A Dog Story: Negotiating with the Airlines

APR. 28, 2017

By Bob Carolla

Alicia Smith and Hunka at the 2016 NAMI National Convention


I’d like to start by paying tribute to Hunka, a service animal for Alicia Smith, NAMI’s representative on a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) advisory group. Hunka was a 12-year-old St. Bernard/Smooth Coated Collie mix, adopted from a local shelter. We were sad to learn that he passed on recently.

Whenever Alicia was in NAMI’s national office for meetings, Hunka—full name: Hunka Hunka Burning Love—would curl up and wait under a desk. We were always glad to see him (and he always wagged his tail in return).

He was a true NAMI advocate and an example of why airline regulations on service animals are important.

Alicia and Hunka traveled together to and from Montana and Washington, D.C. six times last year, as Alicia was co-chair of a working group on the definition of “service animal” under federal law. The full committee—involving American Airlines, Psychiatric Service Dog Partners, America’s Vet Dogs and several other groups—included stakeholders from all points of view, trying to balance concerns and produce reasonable recommendations. But they didn’t reach consensus.

DOT is still considering whether to end or restrict emotional support animals on passenger planes and may impose restrictions unilaterally. Airlines currently have individual restrictions for emotional support animals, which fly for free in aircraft cabins, but some airlines keep restrictions vague. Alaska Airlines, however, is very specific in listing types of animals that it will not accept, including:

  • Reptiles
  • Rodents
  • Spiders
  • Non-household birds
  • Animals with foul odors
  • Unusual or exotic animals

Arbitrary Enforcement

“Human interest” news stories have recently highlighted an “emotionally supportive” pot belly pig, turkey and kangaroo, as well as incidents such as one involving a family removed from a flight because a labradoodle couldn’t fit entirely under a seat. Never mind that the airline had given them clearance in advance—the flight attendant overruled it, even though the family had previously flown three times before with the dog on the same route.

The airline apologized, but the incident serves as an example of how airline policies are arbitrarily applied and vary from airline to airline, flight to flight, person to person and animal to animal.

Alicia agrees that species and training are legitimate concerns: “We don’t want [planes to become] Noah’s Ark with untested animals that don’t have proven ability to behave in a very unusual setting.”

Other concerns also exist. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America wants restrictions or procedures to minimize exposure to dander. Meanwhile, airlines argue that “current regulations are open to fraud or abuse.” To avoid paying an additional fare, some passengers claim family pets are emotional support animals and show up with questionable certifying documents.

Advocate for Emotional Support Animals

If DOT proposes new regulations, they will be subject to public comment in which anyone can express support, opposition or make additional suggestions.

You can comment online now on the issue before new regulations are proposed. If you have traveled on an airline with emotional support animals, please describe any good and/or bad experiences you had with them. Please also make the following points:

  • Size limitations that require an animal to fit under a seat are arbitrary and unreasonable.  If a person weighs 200 pounds and has balance issues, a Dachshund will not work as a service animal.
  • All dogs should be treated equally. There is no need for separate “psychiatric service animal” regulations that discriminate against people with mental health conditions. Emotional support animals should be included under the definition of service animals.

This is an opportunity for dogged advocacy. Let’s do it in memory of Hunka.


Bob Carolla is senior writer at NAMI.


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JUL, 25, 2017 02:00:32 AM
Roger Smith
Really very helpful information. Thanks for sharing.

JUN, 23, 2017 01:20:02 AM
Roger Smith
Thank for information.

MAY, 11, 2017 07:04:07 PM
Nancy Sommers
I have a unique perspective on this topic, I'm an author and currently completing a book as well as launching a non-profit to unify the language across state and local governments. I actively help local businesses understand how to better communicate their issues as well as deal with the influx of "Service dogs" and ESA's. I'm on airplanes throughout the year and have 3 service dog groups on social media for Veterans and others with PTSD. (We actually include other disabilities) There is no question in my mind that changes need to be made and my perspective is of interest to the FAA since they've had an attorney reach out to me in the past just based on articles I've written. There are overlying problems to Service Dogs as a result of the ESA's on board flights adding to the confusion on the ground. But this is NOT to say I want to omit ESA's. Changes need to be made to the language or I believe there is going to be a newsworthy media storm that involves "corporate business & leaders" on some level. This is not speculation but my experience based on 8 years with my own service dog, traveling extensively together and even cultural differences I've experienced.

MAY, 03, 2017 01:05:11 AM
Christa Biber
I know that an animal can be of tremendous support when you are really anxious. I have been comforted by dogs and cats alike.
I think that Vet care for an ESA animal should be deductible at tax time. You have to keep them well, so you can stay well and cope better.
I have never had the "nerve" to ask a doctor for a letter, stating he animals status as ESA. As a matter of fact, I have no idea how to go about it to get that qualification for a dog, a cat etc.

APR, 30, 2017 04:12:10 PM
Andrew White
For the last 4 years I have been lucky enough to fly with my ESA, Berto, a 35 pound dog that has gotten me through all of the cross country travel inherent in my graduate school training; not only would I be unable to make these trips without my pal to calm me, it is disheartening to fathom a future in which others would be unable to partake in this right of free, comfortable travel. Advocacy efforts are imperative in ensuring that those often left on the short end of stigma have a concerted voice- we are not asking for unreasonable benefits, but for recognition, equality and access to a constructive conversation on how to ensure that we are seen as the productive members of society that necesitates travel through air, land, or sea.

APR, 29, 2017 09:28:09 PM
Caden Briggs
I have a large orange tabby cat and he is my emotional support animal. I have had him for a few years and he flies with me to Denver to see family. We fly Southwest because they have been helpful with my needs and affordable. I have found that I can handle only so much stress or external factors before my mental health starts to get out of sync. I am Bipolar type II and have PTSD and general anxiety disorder, along with bouts of dissociative disorder. I find my mental illnesses are hard to control when away from my stable and prescribed comfort zone. I can highlight a recent experience in which not having my cat with me really showed how much I depend on his comfort. I recently visited my grandmother who lives in central Texas and because of where she lives I was not able to take my cat. His name is Mr. Mow Mow. I was gone a little over two weeks which is the extreme limit on my ability to maintain composure and control. I realized right away that I felt more anxious and as time went on I began to feel jumpy and hypo manic. I realized I missed medication because he was not there to meow for breakfast! This is why he is named mow mow. I also realized I needed him in other ways too. When he is able to travel with me, I am more apt to remember my medicine because I take it when i feed him breakfast. He also helps maintain my stability because I can feel him sense my moods and he gives me a concerned look! When he does this, I know I need to sit and hold him and think until I regain my mental state. I it came to a unilateral decision in which he could not travel with me as my emotional support animal, I would find it much more difficult to visit family. I think mental illnesses are hard to understand and see so an emotional support animal is seen as questionable. I can attest to the fact that he is just as important as any other type of support animal. I will be writing a response for this matter at the regulations.gov site. It is important to see how mental health and illness can be treated if the right support is available.

APR, 28, 2017 06:53:14 PM
Lori Neumann
I have suffered severe anxiety all my life and work very hard with my therapist and psychiatrist to manage my symptoms. My ESA (Emotional Support Animal) is vital to my well being. Why should my medical/emotional treatment be banned by airlines ? Do all the airline CEOs have qualifications to restrict my course of treatment? Anybody with an MD or Phd on their boards of directors is welcome to reply.

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