United Flight Attendant Pretends Bulldog is Emotional Support Animal to Break Airline’s Pet Rules

A reader on board a United flight from San Francisco to Boston on Friday shared one of the most egregious emotional support dog stories I’ve read.

He was traveling in the forward cabin and across the aisle was a passenger with a bulldog. The passenger described himself as a flight attendant, traveling with their companion in the window seat for vacation. (Complimentary elite upgrades aren’t offered for San Francisco – Boston.)

His dog was in a black bag at his feet. A flight attendant working the flight tells him that he isn’t permitted to have a dog in the first class cabin on a 757, since there’s no room under the seat for it on that aircraft. (United’s rules do say that 757s only support pet in cabin in economy.)

My reader shares that the flight attendant passenger got up and persuaded the purser to “let him keep his seat and the dog in First.” He proposes to the purser that they “call it a comfort and support dog” in order to allow it.

  • The flight attendant was traveling with his dog as a pet, and only is said to have raised the emotional support issue after called out on it.

  • I’ve never seen a working flight attendant with an emotional support animal before. One would worry about a flight attendant who needs a dog for calming reacting under pressure in a flight emergency.

Indeed, the least likely person to need an emotional support animal to help with the anxiety of flying is someone who flies professionally.

When a second flight attendant stopped by to raise concerns about the pet in the first class cabin, the flight attendant passenger referred them to the purser.

Since it was now considered an emotional support pet, there go rules about keeping it underseat (regardless of lack of room) and in the bag.

Periodically, working flight attendants come by to chat and see the dog. A few hours into the flight, a flight attendant who later comes back with a phone with photos of a bulldog of her own on it spends a few minutes petting the dog, who is now in the lap of the traveling flight attendant.


I thought about leaving the faces in the photo…

I have a small dog who, when he was much younger, traveled with me occasionally. We paid made advance reservations, paid the pet in cabin fee, and kept him in his bag underneath the seat throughout the flight. Then he’d use airport pet relief areas if we had a connection.

I’m sympathetic to travel with pets. And given United’s poor history transporting pets I certainly wouldn’t trust his travel to their ‘Pet Safe’ program.

Although I feel like a chump for paying and for keeping him under the seat when I could have simply declared myself a snowflake and unable to handle flying on my own.

My reader had concerns over allergies, and that the dog would get loose and attack, something that recently happened on a Delta flight.

The reader watching this story unfold on the San Francisco – Boston flight says he “didn’t ask to be reseated or complain out of fear of reprisals and getting treated terribly on the flight.” Even for a passenger in paid first class on United, memories of David Dao and the 71 year old man shoved to the ground by United customer service loom large.

When airline employees flaunt airline and FAA rules regarding pets, you really can’t blame passengers who do so.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary, good post until you mention Dr Dao. Can you post a United story without mentioning it?

  2. The employees have no doubt seen so many passengers gaming the system, sometimes adding complications to their workloads, that they felt “Why not us too?”

    Come to think of it, why shouldn’t a passenger paying for a pet to fly enjoy the same access as the owner of the emotional support animal?

    Incidentally, not to flaunt my vocabulary skills, but I think the word you want above is “flout” – a very common mistake.

  3. If people can’t fly without their miniature horse (or whatever) along, there are other options:
    Drive
    Take a train (or a ship) with a private compartment
    Take a bus
    Stay home
    Take tranquillizers before flying.

  4. Legitimate emotional support animals, in most cases, aren’t specifically geared towards assisting a passenger with a fear of flying… in fact that’s almost never the case. The person usually has other emotional/stress/anxiety issues going on in their lives which a licensed physician has deemed qualify them for an emotional support animal. Since people with stress and anxiety are not banned from going on vacation, they consequently are permitted to bring their emotional support animals with them when they go on vacation. It is simply an accommodation for a disability, it is not typically (ie. almost never) intended for the sole purpose of traveling on airplanes… Some concerns about emotional support animals and how some passengers abuse them are legitimate concerns, such as in this case, but when you make comments/assumptions like this in your article, it comes across as very ignorant. Don’t generalize. Not everyone is abusing the system.

  5. Not showing their faces was a good call. If United cares, they’ll be able to figure out the identities of all flight attendants involved I’m sure and punish accordingly (again, if UA cares). No need to publicly shame them for what is ultimately just one employee slightly skewing rules to help out another employee…likely something a lot of us have been guilty of.

  6. Why not email that pic with the faces shown to United and let them take the appropriate action?

  7. The union will prevent any discipline whatsoever. At most it will be a “simple misunderstanding.”

    Off topic but are United Express gate agent prohibited from putting valet bag tags on carry-ons? They never put the tags on – they toss a green tag in your direction and call it a day.

