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(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Airlines are required to allow passengers to bring emotional support animals onboard airlines at no extra charge. Some question whether pet owners and companies providing certificates are abusing the system.
Support pets on commercial flights: Legitimate or scam?

Federal law requires airlines to carry “emotional-support animals” for free as long as there is a letter from a doctor.

First Published Mar 29 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 29 2014 10:27 pm

A dog leaped on top of the luggage at the JetBlue ticket counter, barking and baring its teeth. Reannon Muth remembers everyone in the airport staring.

"Sorry, they are not usually like this," the passenger said. "They?" Muth questioned.

At a glance

Airline policies on emotional support animals

Delta » Customers with mental health-related disabilities must provide a letter from their mental health professional to verify service, an emotional support animal/psychiatric assistance animal provides. The professional’s letterhead must include mailing, email and telephone information. Failure to provide documentation may result in denial of boarding for the emotional support animal.

Southwest » In order for a Customer to travel with an emotional support animal, the Customer must provide to a Southwest Airlines Employee current documentation (not more than one year old) on letterhead from a mental health professional or medical doctor who is treating the Customer’s mental health-related disability.… Assistance and emotional support animals must be trained to behave in a public setting. Customers traveling with an assistance animal or an emotional support animal cannot sit in an emergency exit seat.

JetBlue » Emotional Support/Psychiatric Service Animals require current documentation (i.e., not more than one year old) on letterhead or prescription from a licensed mental health professional or physician.

United » Psychiatric assist animals and emotional support animals are accepted in cabin for qualified individuals with a disability if certain documentation requirements are met. Additional documentation may also be required for an animal traveling to an international destination.

An animal should sit at the customer’s feet without protruding into the aisles to comply with safety regulations. Customers may elect to use an approved in-cabin kennel for smaller animals. Exit row seating is prohibited. Customers traveling with an emotional support or psychiatric assist animal must provide a minimum 48-hour advance notification.

Join us for a Trib Talk

On Monday at 12:15 p.m., Debbie Carr of Therapy Animals of Utah and reporter Lee Davidson join Jennifer Napier-Pearce to talk about what the law for flying pets allows and how some travelers are getting around the requirements.

You can join the discussion by sending questions and comments to the hashtag #TribTalk on Twitter and Google+. You can also text comments to 801-609-8059.

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The woman curtly said she had three dogs that were "emotional-support animals." Federal law requires airlines to carry them for free as long as a licensed mental health professional signs a letter saying the passenger needs them for emotional support. The animals generally travel without pet carriers, and are held during flight.

Muth wondered what emotional help three hysterical dogs could offer, but federal law prohibits asking. She had similar questions when she sometimes helped chase animals that escaped on planes, some urinating on others, and she tired of complaints about them from other passengers.

"Half the time you suspected [the owners] were scamming the system so they didn’t have to pay the pet fee," says Muth, now a writer for an Internet marking company. She remembers passengers often had dogs that were too big to fit in carriers under seats as "pets," but had to be accommodated when certified as "emotional-support animals."

Muth remembers seeing dogs, cats and birds as emotional-support animals — and others told her about checking in pigs and even a miniature horse. "For the most part, it was little yippy dogs that didn’t seem like they wanted to be flying either."

Records obtained through a Freedom of Information request show that some airlines have fought what they believe is egregious flouting of the system by people buying mail-order or online letters from far-away doctors to claim their pets are emotional-support animals.

Documents show the U.S. Department of Transportation backed its rejection of such letters and animals for a time, but more recently has ordered acceptance of them. It leads to questions whether federal law allows some owners to twist the system for free pet flights, and may hurt those who legitimately need emotional-support animals.

Scam? » Neville Gillett with Air New Zealand emailed the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2010 to point out what he said seemed an obvious abuse. U.S. officials agreed for a time, but later changed their minds.

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Gillett wrote that Air New Zealand had a passenger from Great Britain who claimed she was under the care of Chilhowee Psychological Services (CPS) of Colorado, and sought free transport on a U.S.-bound flight for her "emotional-support" dogs.

Gillett said an online search showed Chilhowee offered letters for $164 to certify pets as emotional-support animals.

So did the Soldier Life Center, another company at the same Colorado address with the same director. Also at that address was the National Service Animal Registry, which offered for a smaller fee to list pets as "service animals" — trained to assist the disabled, and also eligible to fly free — "by completing a self assessment."

"How is it possible that someone based in another country can be under the care of a medical professional based in another country especially whereby the only contact (that we are aware of) is via the Internet and an online assessment?" Gillett wrote.

"It seems on the face of it that this request is not credible given that for a fee which is considerably less than the cost of cargo transport of a dog, an online provider is providing documentation," he wrote.

Kathleen Blank Riether, an attorney with the Department of Transportation (DOT), replied that its Aviation Enforcement Office had been looking into Chilhowee after questions by many other U.S. airlines.

"In the beginning, we told carriers they did not need to accept letters obtained directly from Chilhowee because it was our understanding that CPS guaranteed a letter … to anyone who paid for the online assessment," she wrote.

Riether wrote that officials were reconsidering that at the time (in December 2010), but was still allowing rejection of Chilhowee letters with caution.

However, it was not allowing them to reject Soldier Life Center letters, even though it had the same address and director, as it studied that company.

Acceptance » Other documents show the DOT eventually would force acceptance of letters from the companies.

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