Animals on flights have become a lightning rod for controversy in recent years, with some passengers grumbling their fellow travelers are taking advantage of federal law to get humble household pets on planes. From 2016 to 2017, American Airlines recorded an increase of over 40 percent in customers who flew with a service or support animal.
Several airlines have tightened restrictions on service and emotional support animals in recent weeks.
The U.S. Transportation Safety Administration has no problem with carry-on hamsters. "Hamsters are welcome in our checkpoint. Their container would typically go through the X-ray while the owner would hold the hamster as the passenger walks through the metal detector so the creature is not subjected to radiation," according to TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.
It's up to airlines whether they allow hamsters on board. Most major carriers such as American, Delta and United, however, don't allow rodents over concerns about safety and health.
Emotional support animals are usually dogs and cats, but have included squirrels and sheep.
Aldecosea says Pebbles was a true comfort animal and she had her doctor's letter certifying the rodent. Dwarf hamsters grow no more than four inches and weigh less than two ounces. A typical cellphone is longer and twice as heavy.
A Miami Beach High grad, Aldecosea played volleyball at Barry University before transferring to Wilson College in Chambersburg, Penn., last year. It was during her first lonely semester there that Aldecosea developed a painful golf-ball size growth in her neck, leading to a cancer scare.
Frazzled that fall, Aldecosea decided she needed a distraction. At a Pennsylvania Petco, she bought calm and quiet Pebbles. The hamster lived in her dorm room in a small plastic cage with a green spinning wheel, always scurrying to the front of the cage to greet her owner.
"She was so loving. It was like she knew I needed somebody," said Aldecosea.
In November, Aldecosea learned the growth was benign, but it was still painful. Withdrawing from school and going home hoping to have it removed, Aldecosea booked a Spirit flight from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Fort Lauderdale.