Can You Bring Your Emotional Support Animal on Your Next Flight?
The era of emotional support squirrel on flights is over, as the Department of Transportation (DOT) ruled Wednesday that only dogs can be defined as service animals. Other animal companions used for emotional support will either have to be checked into the cargo hold or left at home.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA has applauded these changes, as they say the use of untrained support animals on flights has exploded, leading to injuries of passengers and crew. “The days of Noah’s Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end,” said president Sara Nelson, in a statement earlier this year.
Industry group Airlines for America have also pushed back on the guidelines, arguing that the definition of service animal has been abused by passengers, leading to all sorts of animals boarding flights, including cats, pot-bellied pigs, hamsters, birds, turtles and, in one case, a peacock, although it never made it past the gate.
American Airlines already restricted the use of emotional support animals last July, banning ferrets, birds of prey, snakes, insects, hedgehogs and goats on its flights (the previous guidelines gave airlines more leeway to decide their own policies in the case of “unusual” animals).
The DOT said the practice “eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals,” as part of its ruling, as travelers were “fraudulently representing their pets as service animals” to avoid charges for transporting pets.
And these charges are not insignificant: Transporting pets through airlines legitimately can cost hundreds of dollars, so it’s not surprising that people try to claim pets as service animals. (It’s worth clarifying that these rules apply to service animals—they don’t change the rules around pets, as cats and dogs can still be allowed in the cabin if they’re small enough).
Other changes that affect service animals
The DOT has some new restrictions for legitimate service animals, as well:
- Airlines can now require forms (developed by DOT) attesting to a service animal’s health, behavior and training, and ability to not relieve itself, or at least relieve itself in a sanitary manner, up to 48 hours before departure.
- Airlines can now limit the number of service animals traveling with a single passenger with a disability to two service animals.
- Airlines can require a service animal to fit within its handler’s foot space on the aircraft, and that they must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered at all times in the airport and on the aircraft.
As before, airlines are allowed to refuse transportation for service animals that exhibit aggressive behavior posing a threat to the health or safety of others. The DOT prohibits airlines from refusing to transport a service animal “solely based on breed,” however, which puts Delta’s current ban on pit bulls at odds with the guidance. The ruling goes into effect next month.