The number of emotional support animals traveling aboard commercial flights increased from 481,000 in 2016 to 751,000 in 2017.
Do you depend on an emotional support animal when traveling by plane? If so, you may not be able to do so for much longer.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed new regulations this week severely limiting which support animals airlines are required to accommodate. Under the new rule, the definition of a service animal would be limited to a “dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability.” Psychiatric service animals would also be classified as service animals for the first time under the proposal.
Psychiatric service animals would also be classified as service animals for the first time under the proposal.
But airlines would no longer be required to recognize emotional support animals such as cats, pigs, and rabbits as service animals and could instead treat them as pets.
DOT says the changes are intended to create a more clearly defined set of rules governing which animals can fly in order to ensure the safety of the traveling public, while also accommodating individuals with disabilities.
“Animals on aircraft may pose a risk to the safety, health, and well-being of passengers and crew and may disturb the safe and efficient operation of the aircraft,” the proposal reads. “Any requirement for the accommodation of passengers traveling with service animals onboard aircraft necessarily must be balanced against the health, safety, and mental and physical well-being of the other passengers and crew and must not interfere with the safe and efficient operation of the aircraft.”
In recent years, the definition of service animal has expanded to include emotional support animals that travelers say they need for emotional and psychological support while they fly.
That broader definition has led to a surge in the number of emotional support animals on planes. The number of animals labeled as such traveling aboard commercial flights increased from 481,000 in 2016 to 751,000 in 2017, according to the industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A) .
This has coincided with an increase in the number of service-animal related complaints received by DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. In 2013, the division received only 45 such complaints, but that number more than doubled to 100 complaints in 2015, and reached 115 complaints in 2018, according to the text of the proposal.
“The days of Noah’s Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end.”
Airlines have also received a higher number of complaints, according to DOT. U.S. and foreign airlines reported receiving 3,065 service animal complaints directly from passengers in 2018, up from just 719 such complaints in 2013. In rare cases, injuries have also been reported.
The increased use of emotional service animals has also led travelers to attempt to fly with unusual species of animals, including peacocks, ducks, and turkeys. DOT says this has caused confusion for airline employees and strained resources, as employees have had to expend time accommodating unusual and untrained animals.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires reasonable accommodations be made for people using service animals, which have been trained to perform a certain function. But since emotional support animals are not required to receive training, their legitimacy has been questioned, leading to increased scrutiny of all service animals and eroding “the public’s trust and confidence in service animals,” according to DOT.
DOT officials said it limited the definition of service animal to dogs because they are the most common service animal.
“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,” officials wrote in the proposed rule.
Airlines could still allow passengers to fly with emotional support animals, but that appears unlikely. Delta and Alaska Airlines previously tightened their rules for transporting service and support animals, and the industry has been pushing for restrictions like the ones DOT has proposed.
Airlines for America praised the new proposal, saying it was necessary to protect “the legitimate right of passengers to travel with a service animal.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association for Flight Attendants-CWA, also supports the rule, saying, “The days of Noah’s Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end.”
“Passengers claiming pets as emotional support animals has threatened the safety and health of passengers and crews in recent years while this practice skyrocketed. Untrained pets should never roam free in the aircraft cabin,” Nelson said in a statement. “Flight Attendants have been hurt and safety has been compromised by untrained animals loose in the cabin.”
Under the proposal, people who want to travel with a trained service dog would have to fill out health forms attesting to their canine’s good health and good behavior. The rule would also allow airlines to require passengers to check in at the airport one hour prior to the plane’s departure, limit the number of service animals a person can travel with to two, and allow airlines to require a service animal fit within its handler’s foot space on the plane.
Finally, airlines would be prohibited from banning service dogs based solely on breeds, satisfying pit bull advocates. But the proposal would allow carriers to refuse to transport dogs that “exhibit aggressive behavior and that pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others.”
The rule will now undergo a 60 day comment period, during which members of the public can voice their opinion on the proposal.