Aircraft Accidents and Survival Instinct

Survival Instincts are learned early in life.  One doesn’t have to build up the instinct, like an anti-body, it is often learned at a time when we develop our fundamental curiosity.  A child, who barely understands the word ‘No’, can feel the pain of a hot stove; the memory is stored in the Brain’s sensory cortex; when the child comes upon the stove again, he understands the danger, intuitively knowing to exercise caution or be burned.  Most animals have this same reflex to pain, warning them to all types of dangers.

In the world of aviation, dangers are so plain, so stark, that they qualify as common sense.  I have seen blatantly ridiculous displays of counter-common sense, executed by many airmen, so as to meet the requirements of the Darwin Awards.  But one aspect of aviation (and there are quite a few) challenges common sense on everyday flights on an airline near you, dismissing the safety of lives, health and the sound judgment to separate logic from utter silliness.

An article by D. Koenig, an airline writer, threw some light on an incident in Phoenix, February 21, 2018.  An emotional support dog sitting with its owner in the passenger cabin of a Southwest Airlines aircraft, bit a seven-year old girl who went to pet it.  The owner stated that, “he warned the young girl not to approach his dog.”  An earlier incident on a Delta flight in June, a seventy-pound dog bit another passenger on the face, requiring the unfortunate passenger to be hospitalized from the wound.  In similar circumstances, airlines are quick to defend the rights, not of the wounded passenger, but of the Emotional Support Animal.

What is an Emotional Support animal?  They are animals that provide emotional support for their owners during high stress situations, e.g. flying.  The term was born from the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which recognizes the rights of the valid handicapped to receive non-discriminatory treatment for various situations, e.g. housing, jobs and service animals.  What is the difference between a Service Animal and an Emotional Support Animal?  In a word: Training.  Service animals are extensively trained to deal with emergencies, assuring their owner’s safety in all types of crises.

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) isn’t required to be trained; they will act as any animal would in a crisis, albeit in conditions that include humans in the same danger.  The only requirement to bringing an ESA into the aircraft cabin is a note from a human physician stating that the doctor – not necessarily a mental health doctor – supports the psychological attachment of the human to the animal.

Let’s look back at the ESA that bit the little girl; the owner says something telling about the incident; he said that, “he warned the young girl not to approach his dog.”  The child may not have developed the instinct that says a dog can be dangerous; indeed, the child may own a dog, a similar dog at that.  Walking down the aisle in a narrow-body metal tube, there isn’t much room for a child to be steered away from a dog or cat.  Close proximity is a given; a child’s affectionate nature, an absolute.

There is, however, a greater problem that aviation’s common sense is ignoring: Survival Instinct.  Since no one can foresee an inflight or ground emergency on any flight, what happens when an untrained animal, such as this, is introduced into a traumatizing situation, e.g. an emergency evacuation? 

I’ve participated in Emergency Evacuation Drills.  These simulations are comprised of trained flight attendants, trained inspectors, blinding smoke obscuring which way to turn.  It’s a sobering lesson requiring seconds to escape, or ‘die’ in a controlled mockup.

Navigating through an actual smoke-filled aircraft is the definition of desperation, chaos, especially on a full aircraft.  Many passengers are crawling on the floor, those standing are pushing and shoving, all are disoriented.  Passengers are unable to see, choking on fumes.  Flight crew members are shouting orders over passengers, who are shouting names, crying or screaming.  The cabin temperature is in the triple-digits and climbing, it’s hard to breathe and one can’t open their eyes.

Now, introduce into the mayhem, Fido, the confused dog, his own Survival Instinct kicking in full throttle.  Is Fido the size of a Chihuahua or a Great Dane?  It doesn’t matter; the untrained animal loses it, confused at the turmoil going on around him.  Whether fighting for its own survival or the survival of its owner, Fido now contributes to the mayhem.  Like falling pins on a bowling lane, passengers stumble, trip over Fido.  Sensing attack, the dog bites in his desperation.  Other passengers, resembling dominoes, also start to fall over the fallen.  The escape route is blocked; people die from heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, inches from the Exit.

Do I exaggerate?  Fido isn’t a Service Animal; he isn’t trained to remain calm in stressful situations.  The ADA was aimed at Service Animals whose service to blind or deaf humans guarantees the survival of their owner, while not contributing to the injury or death of others.  What the presence of an ESA does amounts to putting the lives of many in jeopardy.  Are there legitimate ESAs?  Yes, but these require specific training to handle genuine human limitations, e.g. post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffered by military personnel exposed to combat, a legitimate condition.

