‘Days of Noah’s Ark in the air’ ending? Drastic new support animal rules on the table

Jan 22, 2020

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Big changes could be on the way for travelers hoping to fly with support animals.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is proposing several changes addressing service animals and emotional support animals (ESAs) on passenger flights.

The DOT wants to update its definition of “service animal” to include only dogs individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. That means other species including cats, birds, rabbits or miniature horses would no longer be defined as service animals for the purpose of air travel, DOT officials said Wednesday. The DOT also said airlines wouldn’t be required to recognize emotional support animals at all and that the two terms wouldn’t be interchangeable.

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Travelers hoping to fly with a service animal would be required to submit three forms, including one that outlines the health of the service dog, according to the DOT’s proposed new rules. The bureau also says it would limit the number of service dogs a passenger could bring onboard to two. Additionally, the DOT added airlines would not be able to impose breed restrictions. Delta in 2018 banned pit bulls as service animals, but the agency last year mandated that the airline had to accept all breeds.

Related: Your definitive guide to traveling ethically with an emotional support animal

There have been several instances of travelers accused of falsely claiming their pets as service or emotional support animals. In recent years, we’ve seen passengers trying to board flights with emotional support peacocks, rabbits and other animals. One man in Florida registered his alligator as an emotional support animal (though there’s no record of the man trying to bring it aboard a plane).

The uptick in passengers flying with emotional support animals has created discomfort among some flyers and has created issues for airlines. Recent complications have included everything from a service animal unexpectedly in a seat of its own to a scramble by regulators to keep up with the situation. Adding to the mix, some animals brought onboard have reacted aggressively. A man who was bitten by a fellow passenger’s emotional support dog on a Delta Air Lines flight in July 2017 required 28 stitches. He sued Delta and the dog’s owner.

The DOT cautioned travelers considering making their pet an emotional support animal to avoid pet fees to know that it is a crime.

“On any federal form, providing false information or representation is a crime,” a Department of Transportation spokesperson said on a call with reporters Wednesday. “Providing false information could lead to jail time, fines.”

Related: My First Class Seat Was Taken by an Emotional Support Animal

U.S. airlines welcomed the news. The Airlines for America (A4A) trade group that represents most big U.S. carriers said the move provides “clarity” to both the airlines and their passengers.

“The safety and well-being of every traveler is the highest priority for U.S. airlines,” A4A said in a statement.

“The increased availability of fraudulent ESA credentials has enabled people who are not truly in need of animal assistance to abuse the rules and evade airline policies regarding animals in the cabin. This has led to an increase in incidents by untrained animals threatening the health and safety of passengers, crew and passengers with disabilities traveling with legitimate service animals.”

Flight attendants also applauded the proposal.

“Passengers claiming pets as emotional support animals has threatened the safety and health of passengers and crews in recent years while this practice skyrocketed,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), said in a statement. “Untrained pets should never roam free in the aircraft cabin. Flight Attendants have been hurt and safety has been compromised by untrained animals loose in the cabin.”

The DOT will now observe a 60-day comment period on the proposed rule changes, after which the agency will consider making them permanent. You can go to Regulations.gov and click on the “comment now” button to share your thoughts.

Nelson pledged that the AFA — the largest attendants’ union in the U.S. — “would work to ensure that the DOT proposal becomes final.”

“The days of Noah’s Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end. Passengers can still travel with animals under their preferred carrier’s pet program,” she added in the statement.

The proposal also won the backing of the Humane Society. The organization released a statement praising the agency for putting limits on “exotic and wild species.”

“Allowing exotic species, like capuchin monkeys and other primates, to fly under the guise of being ‘service animals’ is like flying without seatbelts—it can harm both the disabled person and others on the aircraft,” Humane Society Legislative Fund president Sara Amundson said in a statement.

Featured image courtesy of Jodi Jacobson / Getty Images

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