Imagine boarding a plane and sitting next to a kangaroo, chicken or pig.
In a joint investigation with NBC Chicago, NBC 7 Investigates discovered people boarding planes with their pets.
They are described online as "emotional support animals" (ESAs), and flight attendants told NBC it could jeopardize passengers’ safety.
On flights, emotional support animals are protected by a federal law which allows them to travel for free in the cabin with passengers. It includes fish, amphibians, reptiles and primates.
All passengers need is a letter from a mental health professional, certifying the passenger's need for the animal while flying.
“It really is getting to the point where it’s become uncomfortable for other passengers,” said Laura Glading, National President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. “And flight attendants are getting put in the middle. We’ve had over 50 documented cases. I would say dozens of instances where planes have returned to the gate. Passengers have unruly pets, dogs snapping at other passengers.”
ESAs are not service animals, which provide specific and much-needed assistance to people with physical, emotional or mental disabilities. Service animals are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensures they have full access to accompany their companions anywhere — including planes. It is against federal law to misrepresent an animal as a service animal.
NBC found complaints about emotional support animals on flights have gone up in the last decade. Critics said planes are packed with pets for which owners simply don't want to pay.
An online search finds doctors offering to write letters for ESAs.
An NBC Chicago producer logged on to the website CertaPet, answered a few questions and one week later, received a letter from San Diego psychiatrist, Dr. Angel Rivera. It certifies the producer is under a doctor's care and needs an animal to fly.
With that letter, the producer and her dog, wearing a vest bought online, took two plane trips with no issues. She even brought along a second animal — a tortoise.
Dr. Rivera did not answer NBC's email request for comment, so NBC 7 Investigates went to the work address he listed on Kettner Boulevard to ask him about his role at CertaPet. But the suite number provided did not exist.
NBC 7 Investigates did speak to Dr. Rivera on the phone.
Rivera declined our request for an on-camera interview, but told NBC 7 Investigates, "I am doing something that is very good for the population and it’s not illegal. There are standards and they are the same standards as when I see patients face-to-face.”
Several flight attendants told NBC their airlines discourage them from questioning any passenger with an animal for fear of a lawsuit. But they believe it can be a safety issue.
CertaPet's psychiatrists will also write letters so people can live with their animals in places pets are not allowed.
CertaPet's website says "Emotional support animals are protected under the Fair Housing Act, which prevents landlords from discriminating against people with disabilities."
NBC 7 Investigates reached out to CertaPet for comment, but our email inquiry was never returned.