It is, however, difficult to imagine an eight-year old girl, traveling with her family, possesses the emotional need of an ESA.  Furthermore, if pressed, the girl could not name or explain the condition that requires the ESA to sit on her lap through a flight; she could not answer the question: what does the emotional support animal do for you?  The reason for this is because the qualifications for an ESA amount to procuring a note from a doctor – not necessarily a mental health doctor, but, e.g. a pediatrician.  Thus, the fallacy of the ESA: that nothing more than a family pediatrician’s ‘prescription’ introduces an ‘ESA’ into an environment that can endanger a planeload full of people.  Many of the airlines are now beefing up their ESA requirements, albeit years too late, to discourage the growing numbers of ESAs being boarded.

A blind man can present proof of a Service Animal’s qualifications, training and need.  This blind man is the true intended recipient of the ADA’s benefits; he isn’t abusing the ADA; he employs it to supplement what his handicap deprives him of.  Another misapplication of a law is the Air Carrier Access Act, which further drops the restrictions of ESAs, yet increases the need for proper documentation.

An example of the lack of common sense displayed with ESAs was exhibited on January 28th when a woman tried boarding a United flight from Newark to Los Angeles with her six-foot ESA, Dexter the Peacock; United denied the boarding for obvious reasons.  In January 2016, a man boarded a Delta flight with a full-sized live turkey, which was given its own seat.  Would, in an emergency, a turkey or peacock not employ those talons if it felt threatened, its survival instinct engaged?  Other ‘ESAs’ have included full-grown pigs and Shetland ponies.  When does common sense kick in?

This is an abuse of the ADA; it was not the intention of the Act to be used so arbitrarily.  The numerous people taking advantage of the Act’s objective belittles the purpose, while trivializing the needs of those sincerely disabled.

The concerns with these abuses go further than the trivializing of Law and the safety of passengers; it has to do with the inconvenience of travelers and the unnecessary costs to airlines.  Allergies are a reality, one that could affect multiple passengers in one flight.  Untrained animals cannot control their bodily functions as well as a child who has been potty-trained.  Animal feces and urine present an unexpected problem for the airline as well as the passengers.  Maybe the little girl took her ESA dog for a walk before flight.  Very considerate, but did she or her family anticipate gate holds, unforeseen maintenance, that their airliner would be sequenced into a holding pattern or weather delays/re-routes?  All these events and more add time to a flight, with pet walking areas hours away.

Animal waste can be a bio-hazard and/or an airborne pathogen, within the airtight cabin.  The foul odors and mess aside, if not cleaned up quickly, the waste can cause corrosion on the aircraft or the transmitting of disease among the human passengers.  When an animal defecates or urinates inside a gate-held airliner, the flight could be canceled or indefinitely delayed, resulting in costly re-bookings, airline scheduling nightmares, passengers missing flights and flight re-routings.  Airlines could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in maintenance costs, pilot and flight attendant rescheduling, aircraft swaps, unexpected aircraft movements, jet fuel used, overtime for gate agents, landing fees, etc.

When businessmen miss important meetings, suddenly Fido’s doe-eyed gaze isn’t so cute.  When packages traveling on passenger airlines don’t arrive or families lose time and money on their vacation, the support for supposed ‘ESAs’ evaporates.  These disruptions are real; these disruptions have happened.  And the airline is not required to compensate for the inconvenience.

As mentioned, the airlines are finally getting in front of this situation.  They have incorporated some common sense restrictions, yet their progress could be hampered by lawyers representing ESA owners everywhere.  In an effort to appease some people, they have allowed these selfish passengers to dictate how the airline operates.  Unfortunately, these airlines may find, it may be financially too late for their own survival instinct to kick in.

2 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and Survival Instinct”

  1. I was wondering when this act was passed how long it would take for it to be abused. Unfortunately, regardless of which law or act or reg (whatever) is passed, there will always be people who push the envelope. And for everything that is pushed through Congress and the authorities, there will always be those unseen consequences which arise that weren’t thought of. If you can think about something, there’s probably somebody out there who is thinking about doing it, in the verge of doing it, or has done it. Good post.

    1. Thanks Jaime. I agree, there are always those willing and wanting to ruin a good thing, most often for selfish reasons. And there will always be those who will fight for their right to be selfish, even when it is wrong.

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