Delta’s New Rules About Flying With Dogs Just Started An Important Conversation About Disabilities

Denise Brodey

The growing outrage about Delta airlines recent ruling not to carry emotional support animals on flights longer than 8 hours really got to me—but not for the reasons you might expect. The clash over whether a pet is an emotional support dog is just the tip of the iceberg.

The larger story is how often airline passengers with disabilities feel shamed, embarrassed or treated like a burden. The industry isn’t alone in not being tuned into the fact that they need additional training for employees put in place. An estimated 20% of potential airline passengers are disabled and that number is likely to rise as society ages. There are plenty of cases that point to lack of training for employees who work directly with the public, including:

  • Pilots who refuse to fly. In April, Alaska Airlines was accused of discrimination when a teen with Down’s Syndrome was kicked off a flight. (He threw up before the plane took off and Alaska Airlines employees deemed him unfit for travel). Feeling discriminated against as a person with a disability is a constant. It may not have been anything new to this family, but it certainly was the last straw.
  • Speaking to customers with respect. This summer, an airline employee asked the parents of a boy with muscular dystrophy for proof of his disability when they requested a wheelchair. The family had the paperwork and did eventually get to their destination, but the overriding complaint is that employees are not tuned in to the little things that might help passengers with disabilities be treated equally and personably.

You could see the banning of emotional support dogs on long flights as a policy issue, but you’d be missing the point. People with disabilities are outraged about how they feel they are treated by airline employees. Think of these incidents as isolated events and you’re also missing the point.  One in five people in this country has a disability and your company employees need to be educated on how to help them with dignity and respect.

The general public has some studying to do, too. As for the many, many passengers claiming their dog qualifies as an emotional support, it’s time for a reality check. Not all of you are telling the truth. And to be fair to the airline industry, over the past year, requests for emotional support pets on airlines have surged more than 75%. United Airlines alone reportedly carried 76,000 emotional support animals in 2017, a steep increase from years past.

So far, it’s not going all that well for the airlines: Last year’s biting incident on Delta Airlines was only part of the problem. Apparently, with all those pets, there’s been a widespread increase in bad pet behavior. According to a corporate statement on their website, “Delta’s updated policy follows an 84 percent increase in reported incidents involving service and support animals 2016-2017, including urination/defecation, biting and even a widely reported attack by a 50-pound dog.”

Some disability rights organizations the dog debate as just another a blow to people with disabilities, saying the vaccination and 48-hour notice policies for people bringing emotional support dogs on board are too restrictive. Delta disagrees and says its policies are in line with the Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Access Act. Delta is not alone in this crack-down on passengers. United and American have also sought to clarify or tighten their regulations. For the most updated pet-carriage rules from Delta, you can find instruction for the three basic types of transport on Delta’s site (Don’t panic, exceptions will be made through the end of January for already-ticketed customers who had asked to bring a support animal.)

For now, it’s best to learn more about your rights as a traveler with disabilities before you book your travel plans. Once you decide on an itinerary, check that airlines rules before booking.

I am a former editor-in-chief and journalist who has written for The New York Times, Glamour and Fitness. I write about the role of disabilities in today’s changing workplace as well as adults with mental health challenges for Thrive, Medium and on LinkedIn. My book, “The El…MORE

Denise Brodey is a writer on mental health and disability. She is the author of The Elephant in the Playroom. Follow her on Twitter @dbrodey.