A new rule allows airlines in the US to ban emotional support animals from riding in the cabin, ending a system that led to everything from turtles to pigs, snakes, and even turkeys riding alongside their owners.
Last year, the Department of Transportation issued guidance stating that dogs, cats, and miniature horses could be accepted as service animals for transport — but on Wednesday, the agency reversed course, announcing that only dogs are to be considered legitimate service animals on commercial flights after passengers scammed the system to transport “unusual” pets in the cabin.
Under the revised rule, which takes effect in 30 days, airlines will no longer be required to consider emotional support pets as service animals. Only a dog who is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability” can be considered a service animal, the rule states. All others will have to be checked into the cargo hold — likely for a fee.
The Department of Transportation said the revision was prompted by disruptions caused by “unusual species of animals” on flights, which “eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals.”
The agency also said there had been an increase in the number of passengers “fraudulently representing their pets as service animals,” only for them to then misbehave during the flight.
Airlines have long complained that passengers have exploited vague rules and lack of regulation around service animals by claiming they need their pets for emotional support on flights.
In 2018, United Airlines refused to let a woman fly with her emotional support peacock, Dexter, even after she had purchased a separate seat for him.
Earlier that year, a 21-year-old woman admitted to flushing her “doctor-certified” comfort hamster down an airport toilet after Spirit Airlines refused to let the hamster board the flight.
Passengers have also been seen with “comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders, and more,” according to Delta, which cracked down on emotional support animals in 2018. The airline also banned “pit bull type” dogs as service or support animals.
However, under Department of Transportation rules, airlines are prohibited from banning service dogs based solely on their breeds.
Under the final rule, airlines can also limit the number of service animals traveling with a single passenger to two and require them to fit within the handler’s foot space on the plane.
Airlines can also require that service dogs be harnessed, leashed, or tethered at all times on the plane, and ban animals who exhibit “aggressive behavior” or pose a direct threat to the health of others.
The Department of Transportation acknowledged that deciding whether to require airlines to recognize emotional support animals as service animals was a “contentious question, with strongly held views on all sides and with no perfect solution.”
The department did note that airlines could choose to continue transporting emotional support animals without charge at their discretion.