Dogs on Planes

Social change isn’t linear. It happens in fits and starts. There are long fallow periods when things seem stuck, as in our current backwater of radical self-absorption, when entitlement trumps community and narcissism is a profession rather than a pathology. But change can happen with startling suddenness, often in the guise of small gestures of civility that first manifest themselves as simple rules.

Back in the 1980s, Northwest Airlines, then one of the major U.S. air carriers, was a client of mine. I was working for a small investment bank in San Francisco and helping to arrange aircraft financings for Northwest, flying regularly between California and New York for negotiations. These were the days, almost lost to memory and somewhat shocking to recall, when smoking was allowed on essentially all domestic flights, even the humblest coach seat featured a built-in ash tray, and the only deference given to those of us who thought smoking a foul, obnoxious habit was to confine the smokers to “smoking rows” within a given cabin, which of course did nothing to confine the smoke to those who actually wanted to inhale it. You’d emerge from the plane with your carefully pressed suit reeking of other people’s bad habit and wondering how many packs you’d vicariously smoked just by having flown from coast to coast.

Then, in 1988, in a seizure of corporate responsibility rarely seen in business history, Northwest Airlines announced that it was banning smoking on all its flights – cold turkey, as it were. Everyone was shocked, even those of us who were delighted. No major airline had ever tried such a thing.

True, the FAA had recently issued a rule that smoking would be prohibited on flights of less than two hours (less, mind you, presumably so the poor addicts wouldn’t go into withdrawal on longer flights, and ignoring the consequences to the rest of us of more prolonged exposure to their habit), and Northwest’s management may have been driven more by the practicalities of trying to apply that rule to their complex route system than by a concern for their customers’ well-being. But it seemed a brave and forward-thinking step, and within a few months, instead of riots in the gate areas and nicotine rage in the skies, flying on smoke-free aircraft came to seem like a perk that all the other major airlines decided they had to offer too. In the space of a year or so, smoking on planes went from a social norm to the universally prohibited anathema it is today.

I was recently reminded of the Northwest Airlines smoking ban when, while waiting to board a three-hour flight on Delta (which absorbed Northwest in 2010), I scanned the gate area and observed no less than six dogs. A couple of the canines were in those little fabric breadboxes designed to carry, one supposes, the random anesthetized Shih Tzu or Maltese, but most of them were what one might call “free range” dogs of varying sizes bigger than a breadbox, capable of motion independent of their owners, some wearing those obviously fake “emotional support animal” doggy jackets. One was being wheeled around in a baby stroller, to the simpering delight of the gate agent.

The Northwest smoking ban came to mind because, surely, the modern equivalent of the smoker on a plane is the passenger who drags along an “emotional support animal,” usually a dog. The rationale is essentially the same: without this crutch, I just can’t be expected to undertake the stress and strain of being whisked to my destination in an airplane, so of course the airline and my fellow passengers must all indulge me.

Back when people were lighting up as soon as the tires left the tarmac, no one would have dreamed of trying to bring a dog into the passenger cabin of a commercial aircraft. If they came along at all, dogs and other pets rode in steerage, that nautically-named cavity in the belly of the plane where the checked luggage went. Sure, it may have been dark and cold down there, but the flight wasn’t all that long, and these were furry dogs, not naked children. Bringing a dog on a plane, unless you were legally blind and being led by one, would have been like wearing your underwear over your pants.

Don’t get me wrong. I like dogs. I had a dog as a child. Some of my best friends own dogs (though who owns whom is often open to question). But not everyone likes dogs, and some perfectly rational people are terrified of them. Others are terribly allergic to dog dander. Yet in an era when peanuts are banned from planes on the off chance that someone in the cabin might have an adverse reaction to their presence, dogs routinely sit cheek-by-furry jowl with paying, human passengers, lounging against bulkheads or under legs, and we’re all supposed to think it’s adorable.

I don’t. I’m really not that interested in your dog. It’s your dog, and not mine, for a reason. I may be modestly interested in your child, who might grow up to be an independent person and learn to vote, but your dog is never going to do either, and I really don’t want to meet, pet, or be licked by him or her (dogs are stubbornly cisgender), least of all in public when I’m undergoing all the other discomforts of air travel, which tend to make me much less dog- (and for that matter, human-) friendly than I might otherwise be.

