As support animals for people with all sorts of disabilities become more common, the need has arisen for a better definition of what qualifies as a service animal. This is a particularly difficult question to answer when it comes to granting animals access to special places like airplanes, where an issue with the animal’s size or behavior could jeopardize the safety and comfort of all the people on board.
Between 2016 and 2017, United Airlines reports the number of service and support animals brought aboard their planes increased by a whopping 75 percent. Along with this change, the airline has seen more numerous incidents of these animals urinating, defecating, barking, biting, and causing other issues on their planes.
Recently, a flight attendant was bitten by an emotional support dog aboard an airplane, leading to a huge national argument about whether pit bull breeds should be allowed to become service animals and board planes with their owners. In a recent clarification of their regulations, however, the U.S. Department of Transportation has said that they are unable to ban certain dog breeds, whether or not an airline deems them dangerous.
“While the Enforcement Office is aware of high-profile cases involving pit bulls, airlines have not presented evidence that any particular breed is inherently more dangerous than others,” the Department of Transportation stated.
Without clear guidelines as to which animals are permitted to be service or support animals and be allowed aboard planes, many airlines have come up with their own restrictions. Delta refused to allow pit bulls, while American Airlines banned a long list of animals, including hedgehogs, goats, ferrets, chickens, birds of prey and snakes. Southwest announced that it would only allow dogs and cats on their planes, and JetBlue added miniature horses to that short list of permitted animals. The Department of Transportation, however, has now stepped in to create a set of clear and consistent rules for all airlines when it comes to allowing animals on planes.
Pit bulls and all other dog breeds will be allowed, but there will be a ban on certain other species that serve as emotional support animals, particularly the more exotic ones, like snakes. The number of people attempting to bring a service animal on an airplane has risen drastically in the last several years, and the number of exotic pet used as emotional support animals has increased along with it. Certain species that pose a significant safety risk, however, will not be accepted aboard U.S. planes. The hope is that this rule will keep people from certifying their exotic pets as emotional support animals simply to save money on animal transport fees.
“With over a million passengers bringing [emotional support animals] on flights last year, airlines and airports saw a sharp increase in incidents such as biting and mauling by untrained animals,” says trade group Airlines for America. “The DOT’s guidance is an important step toward addressing this growing problem and ensuring a safer and healthier travel experience for all.”
The Department of Transportation said airlines are also allowed to require proper documentation for any emotional support animal or other service animal. These documents may include vaccination records and proof that the animal has been appropriately trained for its job.
According to Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the new regulations are “an important step to address what has become a mess of animals loose in the aircraft cabin.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to begin fully enforcing these rules later this year.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?