Emotional support animals have garnered international press coverage in recent weeks. First, United Airlines denied one woman’s request to fly with her peacock. Then, another woman reported to the Miami Herald that not only was she unable to bring her hamster on board a flight, an airline representative, upon hearing she would be unable to get the animal home, suggested she leave the animal outdoors or flush it down the toilet…and she claims to have chosen the second option.
The Toronto Star reports that these requests have increased exponentially in past years. It also states that while there is clear legislation regarding service animals (such as guide dog for the visually impaired), for support animals, airlines are subject to a broadly worded act in which a passenger may travel with any animal which helps them feel at ease. Paperwork is required, but it appears this can be easily obtained—or forged.
Whatever your initial reaction to such stories, consider the frontline staff, supervisors, and managers trying to handle these requests. It’s the stuff of customer service and public relations nightmares: any misstep—legitimate or perceived—will result in public scrutiny. Mental health and guest accommodation are important and timely topics, and businesses should do all they can to help their clients feel welcome and at ease. But these requests impact other passengers’ welfare, not to mention the health and safety of the staff. Allergies, fear of animals, and the possibility of an animal reacting badly to being in a confined space must be considered.
What’s clear is more explicit regulations are needed, so staff can be trained to provide the best service to all involved. This should not be limited to airlines, either. Managers at hotels, restaurants, tour companies, travel agencies, and other transportation companies should ensure there are clear policies on what’s permissible and how to handle such requests, and train all staff on them…before the fur flies.