Jan. 30 (UPI) -- The U.S. airline industry is praising a move by federal regulators that would allow carriers to disqualify untrained "emotional support animals" as service animals -- a change that could lead to airlines charging travelers who bring along their pets.
Airlines are among the chief supporters of the proposed rule changes this month by the Department of Transportation. Federal officials began mulling the change over concerns from carriers, flight attendants, airports and some of the flying public about a rising number of passengers with emotional support animals, or ESAs -- that are taken aboard flights by way of a law intended for trained service animals, like guide dogs.
Under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines are required to allow emotionally impaired travelers to bring a support animal at no added cost. In most cases, the only requirement is that a passenger produce documentation from health and veterinary professionals citing a need for the animal. Passengers without such records must pay to travel with their pets.
The proposed changes, outlined in a 94-page proposal by the Transportation Department, are not yet final and will be open to public comment on the Federal Register until March 22. As of Thursday, more than 6,200 comments have been registered.
Those favoring the rule change argue that more passengers are taking advantage of what could be viewed as a loophole in the system -- and more types of animals are being claimed as an ESA. In recent years, ESA-documented passengers have boarded flights with dogs, cats, rabbits, miniature horses, Capuchin monkeys, snakes and peacocks, among others.
With the increase, opponents say, there have also been more reports of those animals behaving badly.
The DOT said complaints to U.S. and foreign airlines about service animals surged more than four-fold between 2013 and 2018 -- from 719 reports to more than 3,000 in that five-year span.
The airlines lay part of the blame on passengers who travel with untrained pets as support animals, mainly to avoid paying the extra fee, which can amount to hundreds of dollars round-trip. That, they argue, has resulted in some very unpleasant and potentially dangerous situations.
American Airlines said flight attendants have dealt with problematic pets -- such as untrained support dogs relieving themselves in the passenger cabin and showing signs of hostility under the stressful conditions of a crowded flights.
"My greatest fear as a cabin crew member is that an untrained ESA will 'snap' in flight and have an altercation with the one or more animals that are in the cabin," one attendant wrote in comments supporting the proposed rule changes. "I have seen animals react negatively to each other during boarding and continue to growl throughout the flight at one another on more than one occasion."
If the changes take effect, individual airlines would for the first time have the discretion to draw a distinction between ESAs and trained service animals. They would also be free to require more extensive documentation, or charge owners a pet fee.
For instance, they could be required to fill out a "service animal relief attestation form" to guarantee the animal "will not create a health or sanitation risk on long flights."
American Airlines Senior Vice President Jill Surdek said the carrier appreciates the Transportation Department responding in a "meaningful way" to concerns about the "impact of emotional support animals."
"By taking action to improve these regulations, it's apparent that [Transportation] Secretary [Elaine] Chao and the department take this issue as seriously as our front-line team members and our customers," Surdek said. "Ultimately, we look forward to having better rules on the books when it comes to traveling with emotional support animals, which will make travel safer, healthier and more enjoyable for our team members and customers."
United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart echoed that perspective.
"We are currently reviewing the rule and support the Department of Transportation's efforts," he said, adding that the changes would "build consistent and definitive policies across the industry.
"[The changes] help ensure we are better equipped to provide the best possible service to everyone."
Brian Parrish, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, was similarly enthusiastic. He called the proposed changes "common sense limits" for traveling pets that grow in numbers each year.
Parrish said Southwest now transports nearly 200,000 pets classified as emotional support animals per year -- following "significant year-over-year increases [for ESAs] versus the number of trained, service animals we transport."
Although the push for change was largely spurred by the airline industry, it remains to be seen precisely how they would respond to gaining new authority over pets, as it will almost certainly influence passenger business to at least some degree.
Disability advocates, however, oppose changing a system they say has made a profound, therapeutic impact on untold thousands of passengers with special needs over the years. Such rule changes, they argue, would be burdensome and discriminatory toward those travelers -- most of whom have legitimate, documented health reasons for needing pet support on their flights.
The National Disability Rights Network said the government's proposed changes would make it much more difficult for those passengers to travel.
"We are deeply disappointed that the Department of Transportation is taking such a restrictive view on the use of service animals," it said last week. "It's unconscionable that the [department] is putting convenience for the airline industry ahead of the rights of people with disabilities to travel freely like all other citizens."
The network said although some travelers do misrepresent their psychological conditions and pets, on the whole those cases are rare.
"These proposals are a vast overreaction to an uncommon problem."
If the changes are approved, they would also allow carriers to restrict the size of service animals, much the same way they limit the size of carry-on bags.
"This is entirely due to airlines reducing space between rows and squeezing passengers into smaller and smaller seats, so small that there is now no longer room for a service animal on some planes," the NDRN said. "Cramped space on planes is a nuisance to all travelers, but it now prevents some people from traveling at all."