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Emotional support animals could be banned from planes under DOT rule

Airlines would still have to board specially trained service dogs. No miniature horses, capuchin monkeys or peacocks.

A service dog at Dulles International Airport. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A service dog at Dulles International Airport. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Snakes on a plane? Probably not —at least in the cabin.

The U.S. Department of Transportation Wednesday released a proposed rule that would let airlines ban most “emotional support” animals in airplane cabins and board only specially trained service dogs to assist people with disabilities.

Directed as part of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, the draft rule would replace one that requires airlines to allow the boarding of sometimes unusual creatures to provide emotional support for a passenger.

The rule comes amid a spate of high-profile stories of airplane passengers trying to bring support animals, including miniature horses, capuchin monkeys and peacocks, on airplanes. Airlines facing such menageries had little specific guidance from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Airlines want all passengers and crew to have a safe and comfortable flying experience, and we are confident the proposed rule will go a long way in ensuring a safer and healthier experience for everyone,” said Nicholas E. Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, a trade association.

Cats, rats, capuchin monkeys and any animal other than a dog would not qualify as a service animal under the rule, which would limit the number of service animals a passenger can bring to two.  

The rule makes clear that while emotional support animals are on the outs, psychiatric service animals would be considered service animals, as long as they had the same training and treatment as other service animals.

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Good boy

Airlines would also be allowed to require passengers traveling with service dogs to fill out Department of Transportation forms attesting to the service animal’s good behavior, certify its good health, and, if the flight is particularly long, assure that the animal can either control its bladder or relieve itself in a sanitary manner.

Airlines and passengers had expressed concern that animals in the cabin were not always well-behaved, urinated or defecated in the cabin to the dismay of other passengers, and in some cases, presented a danger to others.

The proposal also aims to protect passengers with a disability by ensuring that they do not have to check-in far in advance. The rule would allow airlines to require passengers traveling with a service animal to check-in at the airport one hour prior to the travel time required for the general public to ensure sufficient time to process the service animal documentation and observe the animal. That provision came after some airlines had asked that documents about service animals be provided 48 hours in advance of flying — a prospect that wouldn’t allow for emergency travel. 

Existing federal rules define service animals broadly, allowing them to travel with passengers regardless of whether it’s for a disability or the passenger’s emotional well-being.

But those existing rules came at a cost, with both the department and airlines reporting an increase in complaints to both the Department of Transportation and to individual airlines regarding animals on planes.

The proposed rule — which will be subject to comment for 60 days – would narrow that definition if approved as written. It’s unclear when the rule would go into effect, according to the department.

If approved, those who lie about whether their animal is a true service animal would be subject to punishment including fines or time in jail.

U.S. Service Animals, an organization that registers emotional support animals, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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