not okay with treating disabled people as if they are guilty until proven innocent,” the principle it is “afraid Delta policies could elevate.”

But a major flight attendants union said it supports the move by Delta.

“We are seeing more and more animals in the cabin and it appears there is growing abuse of the system,” said Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson in a written statement. “We are hearing a public outcry to stop the abuse. We are especially concerned that if it is not put in check, those who legitimately need the animal support will not have access to it.”

Nelson said she hopes other airlines will consider similar policies and that the DOT will provide guidelines for “curtailing abuse while protecting the needs of those with disabilities and veterans.”

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