Wall Street Journal has questions about flight laws, PSDP has answers


When Wall Street Journal columnist Scott McCartney set out to write a story on the much-anticipated update to the USDOT’s laws on service animal flight access, he interviewed Brad Morris of the nonprofit Psychiatric Service Dog Partners (PSDP). Most of that interview was not quoted, but fed into the background of a broader story.

Now the full interview is available as the inside scoop on a leading peer-based service dog group’s perspective on what needs to change with these US laws. The questions are Mr. McCartney’s and the answers are from Mr. Morris, serving as the Director of Government Relations on behalf of PSDP. This interview also sheds light on why a formal stakeholder committee failed to reach consensus on recommended updates, and how the failure of that USDOT committee led to the watershed work of USAUSA (United Service Animal Users, Supporters, and Advocates).

1. How does the fraudulent use of service or support animal status on airlines impact those with legitimate needs? Why do the current DOT regulations need revision?

As background, I’ll first compare and contrast service and support animals.

There is a significant difference between service and support animals, and that difference is training. The use of either requires—by definition—that the person has a life-limiting disability.

Service animals tend to undergo a great deal of purpose-driven training so they can reliably help their person through recognition and response, without getting overly stressed and becoming sick or aggressive. Generally, ESAs don’t have the same public access rights and don’t have the same kind of training—either for work or tasks to help the person, or to behave reliably in no-pets places. These factors have led us to recommend that ESAs be transported in pet carriers at the airport and in the cabin, with the exception that they may be placed on one’s lap during the flight for disability mitigation.

On to your questions…
While fraud is a frustrating and morally kneejerking concern, we believe ignorance is the larger source of problems. Many people do not understand either: (1) that having a service animal or ESA requires the person to have a life-limiting disability, or especially (2) that DOT expects service animals and ESAs to be reliably trained to be safe and behave in the stressful environments associated with air travel. This sort of training requires many months or years of purpose-driven effort. Without it, animals may easily lack the psychological shock-absorbers needed for the unpredictable situations they’ll encounter.

The current DOT regulations need revision primarily because they discriminate by putting extra burdens on folks with psychiatric disabilities, and secondarily because they have resulted in a safety concern. The current burdens on those with psychiatric disabilities fail in their mission: instead of preventing fraud, they provide it a conduit while hardly pressing against ignorance.

Widespread ignorance of the laws and expectations leads to unsafe situations for some service animal users. They are too often forced to come into contact with inadequately trained and over-stressed animals whose owners exercise insufficient control. Most people don’t understand that one attack from a fellow passenger’s wayward canine can exact a service dog’s early retirement. This flips the world upside-down for someone who relies on a service dog for their everyday independence.

2. Is the problem increasing? All because more people are finding it easier to avoid airline fees and restrictions on cabin pet carriers?

Both fraud and ignorance-based issues around animals in air travel have been on the rise in the last decade, as more people learn about the access some have with disability-mitigating animals. This rise is an expected parallel of the rise in awareness of animals as potential partners to help with people’s disabilities.

There will always be a baseline rate of fraud, as there will always be those without scruples. The key is to find a practical method to reduce the fraud, forestall the ignorance, and especially avoid unduly burdening people with disabilities. The whole point of the Air Carrier Access Act is to ensure equal access for people with disabilities, but the current regulations have gone astray in a witch hunt that tends only to drown the innocent.

3. The USAUSA document lays out areas of agreement from many groups. But on what issues could the ACCESS committee not find compromise? Why did the process not result in some sort of recommendations?

The ACCESS committee actually agreed on quite a bit, and USAUSA tried to capture this with our follow-up report. In my view, the main issue stopping us at the end emanated from the airlines’ surprise that the advocates were against the medical model of disability. I think most committee members (myself included) lacked sufficient insight into the others’ perspectives. This insight might have been gained through more open, informal communication from the outset.

About the medical model of disability…
Independent of our proceedings, the head of the US Access Board publicly stated that the most important aspect of the Air Carrier Access Act was getting us away from the medical model of disability, wherein people with disabilities are seen primarily as patients, rather than as fellow self-empowered humans who deserve respect. Most disability rights legislation in our country is implemented in regulations by treating these as civil rights, rather than by creating second-class citizens.

The medical model of disability, when enshrined in law, results in such things as people with disabilities having to go through a medical worker to obtain a letter stating they are worthy to fly with their disability-mitigating devices. This has proven to be ineffective in achieving its goal of fraud prevention, while being humiliating, costly, and even insurmountable for 11% of people with disabilities. The medical model has been a lose-lose proposition, but “common sense” can persuade non-experts to push for this kind of approach.


4. As I understand the recommended Decision Tree (at least on first reading), the fundamental idea is to dissuade fraudsters with a multi-step process instead of an easier click (at least the first time since you ask for information to be stored with each airline), and statements warning fraudsters of penalties. There’s acknowledgement that this would increase the burden on people who are following the rules, but that’s an acceptable tradeoff for a reduction in fraud. Is that correct? Is there any evidence that a Decision Tree would reduce fraud?

The Decision Tree is intended not only to use standard practices to reduce fraud, but to address the more treatable problems resulting from ignorance. Replacing today’s system with the Decision Tree is an enormous *reduction* of cost and effort for those with psychiatric disabilities, who currently must spend an average of $157, a 5-hour trip, and a 31-day wait to obtain a letter to fly.


The Decision Tree is a slight increase in initial effort for those with non-psychiatric disabilities, but the disability rights community is united for equal treatment regardless of disability type. Through many conversations, we’ve found that most service dog users are willing to spend a few extra minutes when they buy their tickets answering questions like they’re accustomed to answering from employees in stores, if it results in equal treatment and increases their dogs’ safety when they fly.

5. What would your group like to see DOT put forward in an NPRM?

Psychiatric Service Dog Partners would love to see DOT put forward an NPRM that duly prioritizes safety, disability rights, and the practicalities of the air travel industry. PSDP believes these priorities are respected and manifest in the USAUSA public proposal.


6. What else should I know about this issue?

Just to clarify relationships among groups, I’m writing here on behalf of Psychiatric Service Dog Partners (PSDP). Through PSDP, I am one of the leaders of the loose association we’ve deemed “United Service Animal Users, Supporters, and Advocates” (USAUSA). My leadership partner for that group is Jenine Stanley, Consumer Relations Coordinator for the Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs, and a former head of Guide Dog Users, Inc.