Delta draws the line on emotional-support peacocks, wild boars, and spiders (but not koalas)

Photo: Snakes on a Plane

Delta Air Lines is requiring new documentation if you want to bring an animal on board a flight. This is contentious, because people love their animals, but passengers often stretch the “emotional-support animal” idea well beyond what’s reasonable. While I endorse their bold, clear statement, their list of banned animals is capricious and weird.

You may have read about how United Airlines recently turned back a passenger with an emotional support peacock. Weeks earlier, in response to complaints from passengers and flight attendants, Delta had announced it was changing its policy. Here’s how Delta’s statement starts:

Delta introduces enhanced requirements for customers traveling with service or support animals effective March 1

Delta Air Lines is taking steps to further protect its customers, employees and service and support animals by implementing advance documentation requirements for those animals. This comes as a result of a lack of regulation that has led to serious safety risks involving untrained animals in flight. The new requirements support Delta’s top priority of ensuring safety for its customers, employees and trained service and support animals, while supporting the rights of customers with legitimate needs, such as disabled veterans, to travel with trained animals.

Most controversial policy announcements begin by waffling; this one doesn’t. The title could be better — the vague description “enhanced requirements” would be more accurate as “new documentation” — but the lede is solid. It explains what is changing and why.

The statement effectively lays out the reasoning with a clear and substantive executive quote, which is a rarity in corporate communications:

The rise in serious incidents involving animals in flight leads us to believe that the lack of regulation in both health and training screening for these animals is creating unsafe conditions across U.S. air travel,” said John Laughter, Delta’s Senior Vice President — Corporate Safety, Security and Compliance. “As a leader in safety, we worked with our Advisory Board on Disability to find a solution that supports those customers with a legitimate need for these animals, while prioritizing a safe and consistent travel experience.”

In developing the updated requirements, Delta solicited the feedback and input of its 15-member Advisory Board on Disability, a group of disability advocates established more than a decade ago and composed of diverse Delta frequent flyers with a range of disabilities.

Delta goes on to explain how it will now require certifications for trained animals (like a guide dog for a blind person) and letters from mental health professionals for emotional support animals. The intent is to make you prove your animal is a legitimate need.

As with so many issues in air travel, this issue pits passengers against one another in an increasingly crowded cabin. The poor flight crews are put in the position of adjudicating disputes over legroom, armrests, and passengers changing diapers on the tray tables. With this policy, flight crews now have a clear policy to enforce: they just ask for the documentation.

Delta’s bizarre list of offensive animals

While flying, the only non-human animals I’ve ever seen are cats and dogs (no peacocks yet). Many of these were yorkies and beagles, clearly pets that people had put little vests on just because they felt more comfortable traveling with them in the cabin than in the hold. I also once traveled in the bulkhead seat next to a passenger with a very well-behaved golden retriever, but since I had paid Delta extra for a seat with more legroom, space which the dog was now occupying, I asked for and got a refund.

Delta’s site includes this revealing passage listing what animals are banned:

We do not permit the following as trained service or support animals, as these animals pose safety and/or public health concerns. If you have additional questions, please contact the accessibility assistance line at 404-209-3434.

  • Hedgehogs
  • Ferrets
  • Insects
  • Rodents
  • Snakes
  • Spiders
  • Sugar gliders
  • Reptiles
  • Amphibians
  • Goats
  • Non-household birds (farm poultry, waterfowl, game bird, & birds of prey)
  • Animals improperly cleaned and/or with a foul odor
  • Animals with tusks, horns or hooves

I would love to hear the stories behind the emotional-support porcupines, tarantulas, sugar gliders, goats, and falcons that generated this list. Why are goats here but not cows or water buffalo? Why are snakes on a plane specifically prohibited when the ban on reptiles would already cover them? Would a chimp in a diaper be allowed? What about koalas, which look cuddly but are reportedly ill-tempered and disgusting? According to this list, weasels would be permitted while ferrets are not, which is a travesty.

What’s the strangest animal or animal behavior you’ve ever seen on a plane? And would this ban cover it?

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  1. For that matter, why not infants, which can be as foul-smelling as they come. (Believe me – I know. I’ve had four).

