emotional support animals

Southwest Airlines tighens rules on emotional support animals

Southwest Airlines is the latest airline to tighten its policies on passengers traveling with trained service and emotional support animals.

The new rules go in to effect Monday, September 17, 2018.

Under Southwest Airlines’ new rules, each customer will only be able to travel with one emotional support animal (or ESA) and ESAs will be limited to only cats and dogs.

During travel, the airline will always require each ESA to be kept in its carrier or be kept on a leash.

Customers traveling with ESAs will continue to be required to present a complete, current letter from a medical doctor or licensed mental health professional on the day of departure.

As part of these new policies, Southwest is also recognizing fully-trained psychiatric support animals (PSAs) as trained service animals.

The airline said it informally accepted PSAs as trained service animals in the past. Now the airline will formally accept this type of service animal. PSAs are animals that are specially trained to perform a task or work for a person with a mental health-related disability. To travel with these animals, the airline will require only a credible verbal assurance.

When it comes to traditional trained service animals, Southwest says it is going to adopt the DOT guidelines and accept only dogs, cats, and miniature horses.

“For the health and safety of our Customers and Employees, unusual or exotic animals will not be accepted,” the airline said in a statement and, “As is the case today, the Customer with the disability must be able to provide credible verbal assurance that the animal is a trained service animal.”

“We welcome emotional support and trained service animals that provide needed assistance to our Customers,” said Steve Goldberg, Southwest’s Senior Vice President of Operations and Hospitality said in statement, “However, we want to make sure our guidelines are clear and easy to understand while providing Customers and Employees a comfortable and safe experience.”

Southwest’s new rule announcement comes affter Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, and United have also updated their policies.

What do you think of the new rules? Fair?

Airports tightening the leash on animals in terminals

Thinking of taking dog your pet or emotional support animal with you on your next flight? Be sure to check the airline -and the airport – rule books on that. As I describe in my ‘At the Airport’ column this month for USA TODAY, airports are following the lead of airlines and making new and more restricted rules for animals in the terminals.  Below is a slightly edited version of that column.

Reno-Tahoe International Airport pet relief area

There were plenty of “Aw, that’s so cute” social media posts last month when Eleanor Rigby, one of two service dog vest-wearing golden retrievers accompanying a passenger to Philadelphia on American Airlines, went into labor and gave birth to eight puppies in a gate area at Tampa International Airport.

(Courtesy TPA Airport)

No one was charmed, however, by the report a passenger at Los Angeles International Airport posted last February about a woman who replied “They have people for that” when asked if she planned to clean up after her dog did its ‘business’ on the airport floor.

Yet both stories are examples of a wide range of animal-related incidents that are forcing airports to expend extra resources and causing them to rethink policies governing animals in the terminals.

In the Tampa airport puppy case, cute became controversy when animal rights advocates and people with certified service animals began questioning if the vested dogs were legitimate service animals and asking why a very pregnant dog – be it a certified service animal, emotional support animal or pet – had been allowed to fly so close to its due date.

TPA officials point out that airports have no say over the animals that airlines allow on board.

“We were just there to help with the situation and are happy the puppies were delivered safely,” said TPA spokeswoman Emily Nipps.

Tampa International Airport hasn’t yet tallied up its exact costs for having paramedics, operations, communications and maintenance staff spend several hours attending to Eleanor Rigby and her new puppies during the airport delivery, “But having paramedics assisting a dog in labor could have potentially impacted a medical emergency on another side of the airport,” said Nipps.

Cleaning up: the rules and the messes 

As had been widely reported, airlines have seen a sharp rise in the number of animals traveling on planes. Some are ticketed pets, but many are pets that have been flying for free thanks to loopholes in rules governing the transport of emotional or psychiatric support animals.

American Airlines reported a 40% increase in the number of service and emotional support animals on flights between 2016 and 2017. United Airlines cited a 75% increase year over year.

Like airlines, airports have had to make accommodations for all the extra animals and, like airlines, airports have been logging increased instances of pets and emotional support animals that are untrained, unruly and dangerous to others in the terminals.

“We find them making messes on the airport carpet, interfering with the airport’s working dogs and, on occasion, biting other dogs or passengers,” said Kama Simonds, spokeswoman for Portland International Airport.

Last December, a 5-year old girl ended up in the hospital after being bit in the face by an uncrated dog waiting for a flight with its owner at Portland International Airport. And a local TV station filming for a report on dog issues at PDX caught a schnauzer in the act of peeing on the airport’s brand new $13 million carpet.

