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.
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.