Dogs, cats, turkeys, pigs, rabbits, hamsters, marmots, even iguanas? No, you haven’t wandered into a zoo or a pet shop. This is an airline cabin, and those aren’t pets; they’re emotional support animals. If you have the bad luck to be seated next to someone with one, well, be grateful that snakes and ferrets aren’t allowed.

Anyone who ventures into a U.S. airport these days likely will see a passenger carrying a small furry creature wearing a special vest or tag identifying its distinctive function. Some of these are actual service animals, defined by the ADA National Network as “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

Many, though, fall into a looser category of animals that are supposedly helpful to travelers who don’t have blindness or PTSD but may feel less anxious with a nonhuman companion. The federal Air Carrier Access Act has been interpreted to require airlines to accommodate passengers who need—or claim to need—an animal for emotional support. The main thing it takes to qualify on most airlines is a letter from a physician or therapist.

This policy has spawned a host of websites offering quick, easy certification. One offers 24-hour service, including a five-minute questionnaire and chat with a licensed therapist. Says the site, “Getting an ESA Qualification Has Never Been Easier.”

Another highlights one big attraction: “Pets fly in cabin free.” Oh, we forgot to mention: If you want to take your pet cat aboard, you can expect to pay $125, but if you want to take your emotional support animal, you can expect to pay nothing.

The dual policy is an invitation to people willing to scam the system without regard for their cabin mates. One example, located by ABC News, is a young woman named Genevieve who said she wanted to take her dog Kali with her when she flew, so “she lied about having an emotional illness so that Kali could become an emotional support animal.”

What’s wrong with such fibbing? One problem is that it rewards dishonest fliers and penalizes honest ones. Another is that it exposes passengers to pets that—unlike actual service animals—may not be trained for such conditions. One 70-pound dog bit another passenger in the face on a flight from Atlanta to San Diego last year. Delta Air Lines says it has experienced an 84 percent increase in “animal incidents,” including urination, defecation and biting, since 2016.

The airline now transports 700 service and support animals each day. So it has decided to take action to discourage illegitimate use of the emotional support option.

As of March 1, each owner will have to provide veterinary health and vaccination records, a letter documenting the traveler’s need and a signed “confirmation of training form” at least 48 hours before takeoff.

It’s a sensible step, and one other airlines should consider in the interests of the many passengers who don’t evade rules, lie and put others at risk to save money. The change will work to the benefit of those travelers with real conditions that warrant accommodation of their support animals.

Remember Genevieve, who faked her emotional illness? She confessed that she had a friend “tell me that people were having adverse consequences from this. Legitimate people with legitimate animals were getting confronted.” She realized she was in the wrong and stopped taking her dog. Maybe Delta’s new policy will move other passengers to follow her example.

—Chicago Tribune

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