The federal government on Wednesday gave its final approval to a series of rules that restrict the types of service animals allowed on U.S. flights, reserve designation for dogs, and exempt airlines from housing a variety of animals for emotional support.
The changes, which have generated more than 15,000 public comments since the Department of Transportation proposed them earlier this year, will take effect next month.
They have sparked an intense debate among airlines, advocate for people with disabilities who rely on service animals and passenger rights groups, and have flown more and more travelers with a variety of animals on flights in recent years.
Most recently, the transport authorities had stated that dogs, cats and miniature horses should be prioritized by airlines as service animals. But passengers have tried traveling with monkeys, birds and rabbits, raising other passengers’ eyebrows and testing airline policies.
Federal traffic officials said Wednesday that disruptions caused by the ingestion of unusual species on board airlines “undermine public trust in legitimate service animals” and that there are increasing cases of travelers “fraudulently portraying their pets as service animals.”
Under the new regulations, airlines must treat psychiatric service animals in the same way as other service animals. The owners of these service animals must provide documents that have been drawn up by the transport department and demonstrate the health, behavior and training of the animal.
Passengers traveling with service animals no longer have to check in physically at the airport, but rather online.
The new rules have stopped completely banning animals with emotional support, but proponents said airlines would no longer have to put non-service animals in the cabin.
Some airlines, including Delta and Southwest, said they are reviewing their policies for bringing animals on flights. Some airlines allow passengers to take small pets into the cabin for a fee.
The Airlines for America lobby group, which includes all major US airlines, welcomed the changes.
“The final rule from the Department of Transportation will protect the airline’s traveling public and crew from untrained animals in the cabin and improve accessibility of air travel for passengers with disabilities traveling with trained service dogs,” said Group President Nicholas E. Calio said in a statement on Wednesday.
Some advocates for people with disabilities said the new rules are too strict and do not take into account travelers with special needs.
“There are a large number of people with intellectual and emotional disabilities who benefit from this assistance on a trip,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, in an interview Wednesday evening.
Mr Decker said that travelers with disabilities are being punished for abuse of the system by others and that the airlines have taken the problem off by charging expensive fees for moving pets in cargo holds.
“There’s no one in the disabled community who thinks a turkey is a service animal,” Decker said.
Douglas Kidd, the executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, a nonprofit, said in an interview on Wednesday evening that the new rules do not regulate the provision of adequate space for service animals on airplanes. He said a series of high profile episodes of animals dying while being transported on airplanes resulted in passengers trying to take their pets on board.
“Animals are living things and not just baggage,” he said. “If the airlines took better care of the animals they hire, people would be more likely to ship them.”
The Association of Flight Attendants, the union that represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, said in a statement that the guidance from the federal government was urgently needed.
“Passengers who use pets as animals for emotional support have endangered the safety and health of passengers and crews in recent years,” union president Sara Nelson said in a statement. “Flight attendants were injured and safety was compromised by untrained animals in the cabin.”
Mona Ramouni, 40, from Michigan, who is blind and has relied heavily on her miniature horse, Cali, to fly, lamented the change in the rules. She said her horse, which is 29 inches tall, weighs about 170 pounds, and fits into the area in front of the bulkhead seats on airplanes, was better trained than most service dogs, and had a longer lifespan.
“So now I have nowhere to go with my horse?” Ms. Ramouni said in an interview on Wednesday night. “That is completely unfair. I’m not doing this because it’s fun. I do this because I want to lead a semi-normal life. “