On January 3, 2021, Representative Emanuel Cleaver (Missouri) concluded the Congressional opening prayer by saying “A-men and A-women.” Why would a former minister feel it necessary to apply gender to Amen, which translated from Hebrew and Greek means ‘So be it’, Verily or Truly. Ignorance like this reflected Georgia Representative Hank Johnson’s oblivious remark; he oversaw technology regulation and feared that Marine troops on Guam would “become so overly populated that it [Guam] will tip over and capsize.” Some may say, “Oh, that’s just Hank” or “That’s just Emanuel,” but this is not funny. These elected officials decide on budgets for Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation, vital government committees that need serious-minded officials. These legislators represent the ignorance we too quickly overlook.
Realizing ignorance of the lawmaking process at the highest levels exists, how secure is the flying public that the same ignorance is absent when deciding aviation safety measures or policies, that our elected officials are not displaying safety ignorance? I recently flew from the northeast, at 6:00 AM eastern; twelve dogs of all types and sizes populated the gate waiting areas. No service dogs helping blind or physically disabled persons anywhere. No service animal harnesses, only leashes. This terminal demonstrated a growing trivialization of a just law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.
I see dogs and cats all the time in the hardware store. I do not know why a pet is needed for choosing plumbing fixtures, but then hardware store pets do not threaten my safety. Bring a chihuahua into a restaurant? That would not be cool; that … is a public health issue. Bringing pets – or what many call an emotional support animal (ESA) – on a plane? That is a public safety issue. We see flight attendants review emergency procedures before flight. Why? Because safety instructions are crucial for humans to survive a crisis. Are ESAs trained for disaster? Is their instinct for self-survival ever considered?
In the 50s, Lassie always managed to relay to the Martins, through barks and whimpers, that Timmy was in danger again. Could that brave Collie have led Timmy through a smoke-filled plane to the emergency exits? Not likely. Why? Lassie was not trained to deal with emergencies; she would not know an escape slide from a bowl of Alpo. Instead, Lassie would, with her incessant barking, cause the injury (and probable death) to Timmy, most of the passengers and the flight crew.
Has anyone ever questioned why ESAs are given unrestricted access to airplane cabins? It started with the ADA; many legitimately disabled persons’ needs had been dismissed, those with physical or mental disabilities. The ADA, being signed into law, was a good thing. However, like all good things, there are those who would exploit matters for their own selfish ends, despite the safety threat to others.
How do people, with no concept of aviation safety, write the rules that put us at risk? How do the ESA owners get diagnosed with mental and/or emotional disabilities? The usserviceanimals.org website makes registering an ESA simple; “A doctor in our network may be able to prescribe an emotional support animal with just one phone call.” In one phone call?! Is that a MEDICAL doctor? In the next bullet the line changes to, “… mental health professional [MHP] who approves you [the customer].” The website changes direction from a ‘doctor’ – type unknown – to a ‘mental health professional’, which could be anyone in the mental health field. If it was a qualified MHP, wouldn’t the website say how qualified?
Are these real doctors who are diagnosing the mentally or emotionally disabled … with a phone call? How? How do MHPs diagnose mental or emotional disabilities over the phone? Diagnoses are being made by questionable MHPs, who then fill our aircraft with safety hazards. Would an ESA owner’s mental or emotional disability diagnosis follow them through life? A blind person cannot drive a car; can mentally or emotionally disabled people drive cars or own guns? Maybe Homeland Security should track these emotionally or mentally disabled persons, require them to undergo enhanced security checks. Why? Did we all forget Germanwings 9525’s and Egypt Air 990’s first officers? Are unqualified people making aviation safety decisions, putting us at risk? Do airlines check these ‘doctor’ qualifications? Per the website, the applicant must, “… have a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition” … to travel with an ESA. Are some ESAs trained as attack dogs; are they weapons? What training does an ESA undergo to become a real service animal? How rigorous is the service animal’s training? These are valid safety questions.
Was the ADA hijacked? There are real disabled people who deserve the ADA’s benefits; serious people with real handicaps, e.g., the blind, the deaf or heroic soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. What challenges have ESA owners been forced, by chance or birth, to overcome? Are these ESA-reliant folks putting their needs above others? The truly disabled depend on this sensible ADA law’s benefits; the ADA was secured by those who truly earned the right; it recognized deserving disabled’s challenges to their independence, their justifications to freedoms in our society. Anyone who pretends to have disabilities corrupts the ADA. These ESAs present safety problems that endanger us all.
