Travel blogger Alyssa Ramos, 27, is preparing for a holiday trip to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and she has her system down. In addition to one wheelie, she has a carrying bag for her 7-pound Pomeranian — Oscar de la Ramos — and a knapsack filled with toys and treats to keep his ears from popping. Unlike other dogs that are only allowed to travel zipped in bags and stowed under a seat, Oscar is Ramos’ emotional support animal, which allows him to cuddle with her during takeoff.
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Ramos is among the growing number of travelers who have had pets — dogs, pigs and even miniature horses — deemed “necessary” to their emotional well-being, a classification that falls under the Air Carrier Access Act. Originally meant for those who could barely function without the support of an animal, it is now broadly used by people who enjoy the comfort of their pets.
“A guy had a miniature horse, which didn’t fit comfortably in the back, so he was put in first class,” says Eric Lipp, executive director of Open Doors Organization, an advocacy group for people traveling with disabilities. “The airline made the horse wear these little shoes so it didn’t scuff the plane, but it pooped all over and the other first-class travelers weren’t happy.”
Travelers with actual disabilities and those who feel inconvenienced by the voyaging creatures seated among plane passengers are increasingly angry that the system is being gamed and that doctors’ letters can be purchased on the Internet.
“The people who really need support animals despise people who fake it,’’ says Lipp. “I call it ‘the Paris Hilton effect,’ where people want to take their cute little dogs everywhere.”
Some pet owners feel that high prices and a stressful travel environment justify bending the rules a bit.
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“I first applied for support papers online to avoid the airline pet fee,” Ramos, who lives in Los Angeles, admits. “But I had just gotten into a motorcycle accident and had emotional stress, so my regular doctor wound up writing me a letter.”
For a pet to be classified as an emotional support animal, an owner needs a note from a licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker. Entrepreneurial types have caught on to the business opportunity of providing such notes; countless sites now provide emotional support vests and necessary letters for fees ranging from $59 to $200. Airlines are usually very compliant, because fines for refusing legitimate support animals can run as high as $150,000.
“The more people are learning about this, the more they are trying to take advantage of the system. We are helping the ones we think need it,’’ says Steven Laroid, 27, who lives in Midtown and founded the Web site animalcompanions.org.
His site has seven licensed psychologists who evaluate applicants via Skype and, for $179, provide letters for those they deem in need of support animals. Laroid says he gets about 200 requests per month, an increase of 25 percent since he founded the site in 2013, and that doctors approve about 45 percent of requests.
Behavioral psychologist Dr. Steve Josephson is all for emotional support animals: “This is a safe, side-effect free way to get people to overcome their anxiety.’’
But the wildlife can get wild. Last December, a woman had to deplane a US Airways flight when her potbellied pig became disruptive.
man once insisted that his emotional support monkey needed an emotional support bird,’’ says Lipp. “We have seen multiple people want bunny rabbits. One woman said she needed five of them, and the airline finally let her keep one in the cabin and waived the fee for the others, but made them ride in cargo.”
Before arachnids and reptiles were outlawed as emotional support animals in 2008, Lipp says, “We had a woman who had an emotional support tarantula, and I actually believed her. She had a lot of anxiety over takeoffs and landings, and tarantulas require a lot of focus, which took her mind off the problem, but it terrified passengers."
Jason Clampet, co-founder of the travel site Skift, says pretending to be emotionally disabled is selfish. “This is a work-around for people who are self-centered and don’t want to pay a fee and are willing to lie.’’
Travel site Inspired Citizen’s founder Anthony Berklich believes that travelers who bend the rules a bit feel justified.
“[Emotional Service Animals] are a wonderful service that airlines allow,” he says, “and consumers who are being nickeled- and-dimed for every little thing don’t feel badly about getting through the system.”