  2. Interesting conundrum for Delta. The need to provide for people with disabilities is a no-brainer, so guide dogs should be welcome. Ditto anyone wishing to take their small dog or their cat providing it’s properly housed in a container approved for that purpose. Beyond that, I’m struggling to understand what purpose an emotional-support animal might serve. Is this in case my young child can’t bear to leave their pet hamster at home while travelling, so it’s okay to bring it on a plane? If so, what happened to leaving it in the care of a friend or relative? Surely, flying is bad enough without having to share the cabin with a menagerie?

  3. Interesting that you should comment on that because I just finished tweeting a message to Delta about their new rule. I used to handle communications for a national organization that trains mobility dogs for people who are blind or visually impaired, and I continue to write for similar nonprofits. This is a very big issue.

    My message to Delta asked them to reconsider their new requirement. Someone who is blind would have to download (not all people who are blind HAVE computers) a PDF form (not all have use for paper printers) that needs to be filled out by hand (hard to do if you can’t see the form). At least, they should have an accessible online form for people with computers, and friendly operators to assist those who don’t. I was polite and sincerely trying to be helpful, and they sent me a warm thank you for my suggestion.

    People with disabilities who use animals that are specifically trained to assist them (mobility guides, alert animals for people with hearing impairments, seizures, or sudden drops in blood sugar…) are really hampered by our current system. The animals used are usually dogs, although I’ve heard of other animals (including guide ponies…) I once had to do an irritating interview on the radio because someone had taken a “support pig” on a plane (“WHOA, a PIG! Can you BELIEVE THAT?)… There is no federal system that certifies an animal as trained. It’s an honor system, unfortunately. The concept of emotional support animals having accessibility in public spaces is a controversial topic for many who use trained service animals for disabilities.

    There are around 15 nonprofit schools that train dogs as guides for the blind in America. It’s expensive to do so, and they are offered free of charge. The dogs are not trained for protection — they need to be friendly, but not solicitous around people and other animals. The privileges afforded in the Americans with Disabilities Act are revoked if the animal is unkempt and out of control.

    Unfortunately, people with pet dogs often just see them as dogs and allow their own dogs to “come and say hi” — which means the mobility dog has to stop working, get distracted, and often get attacked — especially by dogs that are off leash. I’ve heard of big labs and shepherds that have had to be retired from service because they were traumatized after being jumped by several small pets. It’s not the size — I’m sure you know people who cradle and spoil their little aggressive dogs, and insist their dogs are “just being friendly” because that’s how they are at home.

    While they’re in harness they’re working and should never be touched, pulled or fed by strangers, because that might distract them, weaken or damage their training, cause them to get sick, or cause them to relieve themselves off schedule. Think about it: The person feeds them on a schedule so they will relieve themselves on a schedule — not on the bus ride home. If a working animal gets sick because someone snuck them cake under the table, that might mean the person who is blind has to pay for a visit to the vet they can’t afford, miss work they can’t afford to miss, and be without their means of mobility. One person told me someone snuck their dog a piece of hotdog, and the dog stopped and threw up while they were in the middle of a busy crosswalk.

    People using legitimate service animals are routinely passed up by taxi and ride sharing drivers, and are often told to get out of restaurants. Some of this is due to a lack of education about the ADA and health codes.

    Despite all that, perfectly healthy entitled people think it’s fun to pass their pets off as service animals or emotional support animals. There’s a whole internet industry creating fake patches and things that look like harnesses. People steal handicap placards, too. How low do you have to be to fake a serious disability?

    These Delta forms will be used by people who lie, too, because there’s no federal registry for people with disabilities. There is no federal registry for service animals because that would mean people with disabilities would have to carry papers at all times. Microchipping has been discussed, but there is no conformity in scanners, even if businesses had scanners.

    On a lighter note, a guy I know used to tell stories about air travel with his golden retriever guide dog. The dog was beautiful and he knew it got lots of attention, so when he heard people commenting, he’d kneel down next to the dog and draw a number on the palm of his hand and say, “Now, I want you to take me to gate 6, Fantom. Find gate 6!” and then they’d take off at a clip, the crowds parting before them and people following behind. He traveled often, and knew his way around the airport, so he knew how to direct the dog, but he loved the ruse. He also used to say just under his breath, “Now, don’t bite. Don’t bite. Don’t bite.” His stories always got a laugh, but he wasn’t making MY job any easier…

    Personally, I expect this issue to go away when technology advances further. But that’s a discussion for a different blog post…