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A couple months ago there was a disturbing incident aboard a Delta aircraft at Hartsfield-Jackson airport. A man was mauled by the “emotional support dog” accompanying the passenger next to him. The situation was bad enough that he had to be removed from the flight and taken to receive medical care.

The offending dog in the incident was a “lab mix” of roughly 50 pounds. The animal was reportedly sitting on its owners lap. Read that again and let the visual sink in. This is a 50-pound dog sitting on someone’s lap. In an economy seat. On a plane.

Putting myself in the situation

Imagine for a moment that you’re the man at the window. There is a passenger next to you in the middle seat. You are already in the crowded space that is economy seating, but now you are next to a person with a rather large animal on his lap. Sound fun?

Not in the slightest. In fact, I’d do everything in my power to get out of that situation, including insisting that either I or the other passenger be re-seated, or one of us moved to a new flight. The article dredged up many of the issues I have with emotional support animals. Here are three reasons why I think airlines should be more restrictive when it comes to allowing ESAs on airplanes:

Discomfort to other passengers

An emotional support animal (ESA) is obviously there for its owner’s comfort. However, the animal could easily cause discomfort to other passengers. What about people who are allergic to the animal? Or unnerved by it? My travel plans have never included sitting next to a dog on a flight, and never will.

It’s one thing for someone to be transporting a chihuahua in a pet carrier, especially if you can fit it under your seat. It’s an entirely different situation for someone to have a 50 pound dog on your lap. I’m totally cool with the former. The latter, however, would make me extremely uncomfortable.

There obviously needs to be a balance here. An emotional support animal may be needed by a passenger to help them cope with flying, yet it may end up causing other passengers quite a bit of discomfort. Where does the airline draw the line? This leads me to my second point…

Rules are awkward for airlines

If you can have a 50 pound emotional support animal on your lap, why couldn’t I have my 50 pound child ride on my lap. Okay, okay…obvious safety issue here. But what about holding a compact 50-pound luggage on my lap? Maybe emotional support luggage is a way to bypass those nasty basic economy fees…

The best I can find, airlines don’t have very clear cut policies for dealing with ESAs, besides requiring proof of need for the animal by a physician and notifying the airline by phone by phone before you travel with your ESA.

It seems airlines will even do their best to accommodate someone traveling with an ESA, potentially going as far as to seat them in a bulkhead row. They might also remove a passenger who is made uncomfortable by an ESA. Or they might remove you and your ESA if it starts pooping all over.

ESAs do *not* require certification or training

Here’s the real rub: emotional support animals are not trained and do not have any sort of certification requirements like real service animals. I understand that emotional support animals help many people cope with anxiety, depression, and other emotional issues. But the primary difficulty I have with ESAs is that they do not require either certification or training. There is no licensure for the animal. Zero.

Because emotional support dogs do not receive anything like the intense training that goes into other service dogs, I think they should be treated very differently than other service animals. Especially when it comes to being transported in close proximity to other people in an enclosed metal tube 30,000 feet in the sky.

Plus, the lack of certification and training combined with the ability to fairly easily obtain a doctor’s note creates a system ripe for abuse. There is even an entire industry that caters to certifying your pet as an ESA.


Bringing things back to the man who was mauled, this situation could have been prevented by imposing a maximum size or weight for ESAs (hopefully something under 50 pounds), or requiring that the dog sit at the person’s feet at all times and not on their lap. The teeth would no longer be at face height. I’d rather have my leg mauled than my chin.

I can put up with an awful lot while flying. But sitting in a 17-inch seat next to both another person and a 50 pound dog for four and a half hours(!) in a cramped space might be the most utterly unpleasant travel experience I’ve ever imagined.

What do you think? Should there be greater restrictions on emotional support animals when it comes to air travel?

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