Normally, Kim Cochrane would soon be getting on a plane to take her annual trip to Vancouver, her dog Dylan by her side.
For several years, Cochrane, a nervous flyer, has taken Air Canada flights accompanied by her dog Dylan, along with a letter from her doctor identifying him as an emotional support animal.
But this year, Cochrane was surprised and upset to learn that Air Canada has now altered its policy: as of March 1, emotional support animals are no longer allowed in airplane cabins.
Smaller dogs and cats that can fit inside a specifically sized carrier, as well as service dogs, are still accepted.
“It is helpful to have him there, it’s very calming and grounding,” said Cochrane of Dylan, who is too tall to fit in the prescribed size of carrier.
Allowing emotional support animals (ESAs) is “a necessity,” she says, adding that she hopes the airline rethinks the change.
U.S. authority updates rules
Air Canada told CBC Toronto in an email that the new policy came as a result of changes to the rules in the United States.
In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) revised its regulations and now it no longer requires airplanes to accept emotional support animals. It also affirmed that service dogs — including psychiatric service dogs — will continue to be allowed on board.
“While this decision may disappoint some, it will enhance overall customer safety and comfort and align us with major North American carriers to provide consistency,” wrote Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick of the new ESA rules.
In the same email, Fitzpatrick also wrote that Air Canada has experienced a “number of incidents involving emotional support animals, including cases where employees and other customers have been harmed.”
According to WestJet’s website, that airline still accepts emotional support dogs inside airplane cabins — an update to its previous rules, which allowed a much broader range of animals.
Similar to the U.S. DOT, the Canadian Transportation Agency requires carriers to accept service dogs, which means they are specially trained to assist passengers who have disabilities.
Service versus emotional support
Lawyer Daniel Walker says legally there’s some murkiness around the definition of emotional support animals.
“Emotional support animals really don’t have much of an enshrined status. What the law really enshrines is that individuals that have a disability, as recognized under provincial legislation … are entitled to service animals,” he said.
According to federal government documents that reference travelling with emotional support animals, an accompanying letter is required from a doctor that confirms the owner of the animal has been diagnosed with a “mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM V).”
In some cases, Walker says, these kinds of letters are being issued with “minimal engagement with medical professionals who will verify whether your need is actually meeting the threshold and the level of a disability.”
Gabor Lucaks, an air passenger rights advocate, says what’s needed is some clarity around what he describes as a “loaded topic.”
“As a general principle, any form of disability should be accommodated,” he said, pointing out that airlines have broad responsibilities to do so under the Canada Transportation Act.
A key question, he continues, is who gets to make decisions about what constitutes a legitimate need for an emotional support animal.
“I think that we should hear more from the disability community on how they propose to delineate between dubious and genuine emotional support dogs.”