Tales of flights filled with service peacocks, service rabbits, service monkeys, service turkeys, and service iguanas have become an internet cottage industry. (Who doesn’t love video of peacocks strutting around airports?) So have services by online therapists, offering to certify your pet as an “emotional support animal” for a fee. On Wednesday, the federal government proposed to put an end to both, by changing the way airlines are required to handle service animals.
The new rules would define a “service animal” as a dog—not a cat, or a rabbit, or a miniature horse—individually trained to work or perform tasks for a person with disabilities, and ban airlines restricting certain breeds. (Delta has attempted to ban pit bulls from flights.) Under the proposed rules, an emotional support animal would no longer be considered a service animal, and so airlines would no longer have to allow them to travel with their owners in the cabin for free.
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The rules would also create standardized Department of Transportation forms that service animal owners could use to streamline their air travel. (Today, each airline has its own check-in process, with different requirements.) The documents would emphasize that lying about whether your animal is trained to assist someone with disabilities is a federal crime, warranting fines or even time in prison—a deterrent, an official said Wednesday, against fraud.
The government invites anyone with feelings about the proposed rules to submit comments for the next 60 days. After that, officials will evaluate what will make it into the final guidelines. A DOT official said Wednesday that the department couldn’t yet predict when the new rules might go into effect.
For airlines—and the people who work for them—the change can’t come soon enough. Complaints to the DOT about service animals on flights jumped 150 percent between 2013 and 2018. According to data submitted by airlines to the DOT, complaints to them about service animals grew by 326 percent, to 3,065 in 2018 from 719 in 2013.
In letters submitted to the DOT, industry groups have complained that cabins stuffed with animals pose threats to the safety of cabin crews and other passengers, and that some animals purported by their owners to be trained for emotional support are just pets playing pretend. Airlines and some disability groups have said that poorly behaved, fraudulent service animals make it harder for people with legitimate ones to bring them on airplanes.
Money is also an issue. Most US airlines charge between $75 and $125 to transport a small pet inside the cabin. In comments to the Department of Transportation, Spirit Airlines claimed it had lost $1 million annually in pet fees because flyers fraudulently claimed that their house pets were service or emotional support animals. American Airlines said it had seen a 17 percent decline in pet transportation requests between 2016 and 2017, but a 48 percent leap in emotional animal transports.
Airlines for America, a lobbying group that represents nine North American airlines including Alaska, American, JetBlue, Southwest, and United, said in a statement that it applauded the DOT’s proposed rules. “The days of Noah’s Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end,” Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in a statement.
On a call with reporters Wednesday, a government official said the department was open to comments about its proposal that airlines only be required to transport service dogs. The official said that miniature horses are not as flexible as most dogs, and so have trouble fitting into tight spaces, and that department still has concerns about capuchin monkeys, which sometimes service people with mobility difficulties, can be aggressive and might carry disease. The official said that other animals, like cats and rabbits, are mostly used as emotional support animals, which airlines would not need to carry under the new proposed rules.