Airline management can be particularly challenging because managers have to find a balance between customer satisfaction, safety, and regulatory compliance. Traveling with pets is growing more and more popular, as people found that they can enjoy new destinations or visit their loved ones without leaving their pets at home or a pet hotel. However, some types of pets may cause disruptions on board, which is why airlines often impose restrictions on pet species, breeds, or sizes. To continue traveling with pets, people label them as emotional support animals, which enables them to keep their pets with them on board a flight.
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The opportunity to take an ESA on board is protected by various transportation regulations, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. Consequently, many airlines have been struggling with accommodating passengers and their ESAs, resulting in service disruptions, delays, and compensations. The present paper will focus on exploring the issues associated with taking ESAs on flights. The background section will explore policies on traveling with animals, whereas the main section will examine possible problems in detail. The paper will also review the ways in which some airlines have attempted to address the problem and recommend how the learning organization management theory could be applied to design potential solutions.
Policies on Traveling with Pets
Most airlines have specific policies in place to allow customers to travel with their pets. These regulations are designed in a way that ensures the safety of the customer, their pets, and other customers on the flight. For example, in many, U.S. airlines, pets in carriers that can fit into the seat in front of the customer’s can travel in the airplane cabin for free as carry-on luggage (Karp, 2018). Larger pets and those that weigh over 20 pounds, however, usually have to ride in the cargo (Karp, 2018).
These restrictions help to protect the comfort of other passengers. In addition, many carriers also have rules in place regarding allowed animal species and breeds. For instance, some cat and dog breeds are prone to having health problems while flying, so these are often restricted from air travel (Karp, 2018). These breeds often include pugs, bulldogs, Persian cats, and some others since pets of these breeds may experience breathing problems. Many carriers also ban exotic pets from travel, which may include birds, snakes, reptiles, and more.
Even for pets who meet all the requirements, there are additional costs. As explained by Karp (2018), “several of the biggest domestic airlines charge $125 each way for an in-cabin pet [and] flying a pet as cargo often costs more; for example, you’ll pay $200 each way on American Airlines when pets are checked as luggage” (para. 9). In other airlines, the fee for transporting a pet as cargo may be determined based on their size and weight (Karp, 2018).
For budget travelers, these fees are rather high, which may cause them to consider other options. Furthermore, pet policies typically require pets to have all the necessary vaccinations and veterinary certificates, which requires owners to pay significant fees for vet visits. Therefore, it can be said that regulations regarding air travel with pets are rather strict, and many owners cannot take their pets with them because they do not fit all the requirements.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals are animals that provide their owners with psychological comfort and relief. Animals proved to have a positive influence on the symptoms of people living with various mental and physical disorders, including depression, anxiety, panic attack disorder, and chronic stress (Kogan et al., 2016). As a result, a specific class of animals – emotional support animals – was introduced into the U.S. legislation. According to Younggren, Boisvert, and Boness (2016), to classify as an ESA, animals require no specific training and certification. Mental health provider letters are usually used to confirm a person’s need for an ESA. Younggren et al. (2016) state that, “such a letter would claim that because a patient is psychologically disabled, and cannot be without the stability that comes from the presence of the animal, he or she should be allowed to take their pets into otherwise restricted areas” (p. 257). This creates opportunities for people willing to travel with their pets.
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Because ESAs are not classified as pets under the law, but they can be pets de-facto, obtaining a letter allowing for an ESA often enables people to take their pets with them wherever they go. For example, housing prohibiting pets must allow ESAs without any damage deposit, since it is viewed as a “reasonable accommodation” under the Fair Housing Act (Younggren et al., 2016). In a similar manner, ESAs have to be allowed on public transportation to assist persons with their psychological comfort needs while on the road. Furthermore, when it comes to airline transportation, ESAs are allowed on board free of charge (Street, 2019).
The exceptions made for ESAs motivate people to register their pets as service animals, which creates multiple problems for businesses, including restaurants, entertainment facilities, educational institutions, and transportation companies.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act are the two primary pieces of legislation that apply to ESAs traveling by airplane. First and foremost, the ADA provides various types of legal protection to individuals with disabilities. This legislation aims to ensure that people with disabilities can enjoy the same level of access to public facilities as those with no limitations (“Transportation,” 2017).
