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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.

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For example in February 2013, Alec Bramlett with American Airlines replied to a DOT inquiry by writing, "We began accepting Chilhowee letters after being advised we have to do so" by federal officials.

He added, "DOT had previously advised us that we did not have to accept Chilhowee letters, but after that, DOT concluded that in light of some changes Chilhowee had made to its website, AA [American Airlines] could no longer refuse."

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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As Riether from DOT explained in one email, the website now did not guarantee a prescription letter. "We also learned that the mental-health practitioners working on Chilhowee’s staff … have professional licenses from Colorado."

Chilhowee’s website explains what it offers, although it and its director, Standford Sutherland, did not respond to phone calls and email from The Salt Lake Tribune seeking comment.

For $164, CPS will give patients an online test battery followed by a minimum of two counseling sessions by phone or Skype with a licensed therapist. "If you qualify as emotionally or mentally disabled, a former letter of prescription for an emotional-support animal will be written" and express mailed or emailed, it says.

It adds "a letter of prescription is not guaranteed," and only limited refunds are available for those who do not qualify.

It also says it cannot guarantee an "airline company will not inadvertently or intentionally violate law by discriminating against you, despite possessing a valid letter of prescription."

Sutherland lists online his Colorado license number. His biography says he has a master’s in clinical psychology from Azusa Pacific University.

Concerns » Paula Scott, marketing coordinator for Pet Partners, a national group that promotes human-animal interaction to improve emotional and psychological health, says many people legitimately need emotional-support animals to fly — and the federal Air Carrier Access Act requires accommodating them.

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"A lot of people have extreme anxiety in flying," she says. "Animals decrease their heart rate, calm their breathing and help them with anxiety and depression. Physicians recognize that, and prescribe a pet as a calming influence…. Airlines have the right to refuse them if there is objective evidence that it may compromise safety."

Of course if airlines refuse them, they also risk being sued or facing complaints from the DOT.

Scott said she can’t imagine anyone prescribing an emotional-support animal "without seeing the person, the animal and the disability." She worries that possible manipulation of the system by some mail-order firms could increase anxiety for those who legitimately need help by possibly worrying if people doubt them or if they will face challenges.

One possible example turns up in a complaint letter obtained through an open-records law request.

A man — whose name was censored from records released — wrote that as he tried to check in at Denver in 2011 for his family’s "long-awaited vacation to Florida," American Airlines rejected an emotional-support animal letter they had from Chilhowee. American said it had a blanket policy of not accepting letters from that company.

The man said he told the airline that its attempt to judge "what constitutes an appropriate method of diagnosing mental disabilities is ludicrous and offensive." American told him that he and his wife could travel with the animal if they paid a $250 round-trip pet fee.

"The stressful situation caused Sabrina to suffer from an anxiety attack and I had to request that our tickets be refunded," he wrote. "Courtesy of American Airlines, our Florida vacation ended before it even started."

The DOT took no action against American for that 2011 complaint, writing in its decision that "it appears that the majority of people who send money to these organizations [Chilhowee and other companies operated by Sutherland] are guaranteed to receive a ‘diagnosis’ as needing such a service animal."

But, as explained, that later changed and airlines were instructed to accept these prescription letters.

Risks » Some airlines raised questions about the decision, and sought guidance about ways to challenge mail-order prescriptions.

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