Support pets on commercial flights: Legitimate or scam?
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.
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.
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 â¦ 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.
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."
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 â¦ 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.
"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 influenceâ¦. 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.
Nicole Gurdoglanyan, an attorney with JetBlue, wrote to DOT saying that the airline's review of Chilhowee led it to conclude "this is simply a mail order prescription site," and sought guidances on how it could challenge its letters.
She wrote, "It is our goal to provide the best customer service and experience to our customers that are traveling with disabilities. Part of our commitment in this regard is to ensure that customers are not abusing the process and calling into question the behavior of customers that truly need protection and accommodation."
Amna Arshad, a lawyer with the DOT, responded that airlines concerned about such companies "should feel free to question the passenger regarding how the animal assists with his or her disability, how the animal has been trained to assist with the disability, how the animal has been trained to behave in public, etc."
He said, "If a carrier can show a reasonable basis for concluding that a passenger has not credibly established" that it is a service animal or emotional-support animal, "our policy is not to take enforcement action against the carrier."
But it still presents legal risks over interpretations and conclusions.
Despite the behind-the-scenes push by some airlines to go after mail-order companies, they have not spoken much about it publicly which also could be risky with public relations and potentially seen as unfriendly to the disabled in the highly competitive industry.
In fact, when questioned about any industry stand on the topic, Airlines For America formerly known as Air Transport Association of America issued only a terse statement.
"We trust our passengers are honest in communicating their need for service animal assistance and we provide them with any necessary support," said spokesman Vaughn Jennings.
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.â¦ 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.
See more about comments here.