As We Return to Travel Without Emotional Support Animals, Will America See Mental Health Consequences?

Like many issues involving mental health, there isn't a binary correlation between ESAs and a passenger's well-being — and what is an opportunity to save $250 on a roundtrip flight for one passenger might serve as an emotional necessity for another.

First person perspective of a woman flying with an emotional support dog.
Photo: Holly Hildreth/Getty Images

In March, Southwest Airlines joined American, Delta, and United in banning emotional support animals from flights and only letting trained and documented service dogs accompany passengers into the cabin. Air Canada followed suit soon after. These rulings are about to become a lot more relevant now that more people are beginning to travel again after more than a year at home. Simply put, many of us may suffer from undiagnosed psychological effects from COVID-19, whether we were infected with the virus or not.

Admittedly, it can be easy to mock emotional support animals, especially the viral moments of peak absurdity over the past few years, which culminated with United Airlines banning an emotional support peacock from boarding a flight at Newark Airport in 2018. There are also safety risks related to the prevalence of ESAs over the past few years (like the time an ESA bit an American Airlines flight attendant) and ethical implications to consider, including the for-profit sites that allow you to essentially purchase an ESA certificate for your pet to avoid paying cargo fees on your flight. In some ways, the airlines' crackdown was a long time coming and could benefit passengers who have to share their space with animals who simply are not equipped for air travel.

That said, there is no question that in certain situations ESAs can benefit their owners' mental health without impinging on other travelers' experiences. First of all, it's important to draw the distinction between ESAs and Service Animals, the latter of which are still very much allowed on flights and shouldn't be conflated with the former. According to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), "a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability."

In other words, a service dog can alert their owner to take medication, warn them from oncoming traffic, or help train their owner to stay safe during a seizure. So is a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety considered a disability? According to the ADA, "It depends. The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog's mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA."

From a mental health perspective, it can be difficult for the patient to make this distinction, let alone be able to prove it in a quantifiable way. Anyone who has spent time around a cat is aware of the calming presence these animals have; as Eckhart Tolle has famously written, "I have lived with several Zen masters—all of them cats." The real question is, should calming presence be an inherent right or an upcharge? As you might expect, the answer depends on whether you're the airline or the passenger.

The ESA debate can put mental health practitioners in a difficult ethical quandary as well. This was outlined in a 2016 peer-reviewed article by Jeffrey N Younggren, Jennifer A Boisvert, and Cassandra L Bonness titled Examining Emotional Support Animals and Role Conflicts in Professional Psychology. The article states: "Most recently, many psychologists are being asked by their patients to certify their need to have a pet present in settings where the presence of the animal had previously been prohibited. This type of conduct is not without risk and can complicate psychotherapy if not properly handled." Keep in mind, this was written pre-peacock.

In this spirit, one can understand why the Department of Transportation (DOT) felt the need to firm up its guidelines last December, which now state: "This approach reduces confusion among airlines, passengers, airports, and other stakeholders by more closely aligning the Department's definition of a service animal under the Air Carrier Access Act with DOT's definition of a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, task-trained service animals are generally provided enhanced training in how to behave in public, while emotional support animals may not have received this degree of training."

The problem is that like many issues involving mental health, there isn't a binary correlation between ESAs and a passenger's well-being — and what might look like an opportunity to save $250 on a roundtrip flight for one passenger might serve as an emotional necessity for another. Who is the best person to make this distinction? The passenger? The airline? A mental health professional? The DOT? Each party has its own interests to protect, which is what makes this issue so complex.

For now, those of you with ESAs will simply have to pay for the luxury of flying with your pet in the cabin as long as it's vaccinated and in a travel crate — and, since it involves the airlines, you'll have to pay a premium for the privilege. (Pets fly domestically for $95 each way on Southwest Airlines and $125 each way on the other aforementioned carriers.) Ultimately, this will be too expensive for many people — and in a society where mental healthcare has already discounted some of our most vulnerable citizens, it's another roadblock for care that could be remedied if the airlines decided to find a more economical compromise. Then again, remember when you couldn't believe an airline would charge you for a bottle of water or to check your bag? It should come as no surprise that as an industry, the airlines aren't going to be the most progressive thinkers on mental health issues that don't present themselves in conventional ways. They should and could do better, but they most likely won't.

But the airlines aren't the only ones to blame, and if you're one of those people who asked your therapist for a doctor's note so your cat could fly free to Vegas, please curb those types of behaviors. Not only did unruly ESAs give actual service animals a bad name, they exploited a loophole that is intended to help people with real disabilities. If we can all respect the system and find a way to work with it rather than abuse it, maybe airlines will one day find a compromise that recognizes the psychic and financial weight of mental health struggles without allowing passengers to take advantage of a policy designed to protect people who can truly benefit from ESAs.

It's a tricky moral dilemma, but it's a conversation that's worth having now. Because this summer our post-COVID public is going to be dealing with an unprecedented amount of undiagnosed mental health issues, making emotional support more important than ever.

Jonah Bayer is a graduate student in Antioch University's Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.

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