With the holiday travel season now here, many air passengers are boarding planes with service dogs and emotional support animals — a practice that critics say is open to fraud.
How do airlines know whether these pets are true service animals and not impostors wearing an official-looking vest bought online for $39.99? The answer is, they don't. Critics say many travelers claim their pets are service or emotional support animals because they don't want to pay for them to travel.
While many of these animals are dogs, passengers have also gotten on board with birds -- including a peacock -- cats and other animals.
"I see more violations than legitimate use of service dogs in public. A drastic majority of what I've observed in airports is misuse of the service dog law," said Brian Skewis, executive officer of the California State Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind, the only state agency in the nation that regulates guide-dog schools and individual instructors.
Rod Haneline, chief programs and services officer for Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester, says he too believes fraud is a problem.
“The law is so ambiguous the airlines don’t know what side to come down on. Everyone is afraid of the ramifications of not allowing someone equal access,” Haneline said.
He said blind people fought hard to get public access for their dogs, and that right is "diluted" by a proliferation of questionable service and support pets.
Deb Davis, community outreach manager for Paws with a Cause of Wayland, outside Grand Rapids, said it's easy to spot the impostor service dogs: those carried in a purse, or those that growl, bark or act aggressively. In other words, the pretenders often lack good public manners, she said.
"We know there is fraud because our clients see it very frequently when they travel," said Davis, whose nonprofit annually places about 65 trained dogs with people who have a disability.
But it is such a vexing problem that not even a committee of experts appointed by the U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this year could agree to a solution. It voted in November to discontinue discussions because further talks seemed unlikely to reach a consensus.
The ACCESS Advisory Committee members included representatives of the airlines, aircraft manufacturers, flight attendants and disability rights groups. At one point, some committee members favored recognizing as service animals only dogs and miniature horses, which are the only animals covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Like dogs, miniature horses can be trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, according to the ADA. They can be used as guides for blind people or to pull wheelchairs. These animals, which can be house-trained, typically range in height from 24 to 34 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 70 to 100 pounds. Businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and other entities covered by the ADA must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable.
A DOT spokesperson said the department is now considering rewriting the rules for service and emotional support animals on its own, but a timetable has not been set.
DOT said the rules would "address the concerns that have been raised with the department regarding the definition of a service animal" under federal law, and "instances of passengers falsely representing that their pets are service animals in order to avoid pet fees that airlines may charge for pets to travel in the aircraft cabin."
DOT said U.S. carriers are required under the Air Carrier Access Act to transport all service and emotional support animals with a few exceptions, such as snakes, ferrets, rodents and spiders. Airlines must evaluate unusual animals such as the miniature horses, pigs and monkeys on a case-by-case basis. A single passenger can have two or more service animals.
Among the service and emotional support animals prohibited by Delta Air Lines, the largest carrier at Detroit Metro Airport, are hedgehogs and farm poultry such as chickens or turkeys.
"It's the Wild West," Haneline said. "Animals are much more connected to our daily lives, and the last thing people want to do is put their dog into a pet carrier and put them in the hold of an airplane. This is kind of an easy way to (avoid that) without paying."
There are no federal standards that cover the registration, licensing or training of service or emotional support animals and the schools and instructors who train them. There is also no requirement for the animals to wear service animal vests or tags, which can be purchased easily online for varying prices.
According to DOT guidance to the airlines, harnesses, vests, capes and backpacks may identify an animal as a service animal. But, "the absence of such equipment does not necessarily mean the animal is not a service animal. Similarly, the presence of a harness or vest ... may not be sufficient evidence that the animal is, in fact, a legitimate service animal."
In cases of emotional support animals, the airlines can ask passengers to produce a letter from the mental health professional who is treating them attesting to the fact that they have a mental or emotional disability and need the animal for air travel or at their destination. Those letters are also available for purchase online, in some cases for less than $100, from web sites claiming to have mental health professionals on staff.
In the case of service dogs, airlines can ask passengers questions such as: What tasks or functions does your animal perform for you? What has it been trained to do for you? Describe how the animal performs this task or function for you. They cannot ask travelers about their disability.
In response to questions from the Free Press, Delta issued this statement: "Delta complies with the Air Carrier Access Act by allowing customers traveling with emotional support animals or service animals to travel without charge in the cabin. 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."
Critics say the use of phony support pets hurts travelers with disabilities and their service dogs.
Davis said clients traveling with legitimate service dogs have been bumped from their flights because the airline couldn't accommodate all the animals people wanted to bring on board. "They can miss connections, miss their flights."
And Paws-trained dogs confronted by a growling, aggressive dog posing as a service animal may feel so threatened that they can no longer perform their tasks because "they're looking around each corner, wondering where did that dog go."
Haneline, of Leader Dogs for the Blind, which trains as many as 200 dogs a year for people who are blind or visually impaired, said the guide dog industry "fought long and hard to get equal access for our clients to public accommodations all 50 states. When anyone can walk around with a service dog, you dilute that."
Skewis said that until the entire disability community can get behind a solution, passengers will continue to find ways to get their phony service or support pets into airline cabins.
"Everyone agrees there's a problem, but no one has a clear-cut solution," Skewis said.