Airlines no longer would be required to accommodate emotional support animals under new federal rules proposed Wednesday to rein in passengers who try to bring their pets on board.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said it “wants to ensure that individuals with disabilities can continue using their service animals while also reducing the likelihood that passengers wishing to travel with their pets on aircraft will be able to falsely claim their pets are service animals.”
[ Service dog versus emotional support animal, explained ]
Federal laws currently require airlines to allow passengers with disabilities to travel with trained service animals as well as emotional support animals in the cabin. Unlike pets, service and support animals fly for free.
U.S. airlines already had tightened rules for emotional support animals over the past couple of years, as more animals sitting among passengers led to more problems.
Delta Air Lines told the Transportation Department it recorded 136 incidents involving service and support animals in 2017, including an attack by a psychiatric service dog sitting in its owner’s lap that left a fellow passenger with 28 stitches. The following year, an emotional support dog bit a flight attendant and customer service agent, the airline said.
In 2018, U.S. airlines flew more than 1 million passengers with emotional support animals, up about 81% compared with 2016, according to industry group Airlines for America. The number of passengers flying with trained service animals rose only 24% during the same period, and passengers with emotional support animals outnumbered those with service animals nearly 3 to 1 in 2018.
To address problems, airlines have limited the number of emotional support animals passengers could travel with, required passengers to vouch for their animal’s ability to behave and barred more exotic support animals travelers attempted to bring aboard, such as peacocks, turkeys and snakes.
United Airlines said incidents have leveled off, but there are still plenty of animals on board. Southwest Airlines said it flew more than 60,000 trained service animals last year, a fraction of the more than 190,000 emotional support animals it flies in a year.
[ Leave the peacock home: American Airlines says only dogs and cats can fly as emotional support animals ]
Transportation officials said last year they were working on new rules for service animals. Under the proposal, which must undergo a 60-day public comment phase before any rules are adopted, airlines would not be required to treat emotional support animals differently than a household pet. They also wouldn’t be required to transport service animals other than dogs.
The proposal would define a service animal as a dog “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” The rules on service animals also would apply to animals trained to assist individuals with mental health-related disabilities.
[ An absence of service dog regulation leaves needy families vulnerable to incompetence and fraud ]
That means airlines wouldn’t be required to fly other kinds of service animals, such as miniature horses. They would also be able to limit passengers to two service animals small enough to fit within the traveler’s foot space or on the person’s lap. For larger service animals, airlines would be required to seat the passenger next to an empty seat in the same class, if available, fly the animal in the cargo hold or move the passenger to a later flight with more room.
Airlines would be allowed to require passengers to submit forms developed by the Transportation Department attesting to the animal’s good behavior, health and ability to either not relieve itself or do so in a sanitary way on long flights.
Carriers also could require travelers with service animals to check in an hour before other passengers to allow time to process the animal’s documents, the department said.
In 2018, 11 disability advocacy organizations signed a letter urging the Transportation Department to continue allowing emotional support animals to fly.
“The mere presence of an emotional support animal accommodates the person’s disability, and may be crucial to allowing a person with a disability to travel by air,” the organizations wrote.
Eric Lipp, executive director of Open Doors Organization, a Chicago-based disability advocacy group, said there are people who have a legitimate need for an emotional support animal, but abuse of rules warrants greater restrictions.
“It’s causing too much disruption and abuse,” he said.
When untrained animals are in an unfamiliar environment like an airplane, they can react in ways that are unsafe or reflect poorly on other animals on board, including trained service animals, said Molly Schulz, spokeswoman for Canine Companions for Independence’s North Central region. The organization trains and provides service dogs to individuals with disabilities.
But Canine Companions took issue with portions of the proposal that would let airlines require passengers with service animals to arrive early and submit documentation. Travel can be challenging for individuals with disabilities, and having to get to the airport earlier could “add undue stress,” Schulz said.
Airline industry group Airlines for America said the Transportation Department’s move is “a positive step in protecting the legitimate right of passengers to travel with a service animal.”
United said it was reviewing the proposed rules but supports "efforts to build consistent and definitive policies across the industry regarding in-cabin animals and help ensure we are better equipped to provide the best possible service to everyone traveling with us.”
Southwest and American airlines, and the Association of Flight Attendants issued statements supporting the proposal.
The practice of claiming pets as emotional support animals has “skyrocketed” in recent years, posing a safety risk, Sara Nelson, president of the flight attendants union, said in a statement.
“The days of Noah’s Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end,” she said.
The Evening Sun
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