Many airports hope revised policies for flying with emotional support animals recently rolled out by American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, United and others will cut down on the number of animals in airport terminals.

“The way we see it, if the airlines put more specific and stricter guidelines in place to manage the issue, it will take care of the problem in the airport too,” said TPA’s Emily Nipps, “So we support the airlines in tightening up the policies.”

For its part, Airports Council International-North America, the membership organization which represents and advises most U.S. airports, is urging the Department of Transportation to clarify its rules.

Currently, there’s confusion for both passengers and airports because airlines are covered by the Air Carrier Access Act, which recognizes emotional support animals, while airports are covered by a different act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which does not recognize emotional support animals.

“We want DOT to clearly articulate that airports are within their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act to require anyone bringing an emotional support animal through an airport terminal to house those animals in carriers, so they don’t interfere with other passengers, employees, staff or other animals including service animals and TSA and police canine units,” said Thomas Devine, ACI-NA’s general counsel.

DOT is currently taking comments through July 9 on proposed rulemaking related to traveling by air with service animals and ACI-NA will join the public and other industry groups in filing comments.

But at least one airport is not waiting for DOT to get around to making its final ruling.

After consulting with other airports, including San Francisco International, Detroit Metropolitan and Fairbanks International Airport, Portland International Airport plans to issue new rules aimed at clearly defining the different categories of traveling animals—pets, emotional support animals and service animals—and clarifying how the airport expects travelers to care for these animals while in the terminal.

“We see many people bring their pets when meeting and greeting people in the terminal. That’s a no-no,” said PDX spokesperson Kama Simonds, “Pets should not be at the airport unless they are traveling or being shipped.”

The new PDX rules will remind travelers that, like pets, the airport requires emotional support animals heading for airplanes to be in carriers while in the terminal. If too large for a carrier, those emotional support animals must be kept on short leashes.

And if a traveler’s animal urinates or defecates on the floor at PDX, the new rules will require an owner to remain at the site until someone from the janitorial staff arrives.

During July, airport operations staff at PDX will start spreading the word about the new rules. Come August, though, warnings and citations for bad dogs could be issued, with possible fines of up to $250.

Blame the peacock: United Airlines’ new rules for emotional support animals.

Just days after refusing to let a woman fly with what she claimed is her emotional support peacock, United Airlines has issued notice that, starting March 1, there will be new rules for bringing emotional support animals onboard.

United’s policy for those traveling with service animals (guide dogs and other animals trained to perform assistive tasks) currently does not require advance notice or documentation and is not changing.

The new rules will apply to emotional support animals.

Right now, customers with emotional support animals are required to give United’s Accessibility Desk 48-hours’ notice AND a letter from a mental health professional.

Starting March 1, in addition to 48-hour notice and an enhanced letter from a mental health professional, the airline will require anyone traveling with an emotional support animal to also provide additional documentation including:

  • The customer must provide confirmation that the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting and acknowledge responsibility for the animal’s behavior.
  • The customer must also provide a health and vaccination form signed by the animal’s veterinarian. The veterinarian must also affirm that there is no reason to believe that the animal will pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others on the aircraft or cause a significant disruption in service.

Today United also reminded travelers that  hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, reptiles, sugar gliders, non-household birds, exotic animals and animals not properly cleaned or those that are really smelly are not allowed in airplane cabins.

“Year-over-year, we have seen a 75 percent increase in customers bringing emotional support animals onboard and as a result have experienced a significant increase in onboard incidents involving these animals,” United said in a statement. “We understand that other carriers are seeing similar trends. The Department of Transportation’s rules regarding emotional support animals are not working as they were intended to, prompting us to change our approach in order to ensure a safe and pleasant travel experience for all of our customers.”

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) said in a statement that is it thrilled with United Airlines’ announcement:

“United has taken a very thoughtful, responsible approach to this issue. The airline’s increased requirements for emotional support animals will reduce fraud and protect the legitimate need of animal assistance for passengers with disabilities and veterans,” said Sara Nelson, international president of AFA. “This is about maintaining safety, health and security for passengers and crew, while ensuring accessibility for those who need it.”

Delta Air Lines recently announced that, starting March 1,  it will be changing its rules for passengers flying with service dogs or emotional support animals.