Of course, there are actual service dogs that perform an actual and important service. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service dog as one “trained in specific tasks that directly mitigate the effects of a handler’s disability.” In contrast, so-called emotional support animals have no such legal standing, and owners who imply or assert that they do are committing a fraud that has real consequences beyond their next plane flight. An organization called Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit that provides service dogs to the disabled, asks the public to “stand against service dog fraud,” and points out that “people who truly need assistance dogs can face added discrimination and lose access to public places” because of untrained pets posing as service dogs.

The fraudulent conflation of service dogs with emotional support animals has been well-documented, most pointedly by Patricia Marx in a piece for the New Yorker, in which she recounted her success, armed only with chutzpah and a letter from an online psychotherapist, in penetrating public spaces ranging from the Frick Gallery to an Amtrak train to Canada in the company of, variously, a turtle, a snake, a turkey, an alpaca, and a pig, each of which was accepted by confused or intimidated gatekeepers as an emotional support animal, and therefore entitled to entry, when she said, simply, “I have a letter.”

Some tiny percentage of dog-emplaners may be certifiably psychotic and truly need their animals to function, or are so terrorized by the prospect of sitting in a chair at thirty thousand feet that only the unconditional love of a dependent non-human can comfort them. Perhaps, with proper documentation of their maladies and the training of their animals, obtained from sources more reliable than the internet, these people should be allowed to bring their favorite Schnauzer aboard a plane. But most of them, let’s face it, are either too cheap to check them, just showing off, or more concerned with Fritz’s comfort than with that of their fellow humans. They are, in a word, selfish. In this they resemble the increasing numbers of Boomer generation geriatrics who, with or without a dog, feign inability to walk or some other decrepitude in order to board ahead of everyone else. But that’s a story for another post.

My wife points out, as I never would dare to, that most of the people bringing dogs on planes are single women who use the little beasts as foils to strike up conversations with strangers. I don’t think this sort of social opportunism is unique to women, single or otherwise, but she has an undeniable point, because as near as I can tell, the modern era of passenger dog fetishism began with fashionable women who thought it enhanced their fashionableness to be seen with cute, vicious Pomeranians poking their heads out of their Chanel bags as they sauntered down Madison Avenue or into Le Grenouille – or onto the Gulfstream to St. Barts. It’s been a short dog-walk from there to the Southwest non-stop to Fort Myers.

What’s the airlines’ stake in all this? As in the bygone case of smoking, they’re trying to balance the whims of their overly-entitled customers against the demands of safety and aircraft maintenance. By official policy, American Airlines allows small pests – sorry, pets — to travel in the cabin as long as their weight, when combined with their breadbox carrier, doesn’t exceed 20 pounds and the carrier remains under a seat for the duration of the flight. Delta takes a class-conscious approach, allowing a total of two pets in first, two in business, and four in the main cabin on most flights. Southwest soberly emphasizes that the pet must be vaccinated, that pets that defecate in the cabin or gate area or which lunge or bark incessantly will be disqualified from boarding, and thinks far enough ahead to say that “pet remains” will not be accepted on any flight even as checked baggage.

But as any regular airline passenger can attest, almost none of these restrictions are consistently enforced. A pilot friend  of mine recounts that on one of his flights, a woman brought a mid-sized “companion” dog she knew to be ill onto his plane, where it proceeded, mid-flight, to vomit and defecate all over the first class cabin. A doughty flight attendant attempted to mop up the mess and confine the beast to the lavatory, but the damage – to the aircraft, and to equilibrium of the crew and paying passengers — was done.

More serious incidents are readily foreseeable as the ranks of emotionally fragile and/or self-centered pet owners swell. Someone will get bitten on a flight and die of shock. Someone’s dog will go nuts in an emergency and impede an orderly deplaning, or attack a crewmember, or induce a life-threatening allergic reaction. And at that tipping point, some brave, canny airline, like the Northwest of old, will rise up and flatly ban dogs and other pets from the passenger cabins of its planes, and the “emotional support animal” will join the business class smoker in the dustbin of transportation history.

I’d pay extra to fly on that airline. And for some of us, the opportunity can’t come any too soon.

3 thoughts on “Dogs on Planes

  1. Keith – once again, you have hit the mark with a bullseye. The ultimate priviledge (read: arrogance) is the proliferation of so called emotional support animals (I have personally seen dogs, cats, pygmy pigs, and ferrets). As one whose respiratory system goes into spasm when around dogs and cats, I resent having to be the one to speak up as if I created the problem on the plane. And you are so right that these posers are screwing it up for the folks who have a legitimate need. I don’t think a letter is enough. How about treating this more like what we do for parking — the parking for the mobility-challenged is via doctors’ recommendation to the state.

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