US tightens definition of service animals allowed on planes

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FILE - In this April 1, 2017, file photo, a service dog named Orlando rests on the foot of its trainer, John Reddan, while sitting inside a United Airlines plane at Newark Liberty International Airport during a training exercise in Newark, N.J. The Transportation Department issued a final rule Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, covering service animals. The rule says only dogs can qualify, and they have to be specially trained to help a person with disabilities. For years, some travelers have been bringing untrained dogs and all kinds of other animals on board by claiming they need the animal for emotional support.(AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

The days of pets flying with their owners in airplane cabins for free are coming to an end.

The Transportation Department issued a final rule Wednesday covering animals on airlines. It decided that only dogs can fly as service animals, and companions that passengers use for emotional support don't count.

The rule aims to settle years of tension between airlines and passengers who bring their pets on board for free by saying they need them for emotional help. Under a longstanding department policy, all the passengers needed was a note from a health professional.

Airlines argued that passengers abused the situation to bring a menagerie of animals on board including cats, turtles, pot-bellied pigs and, in one case, a peacock.

The agency said Wednesday that it was rewriting the rules partly because passengers carrying unusual animals on board “eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals.” It also cited the increasing frequency of people “fraudulently representing their pets as service animals,” and a rise in misbehavior by emotional-support animals, ranging from peeing on the carpet to biting other passengers.

The Transportation Department proposed the new rule back in January and received more than 15,000 comments. While 3,000 commenters favored dropping protections for support animals, 6,000 spoke in favor of them, including people suffering from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, the department said.

The Paralyzed Veterans of America said the mere presence of a dog, cat or rabbit — even if untrained — can help some travelers, and pet fees of up to $175 one-way are a hardship on low-income people.

The new rule will force passengers with support animals to check them into the cargo hold — and pay a pet fee — or leave them at home. The agency estimated that airlines will gain up to $59.6 million a year in pet fees.