If you have been on a flight recently, you will agree that airlines are working harder than ever to fly with full flights. We were reminded of that on our recent flights to California on Southwest Airlines as the flight crew continued to announce “This is a full flight, please take any available seat.” But the thing that caught our attention was the number of dogs that were on the flight. There were four in the first two rows. Flying with a pet is certainly not new as pets that are able to fit in carriers and go under the seat have been on airplanes for years. Of course service animals are allowed on flights, and it’s been easy to recognize a working service dog.
But on our flight, dogs weren’t in carriers, two weren’t even on leashes. None of them were wearing service dog vests. The biggest dog, a beautiful golden retriever, was laying in the floor of the middle seat in the first row, his owner in the window seat. The plane filled up and finally a woman came from the back of the plane to take the only empty seat, the one with the big dog at her feet. She was not happy. I wouldn’t have been either.
Let me start by saying I respect everyone’s love of pets and animals. I’m not a pet owner and after being bitten by a dog, honestly, I’m a bit skittish around them. If I had been asked to sit with a stranger’s dog between my knees for any length of time, I can imagine how I would have felt.
This was a new dilemma for me to witness on a flight. When we got off the plane, I asked the agent what were the rules regarding animals on flight. She stated that pets are required to be in a carrier, under the seat and there is a ticket price for these animals. Service animals fly with their owners for free. She went on to say, an individual can take up to six (!) animals on a flight. She was being very guarded with her comments. I told her of our experience and she carefully stated those were probably “comfort animals.” The airlines aren’t required to see any badges/vests/or doctor’s notes regarding a comfort animal. They don’t have to be in carriers.
I told her I was a bit confused. I support the need and use of a service animal, but what I was hearing her say (between the lines) was lots of the “comfort animals” are really, simply… pets. In accordance with the ADA, the airlines cannot ask to see the documentation of the animals’ job. She said that people are figuring this out and going online to get a little “kit” in case someone asks, but then bringing all sorts of animals into the cabin for free. I told her my concern about the big dog and asked if the flight attendants are trained in breaking up dog fights. I was making weak joke, but she was already ahead of me telling me about the dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, snakes, pigs, and yes, miniature horses that she had seen come onboard. I’m sure my eyebrows were in my hairline.
I was already on my next question, “What about the peanuts? If you can’t serve peanuts onboard due to a nut allergy, what about people that are allergic to these animals?” (a fur ball was starting to wad up in my throat just thinking about sharing the seat with a shedder) The agent said that animals were given the first row and people with allergies were to seek seats in the back. (Didn’t make sense to me, seems like that should be just the opposite so sneezers don’t have to walk by the critters.) The last time I sat in the front row, the agent made me store my purse in the overhead bin. It was too dangerous worn across my body and in my lap. If my purse is dangerous, what will airborne pigs be like?
For fun, I did go online to see the service animal “kit” that is available for purchase. The different websites did tout that the animals could fly free, no questions asked. So I’m paying for my luggage and sometimes my carry-on with no leniency on the weight restrictions, yet someone can bring their critter on for free?
I felt sorry for the agent when I asked her where this all would stop. She looked bewildered and said, “If your flight felt like Jungle Book, I suggest you write the airline.”
Editor's note: Most people think of this image when imagining a "comfort pet":
But, there's no current restrictions from the "comfort" pet being this: