Oscar the cat sits in his carry on travel bag after arriving at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix in 2017. (File photo: AP)
Airlines might soon be able to turn away cats, rabbits and all animals other than dogs that passengers try to bring with them in the cabin.
The US Transportation Department on Wednesday announced plans to tighten rules around service animals. The biggest change would be that only dogs that are trained to help passengers with psychiatric needs would qualify.
Airlines say the number of support animals has been growing dramatically in recent years, and they have lobbied to tighten the rules. They also imposed their own restrictions in response to passengers who show up at the airport with pigs, pheasants, turkeys, snakes and other unusual pets.
The US airline industry trade group praised the tighter rules. Industry officials believe many that hundreds of thousands of passengers scam the system each year by claiming they need their pet for emotional support. Those people avoid airline pet fees, which are generally more than $100 each way.
“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 Calio, president of Airlines for America.
Flight attendants had pushed to rein in support animals, too, and were pleased with Wednesday’s proposed changes.
“The days of Noah’s Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. The union chief said untrained pets had hurt some of her members.
Veterans groups have sided with the airlines, arguing that a boom in untrained dogs and other animals threatens their ability to fly with properly trained service dogs. Last year, more than 80 veterans and disability groups endorsed banning untrained emotional-support animals in airline cabins.
Department officials said in a briefing with reporters that they are proposing the changes to ensure safety on flights. They also said some passengers have abused the current rules.
The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposed changes, and they could take effect any time after that.
The Transportation Department proposes a narrow definition of a service animal — it would be a dog that is trained to help a person with a physical or other disability. Currently, passengers have been allowed to bring many other animals if they have a medical professional’s note saying they need the animal for emotional support.
The proposal would prohibit airlines from banning particular types of dog breeds — Delta Air Lines bans pit bulls, for example – but airline employees could refuse to board any animal that they consider a threat to other people.
It would also bar the current practice by many airlines of requiring animal owners to fill out paperwork 48 hours in advance. A department official said that practice can harm disabled people by preventing them from bringing their service dog on last-minute trips.
The proposal would also end the rarely seen use of miniature horses as service animals, although a Transportation Department official indicated the agency is open to reconsidering that provision.
Airlines could also require that service animals be on a leash or harness and fit in its handler’s foot space. They could limit passengers to two service animals each, although it is unclear how often that happens under the current rules.