Artistic License or Poor Research?


Every now and then I read an article that just leaves me scratching my head. Such is the case with this piece by Reannon Muth, which recently appeared on the Matador Network. From a quick glance at the title it appears to be a positive take on emotional support animals flying on commercial air carriers; but once you get to the meat of it, you quickly learn that’s not the slant. In fact, this airline-employee-turned-travel-writer is pretty vocal about people passing off their pampered pooches as emotional support animals, while the airlines basically turn a blind eye to it all. It’s not that I disagree with her stand about emotional support animals; it’s just that her facts are a little off kilter.

Or perhaps it’s just artistic license — you know embellishing the facts a bit just to make your article more interesting. Either way, it does a great dis-service to the traveling public, so to prevent the dissemination of misinformation, here’s the straight poop on what the law has to say about flying with emotional support animals.

Factual Error 1

Reannon describes one emotional support animal as “growling protectively and baring his teeth”; while another reportedly “escaped away from his owner’s grip and run amok under the seats, frightening the passengers.”  The latter case also involved said animal urinating on a passenger’s handbag.

The Real Story

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) specifically states, “Of course, like any service animal that a passenger wishes to bring into the cabin, an emotional support animal must be trained to behave properly in a public setting.” The animals in the above example were not behaving properly and should not have been allowed on board. The first example was apparently (erroneously) given the OK to board by Reannon.

Factual Errors 2-3

When writing about how airline employees determine if an animal is a service animal or a pet Reannon wrote, “But of course, I couldn’t ask her [what duties the dog preformed], because that would have meant violating a 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act that states airlines cannot inquire as to why a person requires a service animal.”

The Real Story

First off, air travel isn’t covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is covered by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which actually predates the ADA. Second, you most certainly can ask what duties or tasks a service animal performs. In fact, in the ACAA there is a special addendum to help airline employees determine if an animal is a pet or a service animal, without violating the passenger’s civil rights. The Department of Transportation (DOT) instructs airline employees to ask these specific questions.

  • What tasks or functions does your animal perform for you?
  • Would you describe how the animal performs this task (or function) for you?

Apparently Reannon missed that day in training.

You cannot however ask a passenger to demonstrate or show you what the animal does.

Factual Error 4

Reannon wrote, “Basically, anyone can pass their pooch off as an emotional support animal by purchasing a $10 ‘Service Animal’ vest off the Internet (no documentation is required).”

Certainly anyone can buy a vest or credentials on the internet (steer clear of those, as they’re a rip-off). However under the ACAA emotional support animals are held to a higher standard than service animals, and require documentation from a mental health professional.

Specifically, the passenger must produce a letter from a mental health professional stating that the emotional support animal must travel with the passenger because of a mental health-related disability. The letter must be less than one year old, and be on letterhead from a mental health professional currently treating the passenger. Additionally, 48 hours advance notice is required in order to travel with an emotional support animal.

Factual Error 5

Reannon further explains, “Although the traveler could be asked to produce a letter from a mental health professional, airlines are so afraid of getting slapped with a discrimination lawsuit that they rarely ask to see one. In fact, the Department of Transportation goes as far as to urge carriers not to require documentation.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact in the most recent amendment (2009) to the ACAA, the DOT strengthened the requirements for documentation for emotional support animals. This was done in order to prevent the very abuse Reannon is talking about.

It should also be noted that documentation has never been required for service animals, so maybe she just got her rules mixed up.

In the end Reannon’s article certainly is entertaining, but it’s light on the factual content. I’ve no problem with the entertainment value; and as many of you know I’m not above a little light-hearted ferret bashing myself. And don’t even get me started on the full-sized horse that someone tried to pass off as a service animal.

But in the end, you gotta get your facts straight — otherwise it’s just another fairy tale. And in this day and age of misinformation overload, we certainly don?t need any more fairy tales!