Updated on 1/27/20 to include a statement from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

No more "Noah's Ark in the air."

That's the joyful response I heard this week from some flight attendants, in response to a proposed new rule from the U.S. Department of Transportation that would ban most so-called "emotional support animals" from commercial airlines in the United States.

"Welcome news," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents flight attendants on United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Frontier, Spirit, and several others, adding: 

It sets clear definitions and guidance ... Passengers claiming pets as emotional support animals has threatened the safety and health of passengers and crews in recent years while this practice skyrocketed.

After this article was published, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents flight attendants at American Airlines among others, also sent me a statement praising the new government proposal.

The DOT's new proposal is an important departure from the current regulation that does not address the health, safety, and customer service concerns of flight attendants and passengers onboard. ... We are optimistic the newly proposed regulations are a step in the right direction.

The proposed government rules would, among other things:

  • Define a service animal as "a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability"
  • "No longer consider an emotional support animal to be a service animal"
  • Allow airlines to prohibit anyone from bringing more than two service animals aboard a plane
  • Require early check-in for passengers with service animals
  • "Allow airlines to require a service animal to fit within its handler's foot space on the aircraft"

Limiting service animals to dogs would bring the Transportation Department (and the airlines) into alignment with the definitions used in the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The rules don't automatically become law. We now enter a 60-day period in which anyone can comment on the proposed rules, and the department did not set a timeline for when they might go into effect.

It's interesting. None of the items on this list seem like they would be that much of a burden for passengers with legitimate service animals, given that we're talking about the safety of bringing unknown animals into a confined space at 30,000 feet in the air, for hours at a time.

Yet, every time I write about this, it's astonishing to see how many people side with the animals (and pet owners) against other paying passengers.

Opponents of the widespread practice say many passengers are simply declaring that their untrained pets are emotional support animals, in order to avoid paying extra fees to bring the animals aboard. 

Airlines for America, an industry trade group, says the number of emotional support animals that passengers claimed and brought aboard flights went from 481,000 in 2016 to 751,000 in 2017.

Among just a few of the incidents that resulted, which have ranged from the dangerous to the absurd:

  • An American Airlines flight attendant was bitten by an emotional support dog, requiring five stitches.
  • A Delta Air Lines passenger was allegedly visciously attacked by a 50-pound emotional support dog.
  • A little girl on a Southwest Airlines flight was bitten by an emotional support dog.
  • On Alaska Airlines, the airline said it had to choose between siding with a passenger who had severe cat allergies, and another passenger who decided to declare that she was bringing an "emotional support cat" aboard. (You can guess who won.)
  • In perhaps the most viral example of this whole thing, a Brooklyn artist decided to try to force United Airlines to let her take an emotional support peacock on board.  

Now, it seems that there's hope these kinds of stories will be a thing of the past, if the proposed rules do actually go into effect. Advocates for legitimate service animals praised the proposed rules. Albert Rizzi is the founder of an advocacy group for people with disabilities called My Blind Spot.

"This is a wonderful step in the right direction for people like myself who are dependent on and reliant on legitimate service animals," Rizzi told the Minneapolis StarTribune, adding that 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."