  8. I was on a Delta transcon last week in the F bulkhead. The guy next to me was apparently chewing tobacco. I didn’t notice but the FA did. He asked the passenger if he was chewing and after a few iterations of questions, Mr. 1 B says he is. The flight attendant calmly pointed out that this wasn’t permitted under any circumstances and pointed him to the Delta policy in the magazine. He discreetly retrieved a paper cup and a napkin, brought it to he passenger and insisted that the passenger immediately discard the chew. The passenger finally relented without causing much fuss. Clearly, the FA wasn’t going to bend the rules. I was pleased with how professionally and discreetly the FA took care of the issue. (There was an easy solution for the United flight mentioned too but the FA’s caved)

  9. Lol. And so many people complained that FA is underpaid and overworked while they simply have mindset of a cheaters. Worse kind of scum of people is United’s FA, as proven from time to time….

  10. Your reader is the one in need of anxiety meds if they are worried a Frenchie is going to go berserk and attack them. I continue to pay for my animal to fly 2x a year from NYC to SFO and yes they ride in first. I choose the window seat to keep creeps like this from taking a photo and complaining, the dog paid it’s $150 so shut up and let him fly. I will take a small dog in first over a kid any day of the week.

    AA & Delta will let him ride in first on the 757s, but Delta won’t on the 767.

  11. Ben the Gators fan, they should be punished because they represent the company and broke the rules in front of their customers. It looks terrible. When I or you or anyone else, I imagine, are representing our company, we are on our best behavior, for good reason, because it reflects poorly on the company if we’re not. And this isn’t about “slightly skewing rules,” it’s about the rampant abuse of emotional support animal rules–it needs to be reigned in yesterday.

  12. Afraid of “getting treated terribly on the flight” is what you attribute to the passenger. Are you saying that you interviewed the passenger and they cited what happened to Dr Dao as why they wouldn’t speak up about a dog, or is that YOUR opinion?

  13. Ooooh…. so many animals defending the rights of their fellow animal to travel….

    If planes were allowed to have animal on board, they would designed cabin with cages not just seats.

    Then again, animal always needs another kind of animal of emotional support. Lol

  14. JetBlue NYC-SFO flight last Dec whereby passenger boarded Economy w 3 (medium sized) emotional support dogs. If only she could fit 3 dogs under her seat. Flight was delayed 1.5 hrs to allow time to figure out where to put the dogs w other volunteering passengers. Final straw was when my husband went to lavatory right after passenger exited having allowed dog to use the same. Insane.

  15. It really and truly upsets me when people fake having an emotional support animal. I have an emotional support animal who is prescribed to by my therapist because I suffer from PTSD along with a number of other illnesses incurred through childhood abuse Katrina and other things. Does that make me a snowflake?

  16. This post is garbage.. Instead of being a cry baby and showing these pictures.. You could’ve complained to supervisor. Seems like you just want attention and rely on the internet for the attention you’re not getting in reality. The attendant with as an emotional support animal could have issues that you don’t know about. Yes, arrangements should’ve been made on advance so the dog was set up to the seating rules, but you did nothing about the situation except cry online. Get over it you did nothing to fix things!! By you not standing up you contributed to making things harder for people with ESAs and SDs!! Bad enough people frown on my SD just because it’s a pit bull, but things like this, things like you not taking a stand just make things worse!!

  17. Emotional support dogs are just that. The dog is for emotional support in everyday life not just because they needed emotional support on the plane. For planes and housing they really are supposed to have documentation to support the fact that its an emotional support dog. An emotional support dog is not the same as a service dog.

  18. Who cares. Seriously, who cares. Unless you have allergies to dogs, any human being that has a trouble with these adorable animals has other mental issues that need to be addressed.

  19. It’s so popular to hate on airlines. Can you tell us the story of the doctor dragging again. We love to be outraged.

  20. What I need help with is this: we are permanently moving to Hawai’i and we have two dogs that are both 30 lbs. I can find no way to get them to the Big Island except as checked baggage, which terrifies me. There’s no other option except faking ESA but that’s really not an option but believe me I’ve thought about it. In the end, I have no way of knowing how my normally friendly dogs would behave in a very new situation and really there is not enough room for a 30 lb dog to sit at my feet or in my lap for a 6 hr flight. I know plenty of animals are transported okay but I’m really scared something could happen to them as baggage. Our one dog can get anxious and scream loudly… I’m wondering if it’ll be possible to hear him all the way in the cabin. I’m not supposed to medicate them because sedatives suppress the cardiovascular system and they could die. I’m so frustrated there’s no better way to transport them short of paying tens of thousands for a private charter. I wish the airlines had flights where pets were accepted, then maybe they could direct customers to those flights only. And good lord do they charge for checking dogs as baggage– $300+ for each animal on some airlines. That’s more than my one way human ticket. It’s nice that people want to take their dogs on vacation but I just want to move us all in one piece. As it is we’ll have to do Alaska and by the end of the year they only allow one pet checked as baggage per plane and there’s only one nonstop flight per day. So now my husband and I will have to fly on separate days each with one dog. It’s such a mess. So while I agree that other passengers have rights and rules should be respected, I feel like a situation where it’s a one time thing like a move should be an exception.

  21. People need to fix their aniexty. Brining you dog or animal everywhere to me is not a cure. Trust me I was on meds for it for a long time. I saw a lady it a store varying a emotional support chicken. It needs to stop and the adults need to take over and tell these people no and deal with their fears straight up.

