United Airlines updated its policy Thursday dealing with emotional-support animals, echoing Delta Air Lines in requiring documentation about the animal’s health and training.
United had been reviewing its policy since late last year after a 75% increase in emotional-support animals on flights and “a significant increase in onboard incidents.” The number of comfort animals flying on the airline jumped from 43,000 in 2016 to 76,000 last year, according to Charlie Hobart, a United spokesman.
United’s update coincided with an incident Sunday when the carrier refused to accept a peacock named Dexter aboard a flight from Newark to Los Angeles. The peacock was rejected under the airline’s previous policy for health and safety reasons.
“The old policy was in place and that policy prevented Dexter the peacock from boarding the aircraft. The policy worked as intended,” Hobart said. “With all of the commotion regarding the peacock, that has sort of crystallized to our employees and customers why we need to further enhance this policy.”
United’s added restrictions take effect on flights starting March 1, the same day as Delta, which announced its update Jan. 19.
Delta, which transported 250,000 trained service or untrained emotional-support animals last year, had a comfort dog bite a passenger in the face in June while boarding a flight from Atlanta to San Diego. American Airlines is also reviewing its policy after seeing a 15% increase in comfort animals last year.
“Unfortunately, untrained animals can lead to safety issues for our team, our passengers and working dogs onboard our aircraft,” American spokesman Ross Feinstein said Wednesday. “We agree with Delta’s efforts and will continue to support the rights of customers, from veterans to people with disabilities, with legitimate needs.”
Each of the three largest airlines requires notification about a comfort animals 48 hours before departure, with a note from a licensed medical professional confirming the passenger’s disability and need for the animal.
United joined Delta in requiring notes that confirm the animal’s health from a veterinarian and that confirm the animal’s training to behave in a public setting, to avoid problems with urination or defecation during the flight.
“We’ve been reviewing the policy for some time,” Hobart said. “It’s up to the airlines to take the lead here.”
United consulted with its Accessible Travel Advisory Board and several of its employee groups in developing the policy along with feedback from passengers.
“The airline’s increased requirements for emotional support animals will reduce fraud and protect the legitimate need of animal assistance for passengers with disabilities and veterans,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “This is about maintaining safety, health and security for passengers and crew, while ensuring accessibility for those who need it.”
Airlines for America, a trade group representing most of the largest carriers, urged the department in a letter Wednesday to revise its policies comprehensively for all carriers.
“During the past several years, but in particular during the recent holidays, airlines have experienced a surge in passengers bringing animals onboard that haven’t been appropriately trained as service animals,” Sharon Pinkerton, the group’s senior vice president for policy, told the department. “This has resulted in our crewmembers and passengers being bitten and subjected to other offensive and injurious behavior.”
Airlines have begun adopting their own changes after months of negotiations in 2016 by a department panel of experts failed to reach a consensus.
The department missed a congressional deadline of July 2017 to release a proposal about possible changes in the animal policy. The department now plans a proposal by July.
Confusion stems from different ways animals are treated on planes. The policy debate isn’t about pets in kennels, but about animals without cages accompanying passengers in plane cabins.
The Americans with Disabilities Act allows dogs and miniature horses to fly as trained service animals for disabled passengers such as the blind or deaf.
The Air Carrier Access Act calls for a wider variety of animals to assist disabled passengers. Animals such as pigs and monkeys are considered on a case-by-case basis.
Department guidance from 2003 prohibits reptiles, rodents and spiders as emotional-support animals. Other animals that are allowed can’t block aisles or evacuation routes or bother other passengers.
Delta and United have expanded the list of prohibited animals to include hedgehogs, ferrets, possums known as sugar gliders and non-household birds.
But factions on all sides of the debate are calling for a comprehensive update from the department to clarify rules for what is allowed.
“DOT has an opportunity to review service-animal guidance that strikes the right balance between ensuring passengers with a disability are accommodated in air travel and protecting the health and safety of all passengers and crew, and we urge DOT to act expeditiously,” Pinkerton said. “We are committed to finding solutions.”
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