Potential PR nightmare: how airlines choose to discriminate

Our Director of Government Relations explains how in 2018 airlines are still choosing to violate civil rights by systematically discriminating against people with mental health disabilities. He retains copyright over this article for purposes of publishing it elsewhere—in fact, this article appeared on The Mighty on July 2, 2018.

by Bradley W. Morris, MA, CPhil

Delta and United are updating their service animal policies effective March 1st. By doing so, they are drawing attention to themselves that may come back to bite the airline industry.

For years now, public confusion and sensationalized reports have shielded airlines from an organized backlash over their policies. Advocates like me hope the present spotlight will finally reveal these policies clearly and unacceptably violate people’s civil rights. Of course, history teaches us that the second step is getting others to care enough to take action.

• Is discrimination always about race?

Often, talk of discrimination and civil rights focuses on race. Most people would agree it would be wrong if airlines were to require only people of color to get documentation from their local police to verify they are okay to travel.

This situation isn’t about race, but it shares elements of that scenario where a marginalized group is despicably picked on by airlines, making travel harder for them. (Of course, folks with multiple marginalized characteristics are even more at risk.)

• What are people confused about?

It’s easier to discriminate against a class of people if there’s a cloud of confusion hanging over the discrimination. So the first step to seeing through the fog is a crash course in the background.

A service dog is trained to help their disabled person, trained for good behavior in public, and is accustomed to being in stressful, no-pets places. Those aspects generally don’t vary across service dogs, so the differences among them are in exactly how they help their person and what kind of disability their person has.

A guide dog is a service dog that helps someone who’s blind or has low vision. A psychiatric service dog is a service dog that helps someone with a mental health disability. A hearing alert dog is a service dog that helps someone who’s deaf or hard of hearing.

Quotation graphic: …whatever the disability type, a service dog is a service dog…The…public confuses highly trained psychiatric service dogs with emotional support animals…On its own, this would clarify that whatever the disability type, a service dog is a service dog. The training expectations and levels of public behavior are the same.

The confusion sets in because the public confuses highly trained psychiatric service dogs with emotional support animals (ESAs), which are also for a disability, but usually aren’t trained or used to being in stressful, no-pets places. This confusion leads to outrage that is often misdirected at all people with mental health disabilities.


• How are airlines choosing to discriminate?

Airlines segregate people with mental health disabilities for harsher treatment than people get when they have any other kind of disability type. They are presumed guilty until proven innocent, forced to obtain, provide, and carry a special doctor’s note  and to give at least 48-hour notice.

It might make more sense if airlines were instead to treat people differently based on whether they’re planning to bring a service dog vs. an untrained ESA. Quotation graphic: …people with mental health disabilities…are presumed guilty until proven innocent…this kind of discrimination has no place in a civilized society.However, by lumping together people who use psychiatric service dogs with people who use ESAs, airlines couldn’t be more clearly singling out people purely on the basis of having a mental health disability.

If you’re thinking this sounds like a policy decision from last century, advocates agree that this kind of discrimination has no place in a civilized society.

• How is this possible in this day and age?

There is some controversy as to whether this kind of outright discrimination is even legal.

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) covers flying, unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ACAA is a very short piece of legislation that simply prohibits discrimination based on disability. Presumably, it wouldn’t allow airlines to treat blind people worse than deaf people, or people with diabetes worse than people with PTSD.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is supposed to enforce this law, and part of DOT’s job is to write regulations that spell out exactly how airlines aren’t allowed to discriminate. DOT is definitely blameworthy here for articulating special exceptions in how airlines are allowed to discriminate against people with mental health disabilities.

However, DOT is technically not forcing airlines to do this. They simply allow airlines to put extra requirements in place.

What this means is that through their policies, airlines choose to systematically discriminate on the basis of disability type, making life harder specifically for passengers with mental health disabilities and actually keeping many of them from flying.Quotation graphic: There is…controversy as to whether this kind of…discrimination is even legal…DOT is definitely blameworthy…However,…airlines choose to…discriminate on the basis of disability type…

Airlines could choose not to discriminate based on disability type. If they cared to, they could have one policy for service animal users and a separate one for ESA users. That might be justified based on the different training expectations.

What does not make sense in a just society is that airlines can hide behind a screen of public confusion and outrage in order to wallop people with one type of disability.

• How could I possibly do anything?

This is a ticking public relations bomb. They are only going to stop their systematic discrimination if you, the educated reader, make them believe that bomb is about to explode.

Quotation graphic: There's a simple message you can pass along…Today, you can be the ounce of prevention so we're not pounded trying to produce a cure tomorrow.There’s a simple message you can pass along: Stop systematically discriminating against people with mental health disabilities with your outdated service animal policies.

Copy that sentence and the link to this article. Then shoot off a message to Delta, to United, and to any other airline you think should stop this. Call the airline trade group Airlines for America (202-626-4000). Let your friends and family (and Facebook!) know this kind of thing has been going on under their noses.

With a few minutes of action, you are the PR nightmare that can change this.

Most importantly, though, send that message to DOT (politely write to Blane Workie at blane.workie@dot.gov). They’ve been telling outraged advocates for years they would revisit the regulations. Even though that regulatory update may actually happen soon, they’ve given no signal they plan to stop the discrimination. It looks like they’re actually considering increasing the barriers!

Many advocates in this area—like me—are disabled volunteers with extremely low-budget nonprofits. If we can’t get enough support to change things, we have to try to sue DOT for violating the ACAA, but that would be incredibly hard on our health and fundraising abilities.

Today, you can be the ounce of prevention so we’re not pounded trying to produce a cure tomorrow.