FORT MYERS, Fla. Airline industry officials are worried that passengers are getting their pets a free ride by claiming them as emotional support animals.
One major U.S. carrier reported carrying more than 24,000 emotional support animals in its cabins in one year.
That number is nearly double the amount of people who brought trained service animals on that same carrier in the same year.
Airlines allow passengers to bring emotional support animals in the aircraft cabin as long as they present a letter signed by a medical professional attesting to their need for the animal. The letters must be signed by a licensed mental health professional stating that the passenger is under their care and that they have a diagnosable emotional disorder.
Airlines normally charge fees, and have size restrictions, to bring animals into the cabin. Such fees are waived for those with emotional disabilities, according to the Air Carrier Access Act, as interpreted by the Department of Transportation. The measure allows emotional support animals to have the same access as trained service animals.
For a gate attendant, deciphering which is which isn’t always easy.
“You can imagine somebody coming to the gate, the plane is leaving soon and they have to decide relatively quickly, very quickly as to whether this is a pet or an emotional support animal,” said Doug Lavin, vice-president for North America for the International Air Transport Association.
A WINK News investigation found that those letters can be obtained by filling out online questionnaires without seeing or speaking to a mental health professional.
Lauren Sweeney and Katie Cribbs, a reporter and producer on WINK News’ investigative team, completed the questionnaires. Within two hours, both were sent letters from licensed mental health professionals.
The cost ranged from $90 to $160.
“It’s not really adequate to simply take in some survey information and issue somebody a letter that’s a real diagnosis or some disability other than the fact that we all like dogs,” said William Allen, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
The letter Sweeney received was good enough to satisfy a ticket agent at Southwest Florida International Airport.
She didn’t board due to her dog’s excitable nature.
Pigs, horses and ducks
Industry officials are aware of the practice, said Lavin, who added that pigs and miniature horses are extremely popular.
A diaper-donning duck named Daniel made headlines in October 2016 when a passenger tweeted a photo of him. The duck’s owner said he helps with her post traumatic stress disorder.
Daniel, the duck on my flight, likes to look at the clouds. pic.twitter.com/YiOjCvZ0NO
— Mark Essig (@mark_essig) October 16, 2016
Industry officials asked to restrict emotional support animals to only dogs and to remove the medical letter requirement.
“Because there is such fraud we actually agreed to eliminate the requirement for certification by a medical professional, but instead we said that the passengers would have to do a mandatory attestation that number one they suffered from AN emotional disability and number two they are under the care of a licensed professional and the licensed professional had seen them and they needed an ESA,” Lavin said.
The therapist who signed the letter for Cribbs did not respond to requests for comment.
Instead, a representative from CertaPet responded, claiming that significant analysis went into the determination of the diagnosis and that their screening process is created to weed out fraudulent answers.
The psychologist who signed the letter for Sweeney claimed her analysis conformed to the standard of care for “tele-medicine.”
The Florida Department of Health, however, said “tele-medicine” typically involves meeting via telephone or some type of video conferencing, and that online surveys are only part of the treatment.
The department encouraged anyone concerned about a professional’s standard of care to file a complaint.