Equal access to transportation is among the core premises of the ADA, as people with disabilities may struggle to use buses, trains, and air transportation (“Transportation,” 2017). Because physical and mental disorders can be classified as a disability, air carriers are required by law to accommodate the needs of people with various psychological conditions, including those requiring the use of an ESA. Failure to do so may result in legal action, leading to financial and reputational damage for the company.
The ACCA is a law that deals with service animals specifically. Under this act, ESAs are recognized as service animals, and airline carriers are required to let these animals on board (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2018).
Most types of animals are allowed in the cabin, excluding those who are too large and heavy, pose a direct threat to the health and safety of other passengers, cause a significant disruption of service, or, in case of international travel, are prohibited from import into the destination country (U.S. DoT, 2018). The U.S. Department of Transportation (2018) also notes that “airlines are never required to accept snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, and spiders” (para. 2). In order to carry an ESA on board, customers usually need to prove that it is a service animal. Airlines can determine this fact based on “credible verbal assurances,” visual indicators, including tags or a harness, documentation from mental health care providers, and observations (U.S. DoT, 2018).
Mental care provider letters should be issued by licensed care professionals and prove either the person’s need for an ESA during air travel or the presence of a mental or emotional disability requiring the help of an ESA (U.S. DoT, 2018). If such a letter is provided, and the animal behaves appropriately, airlines can do little to prevent the animal from boarding (U.S. DoT, 2018). These regulations are somewhat loose, and they may allow people for whom an ESA is not a requirement to carry it with them in the cabin.
Problems Caused by ESAs
The presence of ESAs on board an airplane can lead to a number of issues both for the service crew and for other passengers. Some animals can also pose a risk to the safety of the people on board, mainly if they are not used to flying or behave erratically. Still, responding to the problem appropriately by removing the passenger and their ESA could cause the airline to face legal action and issue compensation. The most common issues that airlines and their passengers have to face with respect to ESAs are discomfort, allergies, poor hygiene, injuries, flight delays, and financial losses.
First of all, it is essential to acknowledge that not all people are comfortable with having animals next to them in a constricted space. Animals registered as ESAs vary in terms of species, sizes, and behavior. For instance, pigs, squirrels, peacocks, snakes, and even spiders can be registered as ESAs (Castro & LePard, 2018; Peterson, 2019). Modern airplanes typically carry over one hundred people on board, and it is highly likely that at least several of them will not be comfortable in the presence of an animal. People may dislike animals altogether or fear a particular type of animal. For instance, arachnophobia and ophidiophobia are among the most common phobias in adults. Being in the presence of a spider or a snake can cause people with these phobias to have a panic attack or spend an entire flight in extreme discomfort.
Moreover, many types of animals can cause discomfort because of their behavior. Dogs that are too friendly and intrusive may cause people to feel like their private space is being invaded, whereas birds are often unpredictable in their behavior, which causes fear. Animals can also make a lot of noise, which is particularly unwelcome during long or night flights. Disturbing noises can become a source of discomfort for passengers who are trying to relax or to sleep while on the plane. As a result, flight attendants may be forced to deal with a lot of complaints, which could distract them from their duties and disrupt the regular service. Airlines can also face complaints from passengers or lose customers to their competitors with stricter policies regarding ESAs.
Another critical point of concern for many passengers and airlines is allergies. Allergic reactions to various types of animals are relatively common, with many people being allergic to cats, dogs, horses, and even birds. Allergic reactions can produce multiple symptoms, including nasal congestion, itchiness, and skin rashes. Furthermore, severe allergic reactions can lead to anaphylaxis, which requires immediate medical aid to avoid death. Passengers encountering allergic reactions may thus need the assistance of the flight crew, which can contribute to service disruptions (Street, 2019). This makes allergies a vital point of concern for airlines, which are responsible for ensuring their passengers’ safety while onboard.
Avoiding allergic reactions to ESAs is rather challenging. According to Street (2019), the primary recommendation, in this case, is to relocate the passenger to a different seat. However, on busy flights, this is often not an option. In addition, animals who often elicit allergic reactions, such as cats and dogs, may cause symptoms in a number of passengers, causing them all to need to be relocated. This presents challenges both for passengers and for flight attendants.