It is to wonder that the flying public accepts the presence of numerous untrained ESAs on countless flights every day – without question. Why? Because we trust our legislators – even ignorant ones – to ‘do the right thing’ for the people? Legislators should have given all safety hazards their full attention by vetting the safety risks. Legislators should have had qualified professionals analyze the aviation safety risks, then, employed this data to protect the flying public from all safety threats. Instead, to evaluate the ESA risks, the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) created the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). This law contained guidelines to approve – not even question – persons to carry ESAs onboard commercial flights. Was the ACAA a legitimate answer or was it just another promise that Guam would not capsize?
In September 2019, (per the USDOT website) the ACAA Advisory Committee (AC) was formed, a group of professionals, some even with aviation ties. The AC counseled the aviation community on who is a disabled person and how their care animal should be treated on a commercial flight. Data analysis and emergency evacuations were not factors to the AC; they did not promote aviation safety.
There were nineteen AC members. Representing the airlines were an International Air Transport Association (IATA) lawyer; a General Counsel for Airlines for America – another lawyer; a Vice President, Airport and Government Affairs; and a Corporate Compliance Disability Program Manager, whatever that is. The nineteen AC members had no operations experience, no one qualified who could – or would – speak to the safety risks of introducing numerous untrained animals into the chaos of an air crash emergency situation. There were no experienced commercial pilots, no experienced flight attendants, not one Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Principal Operations Inspector (POI). A pilot, a flight attendant or FAA POI would know firsthand the dangers incurred during an aircraft emergency; they are professionals who are responsible for an airlines’ evacuation procedures, the safety of thousands.
The AC, however, had lawyers.
During two airline accidents, Delta 1086 and British Airways 2276, passengers stopped to grab their luggage and laptops in the middle of a post-crash evacuation. These people intentionally defied the evacuation procedures, blocked the aisles and endangered passengers’ lives … for laptops. Would an emotionally-challenged pet owner be just as irresponsible? Would an ESA logjam an aisle? Would an owner try forcing a pet carrier through a narrow CRJ overwing exit; let the pet free to dart between passenger’s legs or trip them with a leash? Could dogs barking drown out the flight attendant’s instructions? All this confusion in a cabin thick with acrid smoke, blinding and choking everyone; where each second means life or death. We are talking about ESA owners diagnosed as being mentally and/or emotionally disabled.
What requirements must airlines fulfill in determining if an ESA is a legitimate service animal, other than, you know, trusting the ‘reliable’ resources of the US Service Animals website’s MHPs? Per the USDOT website, the airline can trust, “the credible verbal assurance of an individual with a disability using the animal.” THIS is safety ignorance; an airline, responsible for thousands of passengers’ safety, trusting an eight-year-old child with an emotional disability. But it gets better; the airline representative can assure an ESA is a service animal by, “looking for physical indicators such as the presence of a harness or tags.” Out of the three airports I flew through that day, only two ESA dogs, out of dozens, had a harness or tag that said, ‘Service Animal’. The rest were on exercise leashes; one Pekingese was even in a baby carriage. What do the airlines do to assure the ESAs are legitimate service animals? Who knows? In fairness, they are probably not allowed to do anything. The growing number of ESAs mean safety events will happen. There will be human fatalities. It is not a matter of if, but of when.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) must conduct joint studies into the risks these ESAs pose to passenger safety. The FAA and the NTSB have the best resources to do the analytical leg work, like the FAA test beds in Atlantic City and Oklahoma City, where controlled testing provides qualified data. The FAA and the NTSB should then develop guidelines; FAA Doctors should decide whether these MHPs are capable of making diagnoses. ESA owners should have their ESAs properly trained for emergency situations or revoke their ESA status. Finally, the FAA and the NTSB should present these findings to the US Congress to have them look at the facts and act accordingly.
The US Congress wrote the ADA with its ambiguities, they should correct the ADA’s inconsistencies. Truly disabled individuals deserve to have their handicaps recognized for the hardships they are, not to be grouped with those who claim a right they do not deserve. And when the ADA is corrected to be what the ADA was meant to be, we, the traveling public, can all say, “AMEN.”