Expect other airlines, including American Airlines, to update their rules on flying with service animals and emotional support or ‘comfort’ animals soon.

Debate over Delta rules on service & emotional support animals

Many travelers are cheering Delta Air Lines’ new, stricter rules for those flying with service or emotional support animals.

But many long-time guide dog users and organizations that advocate for blind Americans and others with disabilities say the guidelines, which require added documentation and pre-planning, are over-reaching, discriminatory and illegal.

Noting that it has “long been concerned with the abuse and fraud of animals purporting to be service or support animals,” the American Council of the Blind said Delta’s revised policy discriminates against those passengers with legitimate service dogs and makes travel more difficult for individuals who rely on their service animals for travel.

The National Federation of the Blind believes elements of Delta’s policy, which goes into effect March 1, violate the Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Access Act.

“We are particularly troubled by the requirement that guide dog users submit paperwork to Delta forty-eight hours before flying,” the NFB said in a statement, while “Travelers without guide dogs are not required to plan their travel forty-eight hours in advance.”

The 48-hour ‘intent-to-fly’ requirement means guide dog users will no longer be able to fly on Delta for family, medical or other emergencies,” said the NFB and adds an unnecessary layer of inconvenience for some passengers.

“We stand with NFB,” said Eric Lipp, Executive Director of the Open Doors Organization, “People with properly trained service animals are being punished by Delta.”

Citing a significant increase in the numbers and types of “comfort” animals passengers bring on planes and an 84 percent increase since 2016 in reported animal incidents such as urinating/defecating, biting and attacks, Delta announced last week that certification of a flyer’s need for an animal and proof of an animal’s training and vaccinations will be required for both service and emotional support animals.

“I sympathize with the airlines,” said Pat Pound a disability consultant who is blind and travels with a guide dog, “More people are cheating. Airlines are trying to maintain the system. But I don’t think Delta’s new policies will address the problem. And, as a person with a disability, I’ll end up being penalized.”

An on-line petition with more than 75,000 signatures is asking Delta not to make it harder for people to travel with emotional support animals, but other airlines are exploring following Delta’s lead.

“We agree with Delta’s efforts,” American Airlines said in a statement, “We are looking at additional requirements to help protect our team members and our customers who have a real need for a trained service or support animal.” The carrier said from 2016 to 2017 it saw an almost 15 percent increase the number of customers traveling with emotional support animals.

United Airlines is reviewing its existing policy on service and emotional support animals, said airline spokesman Charles Hobart. “This is something that is important to our employees and to our customers, including those with disabilities and those who do not have disabilities,” he said, “We understand this needs to be resolved soon.”

The Department of Transportation had planned to draft new rules on service animals by July 2017, but those guidelines have yet to be released.

Going forward, “I suspect there will be legal challenges to Delta’s policy on service dogs from individuals and from organizations,” said disability consultant Pound, “This is how an airline is deciding to interpret the law, but a court may have a different idea about what that the law intended.”

(My story about the debate of stricter rules for flying with service and emotional support animals first appeared on NBC News in a slightly different format.)

Pushback on Delta’s decision to regulate emotional support animals

 

Last week Delta Air Lines announced that, come March 1, it would be changing the rules on the documentation required for bringing emotional support animals on planes.

“Customers have attempted to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders and more,” Delta said in a statement, “Ignoring the true intent of existing rules governing the transport of service and support animals can be a disservice to customers who have real and documented needs.”

While recognizing that some passengers do abuse the rules, there are some groups that are not comfortable with Delta’s actions.

The National Federation of the Blind, for one,would have liked to be consulted.

“Blind people have safely and successfully used guide dogs for decades, but this policy fails to make a clear or practical distinction among guide dogs, other  ‘service and support animals’ (as Delta puts it), and pets,” the group said in a statement, “Onerous restrictions on guide dog handlers do not resolve anything and violate the principle of equal access for passengers with disabilities. Furthermore, we believe that elements of Delta’s policy, as currently articulated, violate the Air Carrier Access Act.”

The group says it is particularly troubled by the requirement that guide dog users submit paperwork to Delta forty-eight hours before flying.

“Travelers without guide dogs are not required to plan their travel forty-eight hours in advance. Furthermore, guide dog users will no longer be able to fly Delta in family, medical, or other emergencies. We believe that this forty-eight hour requirement is both unnecessary and unlawful.”

The group is asking for a meetingwith Delta to work out a better system.