While walking to his gate in an airport, a frequent Delta Air Lines flier snaps three pictures of passengers with emotional support animals.
All three are women and all three service animals are small dogs.
One woman, who appears to be in her late 20s, sits at an airport cafe table. She wraps her right arm around her brown dachshund wearing a pink vest.
A second woman, perhaps in her 40s, walks toward the gate in a pink collared shirt and even brighter pink sneakers. Her Pomeranian doesn’t have any sort of service dog vest.
The third woman sits in a seat at the gate, hands folded across her belly and a black and white dog lying across her lap.
Eric Goldmann of Atlanta tries to find out if they are faking a disability to travel without paying a pet fee.
“When I see a dog in the airport, I befriend them,” Goldmann said recently. “I like dogs. I’m allergic, but I like them.”
He said he’s been traveling several times a week for business for about 15 years, but only in the last handful of years has he seen so many pets in airports. Goldmann had taken 142 flights this year by the end of October and said he saw so-called emotional support animals on about 40 percent of the planes.
“It’s the cool, new trend to travel with a pet,” he said.
Delta Air Lines spokeswoman Ashton Morrow said she couldn’t disclose the number of service animals on flights by year.
“Delta complies with the Air Carrier Access Act by allowing customers traveling with emotional support animals or psychiatric service animals to travel without charge in the cabin,” Morrow said. “We reserve the right to review each case and make every effort to accommodate our customers’ travel needs while also taking into consideration the health and safety of other passengers.”
But people traveling with fake emotional support animals is a growing problem for flight attendants, frequent fliers and people with disabilities who have service animals for medical reasons.
Goldmann said he’s gotten people to admit they pay about $49 for an official certificate from a licensed therapist and another $149 or so for the service animal vest.
Those who bring a pet on an airplane because they are nervous or afraid to fly are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Jennifer Schwenker said.
Schwenker is the mother of twin boys with autism and her family has a service dog, Barkley.
“We worked hard to provide Barkley for our boys,” she said. “We work hard yearly to keep him properly trained, make sure he has veterinarian care and is certified yearly through 4 Paws for Ability.”
She said people who pretend to need an animal for support just to travel without paying fees are being disrespectful of those with disabilities.
“When someone says to me, ‘I wish I could bring my dog with me everywhere,’ I ask, ‘What disability would you like to have in order to do this?’ That response always ends that conversation!”
Jen Williams, who has been an Atlanta-based flight attendant since 1996, said she’s seen an incredible increase in support animals in the past year.
While pets are allowed on flights, they have to follow more rules than service animals.
Delta charges $125 to bring a dog, cat or household bird on board a domestic flight, excluding Hawaii, and Fido counts as a carry-on item. Passengers must call Delta ahead of time as the number of pets per flight is limited and arrangements are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis, according to its website.
Williams said one family, which was planning to travel for a month, followed those rules. They alerted the airline, paid the fee for their 14-pound dog and brought along a kennel because pets are not permitted out of their cages during flights. The dog couldn’t stand up inside the kennel, thus violating the rule. So it was kicked off the flight.
If the family had lied and said their pet was an emotional support animal, they wouldn’t have had to take off without the dog, Williams said.
“It’s definitely gotten carried away to the point where people are taking advantage of the system,” Williams said. “It’s hard when someone is following protocol and they’re not allowed to take the animal out of the cage, but others use the loophole to have an animal sit on their lap.”
The ticket counter agents are responsible for ensuring that a dog has its proper paperwork as a service animal, Williams said. By the time the animal gets to the plane, there is little a flight attendant can do or legally ask.
“It’s getting to be ridiculous,” Williams said. “A co-worker saw a ferret wearing a diaper that was supposedly an emotional support animal.”
She’s seen dogs get loose and use the aisle as a lavatory. A co-worker told Williams a so-called service dog once bit a passenger and medics had to meet the flight when it landed.
“A lady on a flight was allergic, so we moved her away, but she broke out in hives,” Williams said. “A nurse on the flight gave her Benadryl that we wouldn’t have had if she didn’t happen to be on the plane.”
Though Williams said she hopes something will change, she doesn’t expect new regulations. In fact, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport recently added pet relief areas for service animals to be in compliance with a new federal requirement.
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