Delta Tightens Reins on Untrained 'Support' Dogs in Cabin
Delta creates stronger screening process for in-cabin service and emotional support animals.
Delta's News Release
Atlanta, GA - Delta Air Lines has introduced "enhanced requirements" for passengers flying with service and emotional support animals. The policy change comes after a support dog repeatedly attacked a passenger in the face just before take off last June. The dog's owner could not stop his dog from attacking the victim, nor did the owner heed to multiple warnings the victim asked before the attack, "Is this dog going to bite me?" In July, we issued a special report about this attack.
Delta's new requirements provide stronger protection for passengers from untrained, uncaged emotional support animals in the aircraft cabin.
Our special report examined the widely abused loophole in three federal acts pertaining to service and emotional support animals (ESAs); the unprovoked attack on Marlin Jackson by a large unrestrained support dog just before "pushback" of Delta Flight 1430; the case against Delta Air Lines and competing public interests; the inconsistent federal and airline safety policies in regards to service and support animals; and an addendum that examined psychiatric service animals.
Delta's Enhanced Requirements
Delta says the new requirements support their "top priority of ensuring safety for its customers," including passengers with trained service and support animals. Delta states they have seen an 84% increase in "animal incidents" since 2016, including urination, defecation and biting. In 2017, Delta employees reported an increase of aggressive acts from service and support animals, behaviors rarely seen in properly trained and working animals, according to the news release.
Prior to the "enhanced requirements" taking effect March 1, Delta required passengers traveling with ESAs and psychiatric service dogs to have a signed letter from a licensed mental health professional stating the passenger has a mental health-related disability; the passenger needs the animal as an accommodation for air travel or for an activity at the passenger's destination and that the person listed in the letter is under the care of the assessing mental health professional.
Under federal law, airlines must allow support animals for the disabled to travel free in the cabin. Delta is limited in how they can restrict them.
There are two new parts to Delta's enhanced requirements. Passengers traveling with an ESA or psychiatric service animal must submit a signed Veterinary Health Form and/or an immunizations record (rabies and distemper vaccinations) current within one year of the travel date and a signed Confirmation of Animal Training form to Delta's Service Animal Support Desk at least 48 hours before travel. Passengers with service animals must also provide proof of immunizations.
- Forms: Required documentation for service animals
- Forms: Required documentation for ESAs and psychiatric service animals
Up until March 1, Delta Air Lines did not require proof of rabies vaccinations for service or emotional support animals while traveling in the aircraft cabin. Delta simply exempted these animals, which are free to be uncaged in a cramped, crowded airplane. Some passengers bitten by these dogs likely had to receive post-exposure rabies treatment afterward because Delta, like most other airlines, did not require proof of a vaccination that is mandatory in all 50 states.
The Confirmation of Animal Training form consists of two questions 1.) I confirm that this animal has been trained to behave in a public setting and takes my direction upon command and 2.) I understand that if my service animal acts inappropriately, that it will be considered not acceptable for air travel and will be denied boarding or will be removed from the aircraft. A similar requirement existed when Jackson was horribly mauled in the face, but required no signed form apparently.
The animal "must be trained to behave properly in public settings as service animals do," according to Delta’s website. "A kennel is not required for emotional support animals if they are fully trained and meet same requirements as a service animal." - Atlanta Journal-Constitution / Delta's website, June 9, 2017
Will the New Policy Reduce Fakers?
Hopefully, yes, but how many dog owners falsely claim, "My dog doesn’t bite?" The enhanced requirements do show that Delta will be scrutinizing these cases more closely. "The rise in serious incidents involving animals in flight leads us to believe that the lack of regulation in both health and training screening for these animals is creating unsafe conditions across U.S. air travel," states John Laughter, Delta’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Safety, Security and Compliance.
The policy changes show that Delta is creating a greater distinction between customers traveling with trained service and support animals and those with untrained ESAs, which by definition do not require any training. Delta is also requiring ESA owners to sign a pledge. The new measures are "intended to help ensure that those customers traveling with a trained service or support animal will no longer be at risk of untrained pets attacking their working animal," states the release.
"This new policy is our first step in better protecting those who fly with Delta with a more thoughtful screening process." - Delta Air Lines
In addition to Delta's statistics, WebMD published an article in December citing national statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation. "Complaints related to animals for people with 'unspecified' disabilities have surged by 400% in the last 5 years -- increasing from 411 in 2012 to 2,041 in 2016. In contrast, complaints related to service animals for people with visual impairments have remained relatively steady, about 13 each year for U.S. airlines," reports WebMD.1
Groups that Oppose Delta's Changes
To help explain why the widely abused loophole in three federal acts pertaining to service animals and ESAs exists in the first place, one can look to the organizations and people who oppose Delta's modest enhanced requirements -- legal advocacy groups for the disabled and attorneys for the disabled. Such parties believe that requiring "proof" a service animal is in good health -- via a basic vaccination record -- is placing an undue burden on people with legitimate disabilities.
"The solution should involve poorly behaved animals not putting an increased burden on disabled people." - Attorney and advocate Katie Tastrom2
The only new requirement Delta placed on people with legitimate disabilities -- chiefly those with service dogs who have full protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act -- was the signed immunization form. When there are competing public interests in heightened security situations, such as flying in cramped quarters in an aircraft, both sides have to give ground. Delta requiring proof of vaccinations is not an "undue burden." This should have been a requirement already!
How to Strike the Right Balance?
