VIDEO: Emotional support or free ride? Why your flight looks more like a pet store

 

(WFLA) – The next time you board a plane, you could be sitting next to a dog, cat or maybe even a duck.

Travelers are seeing more animals on flights and majority of them could be getting a free ride under false pretenses.

Justine Franks flies everywhere with her dog, Raleigh.

“I always ask if I can have an aisle seat or if the person I’m flying next to is comfortable with the animal,” said Franks.

Franks suffers from severe anxiety and also has a peanut allergy.

She says Raleigh, an emotional support dog, serves to help both conditions.

But nowadays, stepping on an aircraft can look more like a zoo.

Cats, pigs, ducks, turkeys, and squirrels–you name it. Anyone can register their pet as an emotional support animal and fly for free.

Passengers with allergies say it’s frustrating and the pet population on planes is getting out of control.

“I approve of them being in carriers, but in someone’s arms for the entire flight without them having a seat reserved for themselves, I think that is upsetting,” said traveler Thomas Greenwood.

“When you just have them along cause you want Fluffy along with you, I disagree with that very, very strongly,” said another traveler, Peggy Hoskins.

It’s especially uncomfortable for passengers when the animals become disruptive.

Like the time a 70-pound pig would not stop squealing and defecated on the plane floor during a US Airways flight.

There was also a time when a cat got loose in the aisle.

Another passenger claiming to have a therapy monkey made it past the TSA checkpoint, but never told the airline about the animal and snuck it on in a duffel bag. The incident caused quite the stir onboard.

Emotional support animals are not the same as service animals under the American Disabilities Act.

However, emotional support animals can fly with their owners with documentation.

Suzie Wilburn, with Southeastern Guide Dogs, says fixing the problem starts with the federal government regulating websites where people sign up.

“One of the biggest problems is, if you have a pet, you can go online to some places right now and upload your pet’s photo to an ID that says it’s a service dog,” said Wilburn.

Wilburn is blind and has a service dog.

She says she gets tons of complaints about people abusing the system, just so their pets can fly free.

Wilburn has already received several calls this year from Heathrow Airport in Britain, checking the legitimacy of passengers using the company’s letterhead on signed documents to get their animal on international flights.

The letters were fake.

“I would love to just have…like you have a driver’s license, an ID that’s issued by the government. Why not have that for my dog? It would make life a lot easier. And then those that don’t have legitimate dogs wouldn’t be so eager to fake it,” said Wilburn. “Would you fake a prosthetic leg? Would you cut your leg off just to get the same benefits that an amputee gets? I know that’s extreme, but it’s the same thing.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation oversees the guidelines when it comes to service animals flying.

Last year, several airlines reached out to the DOT to ask officials to limit the number of service animals on flights.

A DOT spokesperson said an advisory committee discussed the issue and are reviewing the committee’s findings.

Signing a pet up as an emotional support animal is fairly easy and only takes a few seconds.

Pet owners can fill out a registration form on the ESA Registration of America website.

You provide your name, email address and your pet’s name, along with a photo.

Click “submit” and you’re registered.

We received this message afterward:

“Thanks for registering. You have successfully registered for the Emotional Support Animal Registration of America. We will keep you up to date with any legal changes and important handler information.”

There was no test or medical questions asked.

The site also allows users to purchase various kits, which contain badges, certificates, and vests for their animals.

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