By now I’m sure you’ve heard the story about the turkey that traveled on Delta Airlines in the passenger compartment as an emotional support animal (ESA). Not only did the privileged bird travel in comfort class, but he also got wheelchair assistance through the airport. And although the internet is all abuzz with photos and hash-tags about the incident, I think the more important issue here is — how did the turkey get on the airplane?
In a word or two — it was simple, probably too simple.
All you have to do is follow the rules of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), and you too can travel with just about any animal (except spiders, ferrets, rodents, snakes or other reptiles). And the sad thing is, there are now companies out there that will help you do it.
You see, in order to fly with an ESA, you have to produce a letter from a mental health professional that is currently treating you, stating that you have a mental health related disability and that you need to travel with an ESA. And for a fee — $150 — there are a number of companies out there that will produce this letter for you.
As one of the letter-mill websites states “Going to a therapist is expensive and can involve committing to a long-term treatment plan.” And then it reminds people that if their pet provides them comfort when they fly, they may be able to dodge that pet fee the next time they travel.
Do the letter recipients ever see a doctor? No. They fill out a questionnaire and then a “medical professional” decides if they qualify for an ESA. If they qualify, a letter from a mental health professional in the recipient’s home state is issued.
Is it legal? Who knows.
Can it be stopped? Possibly.
The Department of Transportation DOT) is currently considering reviewing the guidelines for ESAs. If they do, I think one way to stop this abuse is to limit ESAs to dogs only — that’s the same requirement for service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Another way to stop this abuse is to also strengthen the guidelines to require more information in the letter from the treating mental health professional, such as how often the patient is seen. The guidelines should also require that the patient be seen face-to-face. With that requirement in place, these letter-mill websites would dry up, as no doctor would want to risk the sanctions for misrepresentation.
So if this ESA abuse aggravates you as much as it does me, feel free to share, tweet or otherwise get this post out there, so the DOT will realize that we have a real problem here, and the ACAA needs to be updated to fix it.
Let’s fix this loophole and get these ESA letter-mills to close up shop for good.