In case of severe allergic reactions, passengers may be asked to leave the flight and board the next available one (Street, 2019). This option is undesirable because it may result in financial compensation and cause customer dissatisfaction, thus impacting their loyalty and the airline’s reputation. It is also critical to point out that some customers may not be available about their allergies. For example, if an ESA traveling in the cabin is an exotic animal that the passenger has not encountered before, they may develop a sudden, severe reaction and even die from anaphylaxis if epinephrine is not available onboard. Hence, allergies pose a threat not only to customers’ experience with their airline but also to their life and health.
Hygiene is also a significant concern when it comes to animals traveling in the cabin. Many people who travel with ESAs lack the necessary hygiene tools to keep their pets and the space around them clean and hygienic. While dogs and cats are usually eliminated in specific places and their bathroom routines can be arranged for, more exotic animals could urinate or defecate in the cabin next to other passengers.
Street (2019) reports that “Malis spotlights incidents of emotional support animals defecating and urinating on board” (para. 45). Additionally, many animals that are registered as ESAs are not used to flying, which can cause them to become anxious and defecate or urinate unexpectedly. Poor cabin hygiene could lead to aggravation of allergies, infectious diseases, and other undesirable consequences, thus leaving passengers’ health and wellbeing at risk.
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Animals traveling in the cabin also create a risk of injury for passengers, crew members, and other animals on board the aircraft. On the one hand, some breeds and species of animals who are registered as ESAs can be aggressive. Stockman (2019) states that aggressive animals pose a threat to passengers and can cause severe injury. In one of the recent cases, a dog allegedly mauled a passenger on board an airplane (Stockman, 2019).
On the other hand, even the calmest animals can become stressed while flying. This is particularly concerning because most ESAs are not trained or certified in any way, which means that they are not prepared to handle such stressful situations. As Dampier (2019) notes, “untrained animals […] may cause havoc on a flight by barking, moving around too much or being aggressive with humans or other animals” (para. 14). Animals who lack training can quickly become defensive and attack their owners or other passengers. In severe cases, the person suffering an injury would need urgent medical aid, causing disruptions to the airline service. Animal bites can also pose a risk of infection, thus increasing the risk to passengers’ health and wellbeing.
While behavioral assessments are usually part of the procedure of admitting a passenger with an ESA on board, in reality, these assessments are performed by non-professionals and are mostly based on observations (DoT, 2019). Consequently, it may be challenging to identify animals that are a threat and prevent them from boarding the aircraft. For airlines, incidents involving a passenger being injured could lead to severe consequences, including lawsuits and poor reputation, resulting in significant financial losses.
Lastly, it is also essential to consider the effect of all disruptions specified above, which is flight delays. Processing and servicing passengers with ESAs could take longer than usual because of the need to check the required documentation, observe the animal, and locate the passenger to a seat where they would not bother other people in the cabin. Moreover, before the take-off, some passengers may ask to be relocated to a different seat if they fear the animal or are allergic to it.
Flight attendants also have to ensure that different animals are not placed together to prevent fights and aggression (Street, 2019). These procedures may take a while, particularly if there are several service animals on board the aircraft. As a result, they can lead to significant delays during registration, boarding, and take-off.
Although delays are relatively common in the airline industry, they are often the primary source of customer dissatisfaction. Customers who are choosing between different air carriers are likely to select the one with less frequent or minor delays, and thus delays can affect the airline’s popularity with new customers. Delays can also lead to the dissatisfaction of passengers and even to financial compensation.
For example, this can occur if a customer misses their next flight due to a delay in arrival. Consequently, airlines have to take all possible steps to ensure that delays are minimized, and the aircraft can arrive at the destination on time. With ESAs on board, this may not be possible due to the fact that they may cause service disruptions at each step of the process, from passenger check-in to landing. By contributing to the risk of delays, ESAs impact airline performance and popularity with customers.
After several particularly prominent cases of ESAs causing havoc while in an aircraft, the action was taken by the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as by specific airlines. In August 2019, the DoT released a clarifying guideline, which stipulated the rights of airlines in denying service to passengers with ESAs. For example, based on this guideline, airlines can require animals to be tethered, deny boarding to animals that are too large, heavy, and young, and request documentation to prove the need for an ESA (Thompson, 2019). Still, the DoT did not allow restricting ESA breeds or species and the number of animals on the flight (Thompson, 2019).