  22. Another case of United’s service going to the dogs. If allergic to dogs, I suggest you fly with my allergy support animal, Fluffy. This six foot Florida gator easily resolves phony service animal allergies. If an alligator can be cleared by the Secret Service to attend a presidential ball (Boots and Black tie), then an alligator should be able to clear TSA and board a plane with no problem.

  23. And there you have it, ladies and gentleman. The debate is over, topic closed. @WilliamDawson has declared that “People need to fix their aniexty. Brining you dog or animal everywhere to me is not a cure.” He would like us to trust him, as he is clearly an authoritative source because we was once “on meds”. Case closed.

  24. Good story until younutilize the word “snowflake”…. perfect example of legitimate mental illnesses being discussed in negative ways…

  25. Rather disgusting that the working flight attendant is touching an animal and then touching food containers and tableware for passengers. Pig.

  26. Hey Phil. My husband isn’t allergic to kids, but he is to dogs. So you shut up! And I’m guessing most kids aren’t going to maul someone sitting next to their pathetic owner, minding their own business and just trying to secure their seatbelt.

    I’m so sick of people who can’t develop HUMAN relationships. What exactly is wrong with you that you can’t? You need help.

    And your dog didn’t pay for anything. I’m guessing your dog (an ANIMAL) doesn’t have a job.

  27. Oh, and Phil? The correct word is “its” not “it’s.” “It’s” is a contraction and means, “it is.” Someone needs to go back to grade school.

  28. And you are missing the point to this entire story. This flyer didn’t say “comfort animal” until he was confronted. So it was all bogus and the FAs knew this. Shame on United. They need to figure out who this person is and the FAs and purser on this flight and take some action and make that action public. Would send a clear message to all.

  29. Tony: Did you see the photo of the mauled guy? Your comment, “Who cares. Seriously, who cares. Unless you have allergies to dogs, any human being that has a trouble with these adorable animals has other mental issues that need to be addressed.” I care not to be mauled. And what about my husband who does have an allergy? What is he supposed to do just so your pet can travel?

  30. I have an emotional support animal. Not for anxiety. But for depression. Why does everyone on here assume it’s anxiety. I am not scared of flying I actually enjoy it. But while they are trying to find the ideal meds for me my dog has literally saved my life. He gives me purpose to keep going. I love my family and have human relationships but they don’t rely on me as he does and I do him. One thing I think they should require is that your animal can pass the canine good citizen test or similar test. That would be a good indicator that they wouldn’t be violent and that you aren’t faking it for a pet or to save on money as it can be $50+ just to take the test. I Don’t need my dog on the flight but at put final destination I do. For years before I was diagnosed I paid the fee to fly him as a pet. Now though I truly use him as a supplement for my treatment. Remember people have a range of issues. Most chemically related to brain and not just ‘suck it up’.so be kind and patient.

  31. For those with pets that need to transport them: take a ship or train, or drive. Spare the air!

    If too emotionally distraught to go anywhere, stay home with your pets. Pets get more anxiety travelling than yourselves, especially in confined space with a bunch of two legged animals already in the air.

  32. The cure for flying animals in a metal tube at FL350 and full of humans is an airline assessed cleaning fee, like hotels have, and in the range of $500-$1,000 per animal. My guess is that would be somewhere around the actual cost do having a cleaning crew come in.

  33. To all those so called “animal lovers”, until you’ve been attacked and bitten by a dog, shut the hell up and leave your mutts at home and off my flight

  34. I would have reported this to the airline immediately – and gotten the flight crew information. If the crew can selectively enforce rules and lie for their friends in the air, this passenger/airline problems will only
    ontinie to escalate. For me personally I would have been livid. I don’t like dogs in confined spaces and I am allergic to them. So when I was on a plane recently where a lady she first class was carrying a chihuahua in her arms up and down the isle and on her lap, I was pissed. Service Dogs, fine – I get it. But emotional support while a small exception may need this animal, they should STILL be in a add under the seat! No dogs on laps or out of their case – PERIOD! i think the flight attendants for the most part don’t care enough to ask the tough questions when someone has an animal outside of a carrier, but for me-it’s just gross. the plane is a confined space and dog dander flares up my allergies. So, please peoeleave your animal companion in a carrier.

  35. This particular post is about as factually sound as Donald Trump’s speech in Arizona last night. This is not at all what happened. The flight attendant with the dog actually paid a pet fee for the dog to fly. The gate agent questioned him having a dog. They debated over whether or not he could take the dog on the plane, but he had already paid the fee ahead of time, so there shouldn’t have been in issue. Finally, they let him board the plane with the dog. THEN the purer again started questioning the dog. By then, my friend was obviously getting irritated, since the pet fee was paid and there should not have been any issue or confusion. No one EVER mentioned support dog. It was only ever a disagreement over airline policy. Which is the real story here – the flight attendants don’t know all of their own policies.

    As a follow up, the flight attendant reported him for ‘being rude’ and he had to meet with a supervisor that he had never met. Whoever took these pictures and submitted this story completely fabricated how this went down.

    Really high level reporting here, guys.

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