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American Airlines narrows definition of service animal

A dog waits in line with its owners at the ticketing counter at O'Hare International Airport on November 24, 2010. American Airlines said emotional support animals may travel with owners as a carry-on pet or in cargo -- but not as a service animal. File Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI
A dog waits in line with its owners at the ticketing counter at O'Hare International Airport on November 24, 2010. American Airlines said emotional support animals may travel with owners as a carry-on pet or in cargo -- but not as a service animal. File Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 5 (UPI) -- American Airlines announced Tuesday it will no longer consider emotional support animals as service animals, a decision made in response to new U.S. Transportation Department policies on commercial flights.

The airline said it will go by the Transportation Department's new guidelines that define a service animal as a dog that performs certain tasks to benefit a person with a disability. Assistance Dogs International said that definition now aligns with that set forth by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

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American Airlines will implement the new policies beginning Feb. 1.

"Our team is motivated by a purpose to care for people on life's journey, and we believe these policy changes will improve our ability to do just that," said Jessica Tyler, president of cargo and vice president of airport excellence. "We're confident this approach will enable us to better serve our customers, particularly those with disabilities who travel with service animals, and better protect our team members at the airport and on the aircraft."

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In December, the Trump administration issued a final rule narrowing its definition of a service animal and restricting the classification to dogs only. Airlines will be required to allow psychiatric service animals, though.

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The new rules don't require airlines to ban non-canine service animals, but does grant them the ability to do so. The administration rules also classify psychiatric service dogs as service animals.

American Airlines said travelers may travel with their emotional support animals if they qualify as carry-on pets or cargo pets, both of which require fees.

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Travelers must also complete a Transportation Department form attesting to their dog's behavior, training and health 48 hours before their flight. The form will go on file and be valid for one year.

American said it plans to reach out to customers expected to be affected by the new policies.

Assistance Dogs International of North America said it supports the Transportation Department's new rules and American and other airlines' decision to incorporate those guidelines into their policies. The organization said a survey of its graduates showed 25% reported attacks by untrained dogs on flights.

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Sheri Soltes, vice chairwoman of ADI NA and chairwoman of its legislative and advocacy committee, said emotional support animals aren't required to be trained unliked service animals, and putting them in the stressful environment of airline travel can cause them to react aggressively.

"The poor animals are in over their heads," she told UPI. "It's understandable that they're behaving that way."

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"With the new DOT rules, disabled airline passengers with trained service dogs, can travel safely without the risk of they or their dogs being attacked by out-of-control animals," she said in a December statement.

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U.S. airlines have also expressed support for the Trump administration's new service animal rules, saying the measures would cut down on disputes with passengers attempting to bring all manner of animals on board -- including monkeys, rabbits, snakes, and even miniature horses and peacocks.

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 crowded flights.

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