In January 2020, the DoT proposed new amendments to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which could contribute to the situation. According to the proposal, airlines would be able to request documentation proving the animal’s good behavior, health, and hygiene, restrict the size of the service animal and the number of animals on board and require payment for ESAs on board (Hauser, 2020; Roller, 2020).
This regulation could help to address the issue by enhancing airlines’ scope of authority on the matter. Many airlines have also taken steps to amend their ESA policies. Stump (2018) reports that Southwest Airlines have restricted the number of animals allowed on board and the types of ESAs permitted to dogs and cats on a leash or in a carrier. These policy changes could help airlines to prevent service disruptions, delays, and discomfort caused by ESAs.
Organizational Learning Theory
Even though stricter regulations could assist in preventing the issues associated with ESAs on board, they could also make airlines lose their customers, particularly if the rules adopted by airlines are not universal. In this case, customers traveling with ESAs could choose other carriers and stay loyal to them, thus ridding companies that took the action of a part of their profits. Successful management of an airline requires meeting customers’ needs and managing their satisfaction (Wensveen, 2018). Imposing strict regulations would not help to achieve this goal, and thus, other options also have to be considered.
The learning organization management theory could help airlines in responding to the identified challenge adequately while boosting their reputation and profitability. As explained by Smith (2019), the learning organization management theory posits that successful companies are the ones that learn continuously and transform based on new trends, knowledge, and experiences. These companies use learning to reach organizational goals, interact with their environment regularly, and foster inquiry and dialogue (Smith, 2019).
When applied to persistent issues, the theory means that organizations should seek to analyze their environment, identify creative solutions, and learn from their past experience to formulate a successful strategy. Consequently, a learning organization would take several steps to address the problem with ESAs.
Firstly, a learning organization would perform an in-depth analysis of trends with respect to ESA traveling on board the aircraft. There are multiple points of data that have to be taken into account, including the number of frequent flyers traveling with ESAs, the number of ESAs on board, relevant legal regulations, other companies’ policies, and attitudes of customers to ESAs. Analyzing each piece of information in detail would support the company in decision-making.
For example, collecting information about the number of recurring customers with ESAs would help to estimate the potential losses of restricting ESA access. Identifying trends in passengers’ attitudes and thoughts about ESAs, in turn, would help to determine the costs of failing to act appropriately and the possible damage to the company’s reputation if no additional rules are implemented. Information about service disruptions and delays should also be taken into account to understand the effect of the current ESA policy on the company’s ability to provide high-quality service. Researching industry regulations and other companies’ policies could also assist in designing an effective solution.
Secondly, the company would approach the problem creatively and consider various scenarios. While most airlines respond to the problem of ESAs on board by imposing stricter regulations, there could be other ways of improving the situation. Hence, companies should consider whether or not other adjustments would help to prevent the issues associated with ESAs traveling in their airplanes and analyze their cost-effectiveness. For instance, if there is a way to avoid service disruptions by adding a crew member responsible for verifying, assessing, and servicing customers with ESAs, this solution should be evaluated for potential costs and benefits.
Thirdly, the company should also use the knowledge and experience of its workers to develop a creative approach to solving the problem. For instance, the company could make an announcement to all employees, inviting them to design a new policy for traveling with ESAs and promising a lucrative bonus to an employee or a group of workers whose solution is selected. This would help the company to use its resources effectively while also capitalizing on creativity, innovation, and organizational learning in accordance with the theory.
On the whole, research shows that people traveling with pets registered as ESAs create significant problems for airlines. While air carriers are required by law to allow these passengers on board, their ESAs could pose a risk to the health, safety, and comfort of other passengers. ESAs could also create service disruptions, leading to customer dissatisfaction, delays, and impaired airline reputation. While the Department of Transportation and many airlines have already proposed solutions to address the issue, the present paper stipulates that applying the organizational learning management theory could help airlines to develop more effective solutions.
The recommended steps would allow airlines to find the most effective solution to the issue and balance the interest of various stakeholders. Furthermore, the identified framework would help companies to develop the potential of their employees, improve motivation, and capitalize on organizational knowledge, creativity, and experience.