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Animals on Planes

New regulations could bump emotional-support animals from planes

The times of passengers bringing their pets on airplanes as emotional-support animals could be seeing its end soon.

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday proposed that only specially trained dogs eligible as service animals, which must be permitted in the cabin at no charge.

Airlines could prohibit emotional-support animals including untrained dogs, cats and more exotic companions such as pigs, pheasants, rabbits, and snakes.

Airlines state the number of support animals has increased dramatically in recent years. They lobbied the Transportation Department to crack down on what they believe is a scam — passengers who call their pets emotional-support animals to avoid pet fees that generally run over $100 each way.

“This is a wonderful step in the right direction for people like myself who are dependent on and reliant on legitimate service animals,” stated Albert Rizzi, founder of My Blind Spot, an advocacy group for disabled people. He said some people “want to have the benefits of having a disability without actually losing the use of their limbs or senses just so they can take their pet with them”.

The main trade group for large U.S. airlines sang praises for the proposal. Nicholas Calio, president of Airlines for America, stated, “The proposed rule will go a long way in ensuring a safer and healthier experience for everyone.”

Flight attendants had pushed to rein in support animals, and they were also pleased.

“The days of Noah’s Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end,” stated Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. She said some of her union’s members were harmed by untrained pets.

Veterans groups also supported the airlines, arguing that an increase in untrained dogs and other animals threatens their ability to fly with appropriately trained service dogs. In 2019, more than 80 veterans and disability groups endorsed prohibiting untrained emotional-support animals in airline cabins.

Taking a look at the other side, there are people who say that an emotional-support animal helps them with anxiety or other concerns that would avoid them from traveling or make it more stressful. They aren’t a very organized group, but there are enough of them.

Southwest Airlines handles over 190,000 emotional support animals per year. American Airlines carried 155,790 emotional support animals in 2017, increasing 48% from 2016, while the number of checked pets declined 17%. United Airlines carried 76,000 comfort animals in 2017.

Transportation Department officials stated in a briefing with reporters that they proposed the modifications to improve safety on flights. Some passengers have been bitten by support animals, and airlines have raised issues that they relieve themselves on planes and in airports.

The public will have 60 days to remark on the proposed modifications. Officials highlighted a few areas where they are most curious to get comments, including whether miniatures horses should still qualify as service animals.

The Transportation Department proposes a narrow meaning of the allowed animal in which a service animal could only be a dog that is trained to help an individual with a physical or other disability. Passengers with a service dog would have to fill out a federal form on which they agree that the dog is trained to help them. A dog trained to help with psychiatric needs would fulfill the requirement of a service animal.

Current rules do not need any training for emotional-support animals. However, airlines can demand that the animal’s owner show them a medical professional’s note stating they need the animal for support.

The proposed regulations would prohibit airlines from prohibiting particular types of dog breeds if the animal is eligible as a service dog, although they could reject to board an individual dog they deem a threat. Delta Air Lines, which bans pit bulls, stated it is studying the proposal.

The president of the Humane Society of the United States stated airlines such as Delta had maligned pit bulls. Kitty Block stated the Transportation Department’s proposal to put a prohibition on breed-specific bans “sends a clear message to airlines that their discriminatory practices are not only unsound, but also contrary to the law”.

The new rules would also prohibit the current practice by many airlines requiring animal owners to fill out paperwork 48 hours in advance. A department official stated that practice can harm disabled individuals by preventing them from bringing their service dog on last-minute trips.

The proposal also states people with service animals must check-in before the general public.

Airlines could need that service animals be on a leash. They could limit passengers to two service animals each, although it is not clear how often that happens under the present rules.

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