Since 9/11, airline security measures have included “profiling” certain passengers whose ethnicity was thought to pose a heightened risk. In recent years, air travelers flying with emotional support animals have found their companions subject to the same scrutiny.
In a victory for opponents of breed-specific legislation, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) told the airline industry last week that carriers can’t bar certain dog breeds from traveling with their humans because the airline deems them dangerous.
The moves comes a year after Delta Airlines banned “pit bull-type dogs” as service or emotional support animals after two employees were bit by a pit bull. Pit bull owners and supporters petitioned Delta to reconsider the ban. Delta’s restriction now appears to violate the new DOT guidelines.
“While the Enforcement Office is aware of high-profile cases involving pit bulls, airlines have not presented evidence that any particular breed is inherently more dangerous than others,” an agency spokesperson said.
However, the DOT said that airlines can require passengers to provide documentation related to vaccinations and training to determine whether an individual animal poses a “direct threat to the health or safety of others.” Bans on other species — including snakes — remain in effect. Airlines can still ask questions about a passenger's need for the pet, but must accept a medical form or letter that meets DOT's criteria as medical documentation of their need.
The DOT has scrambled to refine its policy on allowing animals on planes as an increasing number of airline passengers bring non-human companions they contend are needed for emotional support. Carriers have long-suspected that such passengers were simply trying to avoid transport fees for their pets.
In 1986, congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act allowing any airline passenger relying on an animal for emotional support to bring that animal on board without charge. But the federal statute fails to provide procedures for diagnosing a person who needs to be accompanied by an emotional support animal and doesn’t specify what type of animals passengers can bring aboard a plane.
The law spawned a cottage industry of online companies helping people establish their pet as an emotional support animal. Some exotic and unusual species have found their place on the emotional support roster including peacocks, ferrets and turkeys. To stem the tide, carriers began tightening restrictions on animals, particularly unusual species.
JetBlue announced last year that it would allow only cats, dogs and miniature horses as emotional support animals. American Airlines banned several species, including hedgehogs, goats, ferrets, chickens, birds of prey and snakes. Southwest Airlines limits emotional support animals to dogs and cats on leash.
Airlines for America, a trade group for the country’s largest carriers, praised efforts by the DOT to set behavioral parameters: “With over a million passengers bringing [emotional support animals] on flights last year, airlines and airports saw a sharp increase in incidents such as biting and mauling by untrained animals,” the group said. “The DOT’s guidance is an important step toward addressing this growing problem and ensuring a safer and healthier travel experience for all.”
There’s no way to know for sure how a pet will behave in the cabin unless they’ve flown before. Even then, the circumstances are unusual. Unless you’re flying business class, quarters are cramped, leg room at a premium. Transcontinental flights take five hours. A solid foundation of behavioral training — and perhaps a drop or two of CBD oil for pets — can go a long way toward a happy landing.