One day, we may all owe a debt of gratitude to Dexter the peacock.
At Newark Airport last weekend, a woman tried to board a United Airlines flight with Dexter. She described him as her emotional-support animal. But given that peacocks are large birds and there is not much evidence of their therapeutic benefits, United said no, Dexter could not board.
A predictable social-media storm ensued, both pro- and anti-peacock. By late last week, United Airlines decided it had enough of making ad hoc decisions about traveling animals and announced a tighter new policy. Dexter, unwittingly, may have struck a blow for sanity.
If you spend any time on planes, you’ve probably noticed the surge of animals. There have been pigs, monkeys, turkeys, snakes and oh-so-many dogs, often sprawled across crowded cabins. Delta alone flies about 250,000 animals a year — not even counting those tucked inside carry-on bags or checked in cargo holds — more than double how many it flew in 2015.
The number of problems is rising, too. A large part-Labrador mauled a man on a flight to San Diego last summer. A recent Delta news release included some words that don’t normally appear in a corporate news release: “urination/defecation” and “barking, growling, lunging and biting.” According to a labor union for flight attendants, more passengers are suffering allergy attacks, and more are arguing, or worse, over animals.
I’m not going to claim that flying pets are one of the country’s biggest problems. That’s a high bar, after all. But I do find this situation to be a fascinating case study of how mass cheating can become acceptable — and how decent people can make decisions that are more selfish than they realize. It is one of the downsides of a modern culture that too often fetishizes individual preference and expression over communal well-being.
This story begins with progress, in the form of a 1986 law forbidding discrimination against handicapped air travelers. The law made sure that physically disabled people could travel with service animals. It also rightly applied to nonphysical disabilities. Some autistic children, for example, function better with a trained dog.
The trouble started when pet owners realized they could game the system, because airlines did not require much proof of medical need. By claiming one, people could bring an animal on board without putting it in a carry-on bag and without paying a fee that typically runs $125.
It’s true that some people honestly believe they have an emotional condition that an animal solves. But they are often confusing their preferences with actual medical needs. As a recent front-page story in The Washington Post dryly put it, the effectiveness of emotional-support animals “is poorly substantiated through studies but widely embraced by the public.”
Once animals became more common on planes, the trend fed on itself. Pet owners figured that if other people were cheating the system, they might as well too. A cottage industry sprung up in service of low-level fraud. For $30 on Amazon, you can buy a bright-red dog vest emblazoned with the words “emotional support.” With a quick web search, you can find a therapist to diagnose you long-distance. Fill out a form, and suddenly you’re certified as having an illness that requires animal attention.
All the while, people told themselves they weren’t doing anything wrong. (How often have you heard a version of, “My pet is friendly and harmless”?) But people weren’t thinking about the collective cost of their actions — about the many children afraid of sitting next to a dog, about travelers with serious allergies, about flight attendants charged with keeping cabins safe and, most of all, about truly disabled travelers.
“As a person who is blind, my access rights are being infringed upon when somebody passes off a fake service dog,” Tom Panek, an advocate for the blind, told CBS News. At airports, disabled travelers with service animals sometimes get harassed by fed-up airline employees and passengers. Inside crowded planes, untrained animals have attacked service animals.
The past few weeks may have brought a turning point. First Delta and then United announced stricter rules, requiring certification of animal training. Ultimately, I hope the Department of Transportation creates a fairly strict uniform rule for all airlines. (It should also ensure safe conditions for animals in cargo holds, which would make people comfortable with checking their pet.)
The whole bizarre situation is a reminder of why trust matters so much to a well-functioning society. The best solution, of course, would be based not on some Transportation Department regulation but on simple trust. People who really needed service animals could then bring on them planes without having to carry documents.
Maybe a trust-based system will return at some point. But it won’t return automatically. When trust breaks down and small bits of dishonesty become normal, people need to make a conscious effort to restore basic decency.
David Leonhardt is a columnist for The New York Times.