With complaints about animals for people with 'unspecified' disabilities having swelled by 400% in the last 5 years, clearly a correction needs to be made. As pointed out by Delta and the WebMD article, people with legitimate disabilities are being negatively impacted by untrained dogs in the cabin and at airports by animals falsely identified as service animals and ESAs, primarily by online for-profit companies that promise letters from mental health professionals so your pet can fly free!
Upon learning about Delta's new requirements, American Airlines said it was also looking into additional requirements, reports Reuters. “Unfortunately, untrained animals can lead to safety issues for our team, our passengers and working dogs onboard our aircraft. We agree with Delta’s efforts and will continue to support the rights of customers, from veterans to people with disabilities, with legitimate needs,” the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier said in a statement.
As stated by Marlin Jackson's attorney last June, striking the right balance also includes his client, who was attacked in the face while trapped in a window seat, and the vast number of passengers who do not fly with service animals. "The other 99% of paying customers on that plane have a legitimate public interest as well to know that if they are seated next to a large unrestrained animal, that they can at least feel safe that that animal is trained," J. Ross Massey stated.
What is important to remember is that the Americans with Disability Act is guided by "reasonable accommodation," not any and all accommodation under any circumstances. As was so eloquently stated on a Service Dog Central forum, "reasonableness loves a compromise." It is reasonable for passengers to have the expectation that an animal will not attack them. It is reasonable for airlines to not have to accommodate unusual service or support animals in the cabin, such as snakes.
Lap-Held Service and Support Dogs
Delta's new policy still allows emotional support dogs to sit on their owner's lap. "The size of the animal must not exceed the “footprint” of the passenger’s seat," states their website. Marlin Jackson, 44, was attacked in the face by a 50-pound support dog seated on its owner's lap. That dog also had proof of a rabies vaccination. A repeat situation is possible if the owner of an untrained 50-pound support dog signs Delta's "Confirmation of Animal Training" form anyway.
Delta is taking the right steps in order to exclude more fake service and support dogs. However, the public is still stuck with the honor system.
In our special report last year, we argued that ESAs should be limited in size in airline cabins, particularly in lap-held conditions, because these dogs do not perform a task for persons with disabilities. The "sole function" of an ESA is to "provide comfort" to a person with disabilities. According to FAA regulations (Section 3-3576), lap-held service animals can be "no larger than a lap-held child," which is 25-pounds or less. Delta's new language does not state a weight limit.
Poor Policies Create New Victims
Since Delta's announcement Friday, there have been a slew of media reports, some expressing annoyance at Delta and other airlines due to the high volume of fraudulent service and support animals flying today. This is not limited to aircraft cabins either. One must consider the entire airport experience, as the WebMD article portrays, when Sharon Giovinazzo confronts an owner after its "alleged" service dog rushed up and bit her highly trained working dog at an airport.
Back in November, Brittany Langlois was bitten by an "alleged" emotional support pit bull while standing in the check-in line for JetBlue. What do you think her first question was afterward? "Is the dog vaccinated?" JetBlue told her they could not "legally" give her that information. JetBlue later issued a statement saying the pit bull owner was not a JetBlue passenger after all, thus this was not a JetBlue matter. Brittany Langlois had to undergo post-exposure rabies treatment.
The vicious attack on Marlin Jackson would have resulted in a dangerous dog hearing if it had occurred in a public place. It is unknown if there is "any" adjudication process after an "alleged" service dog or ESA inflicts an unprovoked severe attack on an airline passenger. Up until March 1, not even vaccination proof was required. Airlines and the U.S. Department of Transportation are now on notice that "Fakers plus poor policies" translates into real bite and mauling victims.
A Flying Municipal Shelter?
What is painfully clear in this melee of fake service and support animals traveling in aircraft cabins is that commercial airplanes are literally becoming flying municipal shelters, but have no expertise or operational means for this. Imagine after being bitten or attacked and the airline informs you: "We cannot legally share any information about the owner with you, including whether his dog is vaccinated against a fatal disease." Pets in the cabin pose a bite risk, trained service dogs do not.
Because pets will bite, urinate and defecate, possibly a quarantine section with a row of kennels should be built into airports or even larger airplanes? "Bite investigators" and persons skilled in sheltering and "temperament testing" could operate the area. A dedicated room for dangerous dog hearings would also be needed, along with a judge. That way, the owners of dogs who viciously attack could not rapidly be re-accommodated on a new flight and never heard from again.3
Outrageous ideas are no longer outrageous, given the extraordinary volume of fake service and support animals flying today. In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation will start taking public comments about the "appropriate definition of a service animal" and how to reduce the number of passengers who falsely claim "their pets are service animals." We assume this rulemaking also regards ESAs and psychiatric service animals. We will be there and hope our readers will be too.
2That sounds a lot like, "focus on the bad dog or owner" after an attack, but take no prevention steps to reduce the risk of an attack beforehand. Tastrom's comment also falls flat in addressing the many fakers who are negatively impacting people with legitimate disabilities and their often highly trained working dogs while traveling by air.
3Ronald Kevin Mundy, Jr., the owner of the dog that viciously attacked Jackson, was not charged by local law enforcement. Mundy was re-accommodated on a later Delta flight; his attacking support dog spent that trip in the cargo hold. He was never heard from again. The other mighty can of worms problem with pets in aircraft cabins is the jurisdictional one. The attack occurred in Georgia, Mundy resides in California and Jackson in Alabama. We guess one would call this an "en route" attack, making filing civil lawsuits against dog owners very complicated.