Posing pets as service animals to fly for free

More people are claiming their untrained pets are service animals or emotional support animals so they can fly for free.

And the problem is not limited to dogs.

Passengers have seen pigs, roosters, geese and miniature horses on planes.  Experts say they could be putting passengers’ safety at risk.

KIRO 7 first investigated fake service animals more than a year ago.

On a quick trip to Sea-Tac airport, we heard dogs barking and cats meowing.  Most passengers are not surprised by the growing problem.

“There are a lot of fakers out there,” said one traveler.

“People want their animals to come along with them,” said another.

Lindsay Gorder pays $100 each way to stow her dog, Spender, in the belly of the plane for her trip to Texas.

“He has to fly down below,” said Gorder.  “It’s not really fair for him if other dogs can go up but he can’t.”

Another traveler didn’t want to show her face on camera, but said her dog is a medical alert dog and has full access with a vest.

But how do flight attendants know he’s the real deal?  They don’t, and that’s the problem.

The President of the Association of Flight Attendants says they have seen an increase in both trained and untrained animals on flights in the last four or five years.

“We’ve gotten reports of animals on board, anything from a pig, to a rooster, to a goose,” said Sara Nelson.

KIRO 7 found video of ducks on a plane and a picture of a Dalmatian that took up more space than one seat.

Nelson says the untrained animals pose a serious safety risk.

“They could impede exit of passengers who need to get off the plane very quickly.”

It’s simple to buy a service animal vest.  KIRO 7 found vests listed online for $99.  Our producer filled out an online survey and paid $149 for a letter from a licensed therapist, allowing him to travel with an emotional support animal.

The letter from Carla Black states our producer is her “patient” and she is “currently treating him for a mental and emotional disability.”  But Black never talked to him either in person, on the phone, or by Skype.  When he went to California to ask Black about the letter, no one answered when he showed up for his appointment.

KIRO 7’s sister station confronted Black, but she dodged their cameras and questions.

We contacted the California Board of Behavioral Therapists and sent them a copy of the letter.  They’ve opened an investigation into Black.

The Flight Attendants Union is pushing for clear rules that allow passengers who need the animals to have them, while keeping untrained animals off flights.

“Anyone who isn’t playing by the rules should be held accountable,” said Nelson.

A U.S. Department of Transportation Committee was meeting to come up with new rules for emotional support animals on planes.  Last month the committee suspended those talks.  The Department of Transportation says it is still working on new rules.

KIRO 7 will monitor those discussions.