Under a proposed federal rule, airlines would no longer be required to allow emotional support animals on flights and could exclude all animals other than dogs as service animals.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will accept public comments for 60 days at Regulations.gov for the proposal.
If the rule is put into place, airlines would not be prohibited from flying emotional support animals or other types of service animals, but they would not longer be required to do so, the DOT said in a press conference, as reported by USA Today.
The change would be a shift from a DOT guidance document issued in summer 2019 saying that airlines could not restrict emotional support animals or ban service animals by breed.
Voices for and against
There were more than 600 comments within the first 24 hours on both sides of the argument. They include:
"As someone who is afraid of and allergic to dogs, I fully support having a ban on dogs, among other animals in the cabin."
"Large service animals (miniature horses and large breed dogs) should always be able to fly. It would be discrimination otherwise."
"There are proven methods for relieving anxiety and providing emotional support that do not involve animals, such as meditation, medication, weighted blankets and human companions. These methods provide the necessary support without triggering medical issues in others (allergies), psychological issues in others (typically fear of dogs related to prior trauma) or disrupting travel with animal behavior issues."
Changing the rules
With the increase in animals on flights, airlines have reported more incidents of animals roaming freely around the plane, defecating or being aggressive.
In recent years, several airlines have taken steps to help ensure that only trained, properly-behaving service and therapy dogs are allowed on flights. Some have limited the types and breeds of animals allowed on planes; others have instituted a minimum age.
Delta also announced earlier that year it would no longer allow "pit bull-type" dogs on flights as service and support animals. At the same time, the policy introduced a limit of one emotional support animal per customer per flight.
According to a Delta press release, the changes were in response to incidents in which several employees and passengers were bitten. The company also cites an increase in incidents of animals urinating and defecating on flights. The company gives no specifics about the breeds of the dogs involved.
United Airlines followed suit and announced that it would also no longer allow kittens and puppies under 4 months old on any flights and any emotional support animals on flights eight hours or longer.
Why are companies restricting animals?
Delta flies about 700 service or support animals each day, according to the company. Customers have attempted to fly with snakes, spiders, turkeys and gliding possums as comfort animals.
"The rise in serious incidents involving animals in flight leads us to believe that the lack of regulation in both health and training screening for these animals is creating unsafe conditions across U.S. air travel," said John Laughter, Delta’s senior vice president of corporate safety, security and compliance, when updating the airline's policy in March 2019. "As a leader in safety, we worked with our Advisory Board on Disability to find a solution that supports those customers with a legitimate need for these animals, while prioritizing a safe and consistent travel experience."
United also requires passengers provide vaccination or proof of health documentation 48 hours before a flight (along with the federally-required doctor or therapist's note for emotional support animals).
Southwest Airlines now limits emotional supports animals to only dogs and cats. There can only be one ESA per customer, the animal must be in a carrier or on a leash at all times and the passenger must provide a letter from a medical doctor or licensed mental health professional on the day of departure. For trained service animals, Southwest limits passengers to dogs, cat and miniature horses.
Airlines aren't the only ones cracking down on emotional support animals. In August 2018, Royal Caribbean announced it was banning all emotional support animals from its ships effective immediately for new reservations. "We are updating the policy to differentiate emotional support animals from service animals that are trained to perform a function for a person with a disability," read an email statement sent to the Los Angeles Times. "It is important to us that all our guests enjoy their vacation, which is why we put into practice this new policy."
Defining service and emotional support animals
The idea of a "service" dog can be fuzzy. Many people use the term, but true service dogs are highly trained to perform specific tasks to help an individual with a disability.
Service dogs are different from emotional support animals, which provide comfort to their owners, but don't require training. The only animal that legally can go to any public place the handler goes is a service dog.
MNN's Jaymi Heimbuch wrote an in-depth explanation of all the differences and protections offered to service dogs versus emotional support animals.
As Heimbuch points out, there has been a backlash against people who try to pass off their pets as fake service dogs or even questionable emotional support animals. When these pets aren't well trained, incidents like the one Delta cited can occur.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in June 2018.