U.S. seeks to limit emotional support critters on planes

A cat in a carry-on travel bag
Oscar the cat sits in a carry-on bag at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in 2017.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The next time you fly on a commercial airline, you many notice fewer emotional support peacocks, rabbits, goats or other creatures sharing the cabin.

The U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new regulations Wednesday that would tighten the definition of service animals that get to accompany their owners for free to trained dogs only. Passengers who want to fly with a so-called emotional support pig, duck or other species must pay a fee and transport it like any other household pet, which on most airlines means they must fit on a passenger’s lap or under the seat.

Service animals must be professionally trained to perform tasks or assist a passenger with disabilities, including psychological disorders.

The proposed rules come after years of debate over whether airlines must accept a wide variety of animals to accompany passengers under a federal law that prohibits discrimination against airline travelers with disabilities.

Airlines and federal regulators concede that the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act is so vague on the subject that it has allowed a surge of travelers in the past few years who claim they can fly only if they are accompanied by their emotional support rabbits, birds, reptiles or other creatures, leading to an increase in animals biting, barking, snapping and urinating on planes.

Albert Rizzi, founder of My Blind Spot, a nonprofit organization that advocates for people with disabilities, called the proposed rules “long overdue.”

Rizzi, who is blind and uses a trained service dog, said so many fliers try to pass off their pets as service animals on planes that travelers with legitimate disabilities face mistrust from flight crews and other passengers. Rizzi said he was thrown off of a US Airways plane in 2013 for that reason.

“It compromises my ability to have a guide dog,” he said.

Under the proposed rule, passengers who want to travel with a trained service dog can fill out forms that attest to a service animal’s good behavior, good health, and for a long flight, that it “has the ability to either not relieve itself, or can relieve itself in a sanitary manner.”

The proposed rules also prohibit airlines from banning a service dog based solely on its breed but allow carriers to restrict dogs that “exhibit aggressive behavior and that pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others.”

Among other elements of the rules, the Department of Transportation would:

  • Allow airlines to require passengers to check-in at the airport one hour prior to the plane’s departure to “ensure sufficient time to process the service animal documentation and observe the animal” for possible aggressive behavior;
  • Allow airlines to limit to two the number of service animals traveling with a single passenger;
  • Allow airlines to require a service animal to fit within its handler’s foot space on the aircraft;
  • Continue to allow airlines to require that service animals be harnessed, leashed, tethered or otherwise under the control of its handler.

In the past, some disability rights groups have recommended that only dogs and miniature horses be accepted as service animals. The horses, according to some disability advocates, are preferred over dogs by some travelers for religious reasons or because of their long lifespans or because of dog-related allergies.

When the artist Ventiko and I walked downstairs in the spacious Venice home she was visiting, Dexter was perched on a wraparound sofa that had been covered with pee pads.

The proposed regulations give airlines the freedom to allow any species of animal to accompany a passenger for free but would recognize only trained dogs as service animals.

“Dogs also have both the temperament and ability to do work and perform tasks while behaving appropriately in a public setting and while being surrounded by a large group of people,” the Department of Transportation said in its proposed regulations.

The agency is accepting comments on the proposed rules for the next 60 days before deciding whether to adopt them.

The proposal was met with support from a major flight attendants union, whose members have complained about the dangers of flying with untrained animals in a confined, crowded cabin.

“Passengers claiming pets as emotional support animals has threatened the safety and health of passengers and crews in recent years while this practice skyrocketed,” said the Assn. of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines.

“Untrained pets should never roam free in the aircraft cabin,” the union said. “Flight attendants have been hurt and safety has been compromised by untrained animals loose in the cabin.”

A trade group for the nation’s airlines also backed the proposed rules, saying it would make flying safer.

“Airlines want all passengers and crew to have a safe and comfortable flying experience, and we are confident the proposed rule will go a long way in ensuring a safer and healthier experience for everyone,” said Nicholas E. Calio, president and chief executive of Airlines for America.

The Humane Society of the United States applauded the federal agency for proposing a prohibition on airlines from discriminating against certain dog breeds. In 2018, Delta Air Lines, one of the nation’s largest carriers, banned pit bulls as emotional support animals, citing two incidents in which Delta employees were bitten by a pit bull traveling as a support animal.

“For too long, pit bull-type dogs have been maligned in sensationalized media reports, in poorly constructed laws and now in airline policies affecting the millions of people nationwide who live with disabilities,” said Kitty Block, chief executive of the Humane Society. “A growing number of municipalities and states are rejecting these policies because they are costly to taxpayers, a waste of public resources, and have no impact on public safety.”

The proposed regulations acknowledge that the vague language in the Air Carrier Access law led to passengers presenting their household pets as emotional support animals to avoid paying airline pet transportation fees. Dog vests emblazoned with the words “Service Animal” are readily available for purchase online, and psychologists say they have been under increased pressure from their clients to draft letters that certify they can fly only with an emotional support animal.

In the preface to the proposed rules, the Department of Transportation explains the need to draft new regulations by noting that passengers have attempted to fly with many unusual species including a peacock, ducks, turkeys, pigs, and iguanas, “causing confusion for airline employees and additional scrutiny for service animal users.”

The agency said the increase in animals on planes has eroded the “public’s trust and confidence in service animals” and forced airlines to spend more time and energy “each time an unusual or untrained animal is presented for transport on an aircraft.”