This is a story about cooperation, patience, and business.

It's also about big news for the big U.S. airlines.

Let's put it this way: Do you remember when a passenger tried to bring an "emotional support peacock" aboard a United Airlines aircraft? 

Finally, at long last, there's now an end to that madness.

Go back a few years, and passengers were bringing all kinds of "emotional support animals" on planes: cats, dogs, miniature horses -- even "comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders, and more," according to an industry group

One United Airlines passenger even tried to bring an emotional support animal he claimed needed its own, separate, additional emotional support animal, according to then-United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.

Eventually, the airlines responded to the absurdity, both individually (like here and  here) and together. I was drawn to the hilariously earnest 39-page legal document that industry groups representing American, Delta, Southwest, United, and other airlines filed at the time.

The problem wasn't just the silliness, the airlines said. It was also safety--a "surge" in incidents of "barking, biting, nipping, growling, and fighting" on board--to say nothing of animals relieving themselves in crowded passenger cabins.

Now, if you didn't follow this a few years ago, you might find yourself asking: Why on earth would airlines allow this?

The reason is that federal rules required them to permit service animals to fly, but they also didn't adequately define what service animals were, or what kinds of training or qualifications they needed.

Last week, the government finally acted. Nearly a year after releasing a  proposed rule change, the Department of Transportation made things clear, in a 122-page document (link is .pdf).

Among the biggest developments:

  • Service animals will now be limited to dogs "individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability. This change alone aligns the Transportation Department (and the airlines) with the definitions used in the Americans With Disabilities Act.
  • Airlines are now free to classify "emotional support animals" as "pets, rather than service animals." 
  • Airlines can require passengers who want service animals to accompany them to fill out a government form confirming the animal's "health, behavior and training form."

The unions representing flight attendants applauded the new rules; it was flight attendants, after all, on whose shoulders the burden of dealing with unruly and even dangerous animals fell most heavily.

It's "good news" that will "ensure people with disabilities and our veterans have necessary service animal assistance" while keeping other passengers and employees safe, said Sara Nelson, president of the union representing United Airlines flight attendants.

"We commend the DOT for setting clear and enforceable standards," said the head of the union representing American Airlines flight attendants.

Not every passenger will be happy with the result, I suppose. As one advocate for people with disabilities put it earlier this year, some passengers "want to have the benefits of having a disability without actually losing the use of their limbs or senses, just so they can take their pet with them." 

In any event, I consider this the latest in a long line of examples in which people running smaller businesses can look to large, publicly traded airlines for inspiration in solving their own business problems.

Here, it's about teaming up with competitors to articulate an industry consensus, and then articulating it to the outside forces that affect your business.

The airline lobby is significant, and this is by no means its only or its biggest issue; of course, the ongoing pandemic presents bigger industry challenges. But as a discrete example, it's instructive.

You might rationally view your competitors as just that: competitors. But are there common challenges you might address together, that would improve everyone's business?

It might be as small as neighboring retail stores advocating together for a change in local parking regulations--or bigger, such as a group of competitors banding together to try to get preferred pricing from a shared vendor.

Maybe it's about a combined industry marketing campaign -- something to increase the size of the proverbial pie, and with it, everyone's slice. 

Competition usually inspires business leaders to work better and smarter. But sometimes, cooperation among competitors pays off, too.

Think about that the next time you fly on a U.S. airliner, and don't have to worry that one of your fellow passengers will try to bring a peacocks, or a "sugar gliders, snakes, [or] spiders" aboard.