Australia's flag-carrier, Qantas, is currently caught between a rock (aviation legislation) and a hard place (anti-discrimination legislation).
The problem is the lack of an adequate definition, in the Disability Discrimination Act, of what can be classed as an 'assistance animal'. Guidelines for guide dogs are quite clear, but it seems there is a bit of legislative leeway for hamster/gerbil/python/sheep fans to state a case for taking their own particular pet on board. And that's what Qantas is a bit worried about.
Here's the story. Apparently there's been a huge increase in the number of people who need to have a 'comfort animal' with them, to get them through the horrors of a flight. Qantas is worried that if someone says that Hortense the Chook is their assistance animal, and Qantas refuses to let Hortense board, then Hortense's owner could sue Qantas for discrimination under the Disability Discrimination Act.
Aviation legislation, on the other hand, is quite clear about carrying assistance animals onto a plane. Hortense the Chook probably wouldn't make the grade, but you can see Qantas' problem, right?
I'm finding it all quite amusing. Can't you just imagine the Brave New World in which animals and aeroplanes fly united? Planes would need to separate canine & feline passengers in much the same way that smokers and non-smokers used to be segregated. Pax with rodents might feel a little nervous, and would have to avoid the depressive with the python in seat 28B. The twitching fellow with the potbelly pig could sit wherever he wanted, but preferably nowhere near the galley or any Jewish or Muslim passengers, and all fish would have to be carried in an approved container, in less than 100mls of water, to satisfy LAGs (liquids, aerosols and gels) regulations. Don't want any terrorist types smuggling liquid explosives on board, cunningly disguised as the home of Bubbles the goldfish!
And another thing. With an on-board menagerie, would airlines need to provide comfort stations for animal companions? Aeroplane toilets aren't the most spacious places as it is, and there's really nowhere to put a litter tray. In any case, what might happen to the contents of a litter tray if the plane hit turbulence just doesn't bear thinking about! Maybe airlines could slip a couple of pet poo-bags into the seat pockets along with the sick-bag and the emergency instructions?
As for those human passengers who might be perfectly ok with flying, but who suffer from allergies to pet hair – would they have a case against airlines if sitting next to Fluffy the Persian cat had them wheezing and sneezing their way from Paris to Perth? Likewise, the doggyphobic traveller who finds him or herself shut inside a flying sardine can full of assistance dogs...
My anxiety and I will be boarding a plane in a few weeks, with my friend Thelma the Hat Lady. We will not be asking Qantas if we can take Oscar Bin Laden (my cat) on board. Oscar hates travelling anyway.