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Oct 14

DOT ACAA Regulation talks

disabled-with-sds-2Dogfight: Service Animals on Planes an In-Flight Controversy

Jenine Stanley can’t see at all, so her 55-pound golden retriever goes with her everywhere — at home, at the supermarket and on airplanes when she flies.

That last one can be a hassle even though the guide dog quietly sits at her feet during flights and is a veteran of the skies. Stanley must show paperwork to prove she has a disability and the dog is a trained service animal.

It’s worse for her husband, who is half blind and has a guide dog of his own. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., he was inundated with questions about him and his dog, including how much he could really see.

Jenine and her husband were headed to Washington for a committee meeting with the the Department of Transportation, which is considering new rules for service animals on planes. On Wednesday, representatives from the airline, medical and service animal industries will meet for the sixth and final time before the department proposes clearer rules about what is and isn’t allowed in an airplane cabin.

Stanley, a representative for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, and her husband are the least of anyone’s problems.

Both sides agree on this: Too many people are taking advantage of rules meant to benefit people with legitimate disabilities, such as blindness or post-traumatic stress disorder. They’re registering personal pets as “emotional support animals” to avoid costly boarding fees to transport them.

Airlines want stricter guidelines for what is allowed on a plane. Today, even turkeys and pigs can be registered as “emotional support animals” and roam free about cabins. The carriers want to narrow that definition and make sure they know the animal’s presence on board is necessary.

The service animal groups also would like to clarify what can and can’t be brought on board so animals are serving legitimate purposes. They just want the process to be as unobtrusive as possible.

“I don’t have to walk into a store and provide that kind of proof that says, ‘I’m disabled and that’s why I have this dog,’” Stanley told Patch.

Then there are the concerns of other passengers.

“I am severely allergic to dogs. I don’t like being allergic, I love dogs, but the airlines make me feel like a horrible person when I state that I cannot sit near a dog on board,” Chelle Lewis of Murrieta, California, said in a Patch Facebook survey of our readers. “They have told me that I will have to change flights, not the person with the dog. I am valued less than an animal.”

Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American Airlines, which has a representative on the committee, said in an email to Patch that the airlines’ proposals are “multifaceted” and otherwise referred to rule-making documentation. In a response to a rules proposal from pet advocates, the airlines say the United States has some of the loosest laws in the world about service animals on airplanes.

Two types of animals are in play.

The first group are animals — typically dogs — that perform specific tasks such as guiding blind people, providing medication during panic attacks and recognizing low blood sugar.

The second group, “emotional support animals,” provide comfort to people with anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. This category is frequently exploited for personal use. And no behavioral training is required, so “certification” is easy to come by.

Airlines would like to see that second category eliminated completely, with animals serving legitimate comfort needs rolled up into the service animals category.

Perhaps the person most qualified to assess the issue facing airlines and service animal advocates is Susannah Charleson, the executive director of a service dog-training organization and certified commercial pilot. (She is not part of the DOT committee.)

Charleson’s organization, Possibility Dogs, requires the same behavioral training for any emotional support dog as it does for specific service dogs.

“There are plenty of people who do not have a disability who are bringing untrained dogs aboard airplanes that do not have the standard of etiquette that they should have and provide a nuisance or a risk for other passengers,” Charleson told Patch. “It’s a very, very difficult road to travel and a very difficult decision to be made.”

Few would argue that all animals should be banned from aircraft. But a line must be drawn.

“Just like parking in a handicap parking spot requires proper ID, service dogs should also. It’s too easy for someone to say, ‘Oh, this is my service dog,’” Ed Col in Toms River, New Jersey, said in the Patch Facebook survey. “Too many people abuse the system and claim every pet is a service animal.”

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